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Catherine RogersProofreading 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.


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