This handout provides some tips and strategies for revising your writing. To give you a chance to practice proofreading, we have left seven errors (three spelling errors, two punctuation errors, and two grammatical errors) in the text of this handout. See if you can spot them!
Not exactly. Although many people use the terms interchangeably, proofreading and editing are two different stages of the revision process. Both demand close and careful reading, but they focus on different aspects of the writing and employ different techniques.
Editing is what you begin doing as soon as you finish your first draft. You want to reread to see, for example, if the paper is well-organized, the transitions between paragraphs are smooth, and your evidence really backs up your argument. You can edit on several levels:
Have you done everything the assignment requires? Are the claims you make accurate? If it is required to do so, does your paper make an argument? Is the argument complete? Are all of your claims consistent? Have you supported each point with adequate evidence? Is all of the information in your paper relevant to the assignment and/or your overall writing goal? (For additional tips, see our handouts on how to read an assignment and argument in academic writing.)
Does your paper have an appropriate introduction and conclusion? Is your thesis clearly stated in your introduction? Is it clear how each paragraph in the body of your paper is related to your thesis? Are the paragraphs arranged in a logical sequence? Have you made clear transitions between paragraphs? One way to check the structure of your paper is to make an outline of the paper after you have written the first draft. (See our handouts on introductions, conclusions, constructing thesis statements, and transitions.)
Structure Within Paragraphs
Does each paragraph have a clear topic sentence? Does each paragraph stick to one main idea? Are there any extraneous or missing sentences in any of your paragraphs? (See our handout on paragraph development.)
Have you defined any important terms that might be unclear to your reader? Is the meaning of each sentence clear? (One way to answer this question is to read your paper one sentence at a time, starting at the end and working backwards so that you will not unconsciously fill in content from previous sentences.) Is it clear what each pronoun (he, she, it, they, which, who, this, etc.) refers to? Have you chosen the proper words to express your ideas? (Avoid using words you find in the thesaurus that aren't part of your normal vocabulary; you may misuse them.)
Have you used an appropriate tone (formal, informal, persuasive, etc.)? Is your use of gendered language (masculine and feminine pronouns like "he" or "she," words like "fireman" that contain "man," and words that some people incorrectly assume apply to only one gender--for example, some people assume "nurse" must refer to a woman) appropriate? Have you varied the length and structure of your sentences? Do you tends to use the passive voice too often? Does your writing contain a lot of unnecessary phrases like "there is," "there are," "due to the fact that," etc.? Do you repeat a strong word (for example, a vivid main verb) unnecessarily? (For tips, see our handouts on style and using gender-sensitive language.)
As you edit at all of these levels, you will usually make significant revisions to the content and wording of your paper. Keep an eye out for patterns of error; knowing what kinds of problems you tend to have will be helpful, especially if you are editing a large document like a thesis or dissertation. Once you have identified a pattern, you can develop techniques for spotting and correcting future instances of that pattern. For example, if you notice that you often discuss several distinct topics in each paragraph, you can go through your paper and underline the key words in each paragraph, then break the paragraphs up so that each one focuses on just one main idea.
Proofreading is the final stage of the editing process, focusing on surface errors such as misspellings and mistakes in grammar and punctuation. You should proofread only after you have finished all of your other editing revisions.
Why proofread? It's the content that really matters, right?
Content is important. But like it or not, the way a paper looks affects the way others judge it. When you've worked hard to develop your ideas and present them for others on paper, you don't want careless errors distracting your reader from what you have to say. It's worth paying attention to the details that help you to make a good impression.
Most people devote only a few minutes to proofreading, hoping to catch any glaring errors that jump out from the page. But a quick and cursory reread, especially after you've been working long and hard on a paper, usually misses a lot. It's better to work with a definite plan that helps you to search systematically for specific kinds of errors.
Sure, this takes a little extra time, but it pays off in the end. If you know that you have an effective way to catch errors when the paper is almost finished, you can worry less about editing while you are writing your first drafts. This makes the entire writing proccess more efficient.
Try to keep the editing and proofreading processes separate. When you are editing an early draft, you don't want to be bothered with thinking about punctuation, grammar, and spelling. If your worrying about the spelling of a word or the placement of a comma, you're not focusing on the more important development and connection of ideas that make a paper clear and convincing.
The proofreading process
You probably already use some of the strategies discussed below. Experiment with different tactics until you find a system that works well for you. The important thing is to make the process systematic and focused so that you catch as many errors as possible in the least amount of time.
Think you've got it?
Then give it a try. This handout contains seven errors--maybe you already spotted them--which our proofreader should have caught: three spelling errors, two punctuation errors, and two grammatical errors. Try to find them, and then check a version of this page with the errors marked in red to see if you're a proofreading star.
Ascher, Allen. Think about Editing: A Grammar Editing Guide for ESL Writers. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1993. [Not in UNC Libraries; available on the Writing Center bookshelf.]
Lane, Janet and Ellen Lange. Writing Clearly: An Editing Guide. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1993. [Not in UNC Libraries; available on the Writing Center bookshelf.]
Lanham, Richard. Revising Prose. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Einsholm, Amy. The Copyeditor's Handbook. Berkely and Lost Angeles: U of California P, 2000.
Tarshis, Barry. How to Be Your Own Best Editor. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.
The Writing Center
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill