7 Proofreading Tips for Student Writers
Young writers often believe that revising and proofreading mean the same thing, but they are two different parts of the writing process that accomplish different goals. Revising means iteratively changing a paper’s content to improve the cogency of an argument, bolster the supporting evidence, or adjust the overall organization. Proofreading means checking a paper for surface-level errors (grammar, spelling, and usage) prior to handing it in. Proofreading is usually the last step in the writing process and is often neglected as a deadline rapidly approaches. So let's look at some very important steps to take to improve the proofreading process.
1. Read your work out loud.
You should read out loud frequently throughout the writing process, but this tactic is particularly useful during the proofreading stage. Reading silently leads writers to skip over words and miss embarrassing typos. Instead of relying on this unreliable method, find a quiet place where you can read out loud so you can slow down and focus on all the details. You will probably catch most of your errors! It's okay to have another person read your work aloud to you—or use text-to-speech software.
2. Read a hard copy of your work.
Staring at a computer screen all day is not only bad for your health—it’s bad for your writing! Studies show that reading on a screen absorbs more mental energy than reading from a physical piece of paper. For student writers, this means it is harder to catch all errors when proofreading on a computer. Print a hard copy instead and make your edits with a colored pen. When you finish reading through the hard copy, update your digital copy before printing the final version.
3. Feel free to take breaks.
No, this is not an excuse to procrastinate. If you have a long paper or you have spent several hours writing, it is beneficial to spread out your proofreading so you can give full attention to each page. When you start to feel your eyes glaze over or you trip over your words as you read out loud, then stop for a few minutes and return to it later.
4. Make sure your writing is aligned to the appropriate style guide.
Writing an article for your journalism class? Make sure it conforms to AP style (no Oxford commas!). Writing a lab report for your science class? Passive voice is encouraged. Every academic discipline has its own set of rules for writing, and therefore its own set of rules to check for when proofreading. If you are not sure which style guide you should follow, check with your teacher.
5. Review for typos—without relying on spellcheck.
Spellcheck is great for catching jumbles of letters that do not comprise a word (“asfd,” “yasefugi,” etc.), but spellcheck will not find most grammatical errors or errors in usage. For example, spellcheck would mark the following sentence correct: “He went to the seafood restaurant and ordered a crap cake.” Can you imagine handing that to your teacher? Or being the poor fellow who ordered a “crap cake” instead of a “crab cake”? If you are unsure of any spelling, consult a print or online dictionary. And always double-check for accidental profanity.
6. Know thyself (or at least understand your most frequent errors).
Can’t remember the difference between “to,” “too,” and “two”? Tend to use too many run-on sentences? Make a list of the errors you make most often in your writing and refer to it as you proofread. If time permits, read through the draft several times, checking for a new type of error each time. You can also use different colored pens to mark each type of common error and see if you notice any patterns.
7. Ask for help.
After reading your paper 700 times, you might be more prone to missing errors because you are so familiar with your work. This is where other people and resources come in. Ask a friend or a teacher to do a final read-through before handing in your assignment. Someone reading a paper for the first time will catch mistakes you had never noticed before. WriteLab can also help you during any phase of the writing process—including proofreading and editing. Learn more about how WriteLab gives you feedback on your work.
There’s no one right way to proofread, but trying a combination of these tips will bring you one step closer to the writing results that you want. And, you know, avoid writing about “crap cakes.”
WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to your prose as you draft, revise, and polish your writing.