a writing center consultant helping a student with their paper

Proofreading a Paper

Once you have written a paper and revised it to your satisfaction, you will want to prepare a final copy for the reader. Patient attention given to a final draft is called proofreading. Proofreading means checking a final, or next-to-final, copy for errors and making the needed corrections. In the same way, a photographer examines proofs of photographs that can be touched-up to correct any significant blemishes. Your final draft represents you and it deserves a focused, final reading to make sure you are represented at your best.

Don't be deceived by the clean appearance of papers produced by a computer's laser-printer. Just because the paper looks so neat and tidy does not mean that the details are in order. Typing a text often introduces errors which would not otherwise exist. Writers frequently make more mistakes with computer-produced papers than handwritten manuscripts. Word processing provides wonderful word-managing assistance, but the computer does not replace the necessity for writers careful proofreading of their manuscripts.

Proofreading is hunting for grammar, spelling, punctuation, phrasing, and typographical errors that can be corrected "locally," usually without further changes in the surrounding context. The repetition of of a word, and omitted word or letter, missing "quotation marks, a single (parenthesis mark, a misplaced comma, or period, a wrongly used Capital letter--all these errors distract your reader's attention from the meaning of the text. These proofreading errors, however, should not absorb your interest until after other writing decisions have been settled. Write the paper first. Save the proofing for the end.

If careless errors in writing call the reader's attention to a word instead of an idea, than perhaps the problem itself, tells you how to solve it. Looking carefully at every word and every letter may be the best way to spot careless errors. The techniques of Proofreading requires you to to change your usual way of seeing your work. Experiment with different methods for slowing down your read and learning to see what is really on the paper. Don't be blinded by what you intended to put on the paper.

STOP! Did you notice any errors in the preceding paragraph? Were you able to catch the spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors in the normal pace of your reading? If you spotted nine mistakes while reading the paragraph the first time, you are already a skilled proofreader. If not, you might profit from proofreading your work two or three times, using different methods each time. Listed below are techniques that writers can adopt for locating the various editing errors that inevitably creep into anyone's manuscript.

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading

Copy Editing: preparation of a document for publication or submission to an instructor; focus on sentence and word-level issues, including the correction of spelling, grammar, punctuation, stylistic, and layout errors and inconsistencies.

Proofreading: final reading and correction of a manuscript prior to submission.

Ten Copy Editing and Proofreading Techniques:

  • Let it Sit. Acquire a stranger's eyes for your paper. Finish your last revision well before the deadline and let the paper sit for 24 hours. When you see your writing with new eyes, it is much easier to locate the flaws.
  • Ruler. Place a ruler under each line as you read the manuscript. The ruler will hide any text below the line you are reading and help focus attention on what you have actually written. You can also experiment with a pencil pointing to each word as you read it.
  • Multiple Readings. Search for only one or two types of errors per reading. If bad spelling is your affliction, proofread once through, word by word, with your attention focused exclusively on possible spelling lapses. Save other problems for another reading.
  • Reading Aloud. For many of us, our primary awareness of language is through our ears, not our eyes. When we see the words on the paper, they may look fine. But when we hear them, we know that something is wrong. Practice listening to your language. Many times you can depend on your ear to tell you when something is wrong. Reading aloud slows your reading speed down and places more emphasis on individual words. Another advantage with this method is that your voice will often locate pauses and hesitations that deserve different punctuation.
  • Read Back to Front. Read your paper backward. You can read the words from right to left. Or read paragraphs in reverse order. Change the order of sentences or words so that you see and/or hear the words out of context. Some other similar strategies:
    • Read the paragraphs in haphazard order.
    • Read the first and last paragraphs back to back.
    • Read the first sentence of each paragraph.
  • Publishing House Practice. Persons who read proof in publishers' houses usually do the job in pairs. One reads the original manuscript; the other follows along while reading a freshly printed version. In this way, each word and punctuation mark are orally checked by two persons. This service is always available at the Coe Writing Center.
  • Computer Functions. Use your word processing software to help you find errors. In addition to the spell checker, you can initiate various kinds of word searches. If you discover that you have misused a word somewhere in the paper, run a search to see if the word appears elsewhere. You can use this feature to find instances of troublesome words (such as its or their) or all commas if checking for correct punctuation. While computers provide invaluable assistance, don't trust your computer to do your work for you. A computer's spell check function does not distinguish between a condo and a condom.
  • Look for Patterns. Good proofreaders keep track of their most frequent errors. It is time consuming to look for everything. Save time by maintaining a list of the mistakes that occur in your writing and then concentrate on eliminating those particular problems in future papers.
  • Use Your Resources. Look up questionable words in a dictionary, check facts on Google, double-check grammar issues in a style guide (there are dozens of these available in the Writing Center), ask a knowledgeable friend. Don't just guess. Don't trust luck. Don't just hope that you are right.
  • Focus. Commit yourself to the highest standards. Treat your readers with respect. Keep in mind the principle of the spilled wine. You have a clean, white tablecloth, but you accidentally spill one drop of red wine on the table cloth; the result is a dirty table cloth. It may be a small spill, but what people will see is the spilled wine. Readers respond to editing errors in a similar manner: they see the editing errors and ignore the rest of your manuscript. Commit yourself to the highest standards. Accuracy always.

Information and examples in this handout came from the following sources:

Lynn Troyka, Handbook for Writers; Trimmer & McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose; Schor & Summerfield, Random House Guide to Writing; and Barbara Walvoord, Writing: Strategies for All Disciplines.

Here is a list of the nine editing errors in the fourth paragraph of this handout. Appropriate corrections are in parentheses:

readers (reader's); than (then); itself, tells (itself tells); Proofreading (proofreading); requires (require); to to (to); experment (experiment); read (reading); dont (don't).