Proofreading Your Writing Assignments

A writing instructor shares tricks of the trade

by Catherine Rogers

In teaching business courses to adult students, I was quick to discover that proofreading is an elusive skill. We all know that our own mistakes are the most difficult to find in a term paper or writing assignment, even an email message or letter! However, after ten years of grading typing, English and word processing papers, I have discovered a few tricks.

Let it rest. Don’t try to edit, proofread or otherwise “tidy up” your paper immediately after you complete it. If you must check it as soon as it’s finished, you might catch the most glaring errors. But more subtle mistakes like missing or duplicate words and confusing sentences will be elusive. There is a valid reason for this: you just wrote it and you know what you meant to say. Let the document rest for as long as possible before proofing it—at a minimum, complete at least one other task before placing your reading glasses on your nose. (Note: This may be a difficult practice for those who wait until the deadline to get a start on an assignment.)

Get a buddy. Two sets of eyes are better than one, and three sets are better than two. But recruit sharp eyes! To determine whether your writing is cohesive and follows a logical pattern, ask someone who knows nothing about your topic to read over your paper. Another person who is good with grammar can help with punctuation woes or to find where you might have overused a specific phrase or word. Almost anyone can read your paper aloud to you, which will give you a different perspective and can also help you find mistakes.

Read the document in reverse—starting with the final paragraph. Until I tried it, I never understood this suggestion. Reading word by word in reverse will help you locate typographical errors. But for content and misused words, read in normal (forward) fashion, but start with the last paragraph. This method takes “logic” out of the equation and you will be more likely to catch content problems or find duplicated words. You can also start at the end and read one sentence at a time until you reach the beginning.

Use something to prevent your eyes from skipping ahead. Use a ruler to slow your reading pace and keep you focused on one line at a time. A blank piece of paper can serve a similar purpose by increasing your concentration and preventing you from glancing at what’s ahead. You may find that this method is especially useful combined with one of the other tips. For example, start with the last paragraph of your paper and also use a ruler to read line-by-line.

Read the paper multiple times. Don’t try to proofread for all types of errors at once. Search for content inconsistencies (dates, names, times, numbers) in one reading. Take another look through the entire document for formatting issues (margins, headers/footers, spacing, indentations, etc.). A separate reading should focus on typographical and spelling mistakes. You might read yet again concentrating on grammatical issues. Sure, you may think you don’t have the time to proof your paper multiple times, but not all of these separate checks are particularly time-consuming. You probably know what your weak areas are. Spend the greatest amount of time searching for those types of errors. You might even make a checklist of your most common errors.

Use separate checks for special parts of a paper. Check the title page separately and carefully…the default in Microsoft Word is to ignore words typed in all caps. So, if you have a misspelled word in a title, there is no green squiggle! Check an outline or table of contents separately, also, matching up page numbers and topics. Technical information included in the body of the paper might warrant a separate inspection.

Use technology. As you write, you may have a suspicion that you have used a particular word too often. Use the “find” tool on the “Edit” menu in Microsoft Word to locate all instances of a single word or even phrase. Then if you find that you have overused an expression, right click the word to get synonyms. If none of the synonyms seems suitable, check the synonyms for similar words.

Use the grammar check with caution. I often find that computer cannot think like a human and so I override many grammar check suggestions. The “word count” feature under the “Tools” menu is a lifesaver, however. You can even add “word count” to your toolbar to save some keystrokes. You can also set your spelling and grammar options to check for the use of passive voice. (Go to Tools, then Options, then Spelling & Grammar and check “show readability statistics.) Then when you run the Spelling & Grammar check, you will see a box that provides various statistics—one of which is the percentage of passive sentences.

Avoid distractions. Proofing should be done at a time of day when you are well-rested and alert. Each of us has a peak time—learn to take advantage of it. Turn the ringer off the phone. Don’t check your e-mail while proofing. Go to the library or someplace where you are not likely to be disturbed.

Mark the mistakes clearly. Whether you use traditional proofreader’s marks or your own hybrid of symbols and abbreviations, using a colored pen or highlighter will increase the likelihood that you will see all the errors when it’s time to sit down and make your revisions. Check off the errors on your paper as you correct them on your computer. Then if you become distracted, you’ll know where you left off.

Other tricks of the trade:

1. Increase the font size or enlarge the copy to make it easier to read and mark. 2. Watch for clusters of mistakes. (This might happen because you were becoming tired or were distracted at a point in your writing.) 3. Check numbering systems. 4. Check the familiar. 5. When you find an error, correct it and then re-read the line. (Especially common error caused by using a cut & paste feature).

6. Separate lengthy material into smaller amounts so as not to lose your level of concentration.

Resources on the Web:

Some great Web resources exist with other tips. Your own college or university may have grammar and proofing tips online. The University of Arkansas has an online writing lab (O.W.L.), and a good source of information for spelling, punctuation and grammar is available from Indiana University.

Cathy Rogers has a B.S. in Business Management and a teaching certificate in Business Education. After teaching computer and office skills classes for over ten years, she now coordinates non-credit courses for the University of Tennesssee. She also writes a community news column for a local newspaper and feature articles and essays for other publications.