Listen – I know how easily it is to ‘proofread’ thirty minutes before something is due. However, proofreading involves so much more than just running a quick spell check.
Writing is a way to express ideas, beliefs, opinions and our own selves. It has evolved in multiple cultures, and as such, there are countless ways to go about it. I say this because there is no one correct way to write nor edit. That said, particularly in a Western and relatively academic context, I would suggest the following analytical process when proofreading. I believe in its general structure – the specific tools that come under it are a matter of preference.
Do me a favour and picture a building. You have to set its foundations, build its structure, fill it out and decorate it. This is the kind of process you should approach the stage of proofreading with. I do not consider proofreading a simple grammatical check. It involves assuring yourself that you have covered the relevant topics, organised the structure, made sense, and then covered your grammar.
In a sense, the analysis I am suggesting starts at a macro level and moves down to a micro level. That is, from huge structural or topical issues, all the down to where that pesky comma needs to be.
The first step is to reconsider your piece, and what it addresses. If you are writing an essay, ask yourself whether you have taken the right approach – is it formal? Has the appropriate language been used? Is its structure suitable for an essay? Perhaps you are writing an article. Have you met your target demographic? Are you writing for a more informal audience, and used the right colloquial language? Basically, you want to ask yourself whether you have written an essay, or an article, or maybe a blog post.
The content follows – reassess the essay question or article topic. Have you addressed it well? To be sure of your argumentation and writing, I would suggest sitting an external party down, preferably someone with no relevant knowledge of the field. Explain the topic, and then explain your own arguments in response to that. If they or you don’t understand it, you’re going to have to rewrite at least some sections. Listen to their questions about your piece – they may be indicative of another path you could take in addressing the question, relating to my next point.
Sit down with pen and paper, and create a mind map. Centralise the question or topic, and write as many alternate ways of addressing it that you can. You may surprise yourself in finding better alternatives. Don’t be afraid to be messy; scribble and draw connecting lines! It’s the most natural expression of our cognitive function and will help you organise any last-minute thoughts. If you do find yourself with better alternate arguments or points to address, see if you can include them.
Once your foundations are sorted, you’ll want to consider the structure – the framework of the building. Think about your piece sectionally, starting with paragraphs. Read it through, particularly focussing on the first and last few lines of each paragraph, and see if they flow on to the next. If it feels clunky or disjointed, you may need to reorganise your paragraphs.
This can be as simple as swapping them! In a high school extended reflection, I had my English teacher take one look at it, say “No”, and simply swap the second and third paragraph. Suddenly my piece had a good, flowing structure. Sometimes all it takes is a step back or a fresh pair of eyes.
On a more micro-analytical level, you should next consider sentence order. This is less likely to be as problematic as paragraph order. After all, we often write an internal monologue onto the page, which is simply an expression of connecting one logical thought to the next. However, in an essay it’s easy to confuse where to make a point with evidence, and where to explain it. I do not believe in hyper-formulaic approaches to this; you may have some PTSD flashbacks to high school ramming TEEL (Topic Sentence – Evidence – Explanation – Link) down your throat or something similar. That is not the organic process of writing.
Yet, it is valid to look paragraph by paragraph, and check where things such as evidence and explanation match up. Often, we add further explanation of a point towards the end of the paragraph as an after-thought, but that ruins the flow. It may also further confuse your reader if, as they read, they keep finding recursive points, an “oh I just want to add” moment on the part of the writer. Basically, put the same points in the same place. You could identify the purpose of each sentence and the argument/point it falls under with different colour pens, and see if you’ve simply thrown too many thoughts in varying areas.
Occasionally our placement of sentences, specifically quotes, can be moved to an entirely different spot and be substantially more impactful. I am fortunate to work as a writing consultant to a company director. In one article draft he used a quote from Maya Angelou to preface a paragraph about two-thirds down in the article, yet I noticed it was relevant to the message of the entire piece. I suggested starting with it. This meant his message could be understood from the very beginning, rather than weakly enforced later on.
Don’t be afraid to cut entire sentences or paragraphs! A lot of people will hold fast to their first full draft, thinking they just need to change a few words. However, often we will have added unnecessary chunks for the sake of explanation or attempting a flowing nature. Go back through and ask yourself if it is necessary to the piece.
You’ve got your foundations, your structure – now you’re ready to fill it out, create the guts of the building. As writers, we will often reread our piece to see if it makes sense. However, remember that as the writer, they are your own thoughts manifested on paper. Of course it’s going to make the most sense to you!
One of the most consistent problems I see is sentence length. As we monologue and write, we often create sentences that rival the length of the Berlin Wall. Semantically this is a problem due to having far too many ‘clauses’. That is, separable sections of a sentence that could and often should be separate. These clauses often contain separate pieces of information. Reading lengthy sentences is a challenge for our linguistic performance. This means that while a huge sentence may make grammatical sense, a person may not be able to comprehend it due to far too many clauses and varying ideas.
An important step is to check your phrasing. Is your tone consistent throughout the piece? Does it change where you’ve accidentally switched to more informal language, or the converse? We often use clichés and predictable lines because they come easily to us. This will bore your reader. As you read it, highlight any sentences you think may be too obvious or cliché. Regardless of the text type there is no harm in being creative.
This ties directly into another problem I often see – far too much phrasal or lexical repetition. We often get a certain phrase or word stuck in our head that we think is just great, and use it multiple times in a small space. Again, this is problematic and interrupts the flow. Find alternate ways to express the same idea. Please don’t get this confused with the times when you do need to repeat. In an essay we often repeat words or phrases that are essential vocabulary to the topic. This is perfectly acceptable. It is in our explanatory points where repetition becomes a problem.
Your building is standing in front of you, ready to be decorated – congratulations! Now you get to furnish, pick the colour scheme, focus on the minute details. In writing this means proofreading the grammar, spelling, punctuation and citations. There are a few techniques you can employ to ensure you don’t miss anything.
Firstly, please oh please print it out. It has been relentlessly proven that it is hard to remain attentive when reading from a screen (find a great article here about it). I would encourage this even when assessing your foundations, but it is essential here.
Do your first read through as a standard check for any issues in spelling, grammar or punctuation. As you do this, keep a list of any re-occurring errors that may be specifically challenging for you. You may have consistently misspelt a word or used the wrong ‘its/it’s’. Keeping this list will help you scan the document later for those same errors. If you’re unsure of anything, access the endless resources online that will explain any grammar point you can think of.
Read the entire document backwards. It may seem strange, but this ensures we don’t read the piece in its natural flow and forces us to analyse one word at a time. This way you are far more likely to catch subtle spelling errors.
Check your use of language. We live in a society that should know well enough to ensure our language is inclusive. Have you used the correct gender pronouns to refer to specific people? Have you used gender-neutral pronouns to refer to individuals or collectives that are not gender-specific? Is any of your writing racially implicit of anything? This is so important in ensuring your work is valid and accessible to all.
Citations – unfortunately, I do not believe there is a big secret to this. Checking citations is laborious work. Ensure you have used the right referencing system for your context (often Harvard referencing in uni essays, AGLC for law students etc.). Don’t skip this step – it may be boring but referencing correctly maintains the integrity of your own piece.
My final recommendation, once you’ve built and dressed up this building, is to give it to someone you consider better than yourself. Let them read through it and take their feedback, making the changes you think are valid. Do remember that an external party doesn’t always have the contextual understanding to suggest appropriate changes.
Your final checklist:
· Check your format, topic and the way in which you addressed it
· Check your paragraph and sentence order
· Check if your sentences are clear and make sense
· Check your spelling, grammar, punctuation and citations
While I know what I’ve suggested is an exhaustive and complex process, please take note of this. Many of us believe that our writing has to be perfect – in fact we are often socially and academically trained to think this. Please, tell me how anything subjective can be objectively perfect.
Proofreading and editing is about improving our writing as much as possible in order to express our thoughts on a matter as clearly as we can. Once you’ve written, once you’ve analysed it to check you’ve done as best as you can, you should be proud of yourself! Writing can be daunting and tiring. It can only ever be improved, just remember to do it from the macro to the micro.