Proofreading is the act of searching for errors before you hand in your final research paper. Errors can be both grammatical and typographical in nature, but proofreading can also be used to identify problems with the flow of your paper [i.e., the logical sequence of thoughts and ideas] and to find any word processing errors [e.g., different font types, indented paragraphs, line spacing, etc.].
Before You Proofread
Be sure you've revised the larger aspects of your text. Don't make corrections at the sentence and word level if you still need to work on the overall focus, development, and arrangement of the paper, of sections in the paper, or of individual paragraphs.
Set your text aside for a while between writing and proofreading. Establishing some distance between writing your paper and proofreading it will help you identify mistakes more easily.
Eliminate unnecessary words before looking for mistakes. Throughout your paper, you should try to avoid using inflated diction if a simpler phrase works equally well. Simple, more precise language is easier to proofread than overly complex sentence construction and vocabulary.
Know what to look for. Make a list of mistakes you need to watch for based upon the comments of your professors on previous drafts of your paper or for papers written in other classes. This will help you to identify repeated patterns of mistakes more readily.
To help ensure that you identify all the errors in your paper, consider the following:
Work from a printout, not a computer screen. Besides sparing your eyes the strain of glaring at a computer screen, proofreading from a printout allows you to easily skip around to where errors might have been repeated throughout the paper.
Read aloud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not have picked up while reading silently. Reading your paper aloud also helps you play the role of the reader, thereby encouraging you to understand the paper as your audience might.
Use a ruler or blank sheet of paper to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping over possible mistakes.
Circle or highlight every punctuation mark in your paper. This forces you to pay attention to each mark you used and to question its purpose in each sentence or paragraph. This is a particularly helpful strategy if you tend to misuse or overuse a punctuation mark, such as a comma or semi-colon.
Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you're likely to make. Using the search [find] feature of your word processor can help you identify common errors faster. For example, if you overuse a phrase or use the same qualifier repeatedly, you can do a search for those words or phrases and in each instance make a decision about whether to keep it or not or use a synonym.
If you tend to make many mistakes, check separately for each kind of error, moving from the most to the least important, and following whatever technique works best for you to identify that kind of mistake. For instance, read through once [backwards, sentence by sentence] to check for fragments; read through again [forward] to be sure subjects and verbs agree, and again [perhaps using a computer search for "this," "it," and "they"] to trace pronouns to antecedents.
End with using a computer spell checker or reading backwards word by word. But remember that a spell checker won't catch mistakes with homonyms [e.g., "they're," "their," "there"] or certain typos [like "he" when you meant to write "the"].
Leave yourself enough time. Since many errors are made and overlooked by speeding through writing and proofreading, taking the time to carefully look over your writing will help you catch errors you might otherwise miss. Always read through your writing slowly. If you read through the paper at a normal speed, you won't give your eyes sufficient time to spot errors.
Ask a friend to read your paper. Offer to proofread a friend's paper if they review yours. Having another set of eyes look over your writing will often spot errors that you would have otherwise missed.
Individualize the Act of Proofreading
In addition to following the suggestions above, individualizing your proofreading process to match weaknesses in your writing will help you proofread more efficiently and effectively. For example, I still tend to make subject-verb agreement errors. Accept the fact that you likely won't be able to check everything, so be introspective about what your typical problem areas are and look for each type of error individually. Here's how:
Think about what errors you typically make. Review instructors' comments about your writing and/or review your paper with a tutor.
Learn how to fix those errors. Talk with your professor about helping you understand why you make the errors you do make so that you can learn ways to avoid them.
Use specific strategies. Develop strategies you are most comfortable with to find and correct your particular errors in usage, sentence structure, and spelling and punctuation.
Where you proofread is important! Effective and efficient proofreading requires extended focus and concentration. If you are easily distracted by external noise, proofread in a quiet corner of the library rather than in a coffee shop.
Proofread in several short blocks of time. Avoid trying to proofread your entire paper all at once, otherwise, it will be difficult to maintain your concentration. A good strategy is to start proofreading each time at the beginning of your paper. It will take longer to make corrections, but you'll be amazed at how many mistakes you find in text you've already reviewed.
The UW-Superior Writing Center
The Writing Center – located in Swenson Hall 1024 - provides free assistance to any and all UW-Superior students with the writing you do for your classes, no matter the subject. Their peer consultants have been trained to assist with all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming topics to making final revisions. You can check their hours here and make an appointment here.
Cartoonist Doug Larson once observed: "If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur" [The Quotations Page]. Given the rules and the multiple exceptions to every rule that characterizes the English language, there are many sites on the web that discuss how to avoid mistakes in grammar and word usage. Listed below are the most common and, thus, the ones you should focus on locating and removing while proofreading your research paper.
Affect / effect -- welcome to what I consider to be the most confusing aspect in the English language. "Effect" is most often a noun and generally means “a result.” However, "effect" can be used as a verb that essentially means "to bring about," or "to accomplish." "Affect" is almost always a verb and generally means "to influence." However, affect can be used as a noun when you're talking about the mood that someone appears to have. [Ugh!]
Apostrophes -- the position of an apostrophe depends upon whether the noun is singular or plural. For singular words, add an "s" to the end, even if the final letter is an "s." For contractions, replace missing letters with an apostrophe; but remember that it is where the letters no longer are, which is not always where the words are joined [e.g., "is not" and "isn't"].
Capitalization -- a person’s title is capitalized when it precedes the name and is, thus, seen as part of the name [e.g., President Zachary Taylor]; once the title occurs, further references to the person holding the title appear in lowercase [e.g., the president]. For groups or organizations, the name is capitalized when it is the full name [e.g., the Department of Justice]; further references should be written in lowercase [e.g., the department]. Note that, in general, the use of capital letters should be minimized as much as possible.
Colorless verbs and bland adjectives –- passive voice, use of the to be verb, is a lost opportunity to use a more interesting and accurate verb when you can. Adjectives can also be used very specifically to add to the sentence. Try to avoid generic or bland adjectives and be specific. Use adjectives that add to the meaning of the sentence.
Comma splices -- a comma splice is the incorrect use of a comma to connect two independent clauses (an independent clause is a phrase that is grammatically and conceptually complete: that is, it can stand on its own as a sentence). To correct the comma splice, you can: replace the comma with a period, forming two sentences; replace the comma with a semicolon; or join the two clauses with a conjunction such as "and," "because," "but," etc.
Compared with vs. compared to -- compared to is to point out or imply resemblance between objects regarded as essentially of a different order; compare with is mainly to point out differences between objects regarded as essentially of the same order [e.g., life has been compared to a journey; Congress may be compared with the British Parliament].
Confusing singular possessive and plural nouns –- singular possessive nouns always take an apostrophe, with few exceptions, and plural nouns never take an apostrophe. Omitting an apostrophe or adding one where it does not belong makes the sentence unclear.
Coordinating conjunctions -- words, such as but, and, yet join grammatically similar elements (i.e., two nouns, two verbs, two modifiers, two independent clauses). Be sure that the elements they join are equal in importance and in structure.
Dangling participle -- a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject of the sentence.
Dropped commas around clauses–-place commas around words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence. Do not use commas around restrictive clauses, which provide essential information about the subject of the sentence.
The Existential "this" -- always include a referent with "this," such as "this theory..." or "this approach to understanding the...." With no referent, "this" can confuse the reader.
The Existential "it" -- the "existential it" gives no reference for what "it" is. Be specific!
Its / it's--"its" is the possessive form of "it." "It's" is the contraction of "it is." They are not interchangeable.
Fewer / Less -- if you can count it, then use the word fewer; if you cannot count it, use the word less.
Interrupting clause –- this clause or phrase interrupts a sentence, such as, "however." Place a comma on either side of the interrupting clause.
Know your non-restrictive clauses –- this clause or phrase modifies the subject of the sentence but is not essential to understanding the sentence. The word “which” is the relative pronoun usually used to introduce the nonrestrictive clause.
Know your restrictive clauses –- this clause limits the meaning of the nouns it modifies. The restrictive clause introduces information that is essential to understanding the meaning of the sentence. The word “that” is the relative pronoun normally used to introduce this clause. Without this clause or phrase, the meaning of the sentence changes.
Literally -- this word means that exactly what you say is true, no metaphors or analogies. Be aware of this if you are using "literally" to describe something.
Lonely quotes –- quotes cannot stand on their own as a sentence. Integrate them into a sentence.
Misuse and abuse of semicolons –- semicolons are used to separate two related independent clauses or to separate items in a list that contains commas. Do not abuse semicolons by using them often. They are best used sparingly.
Overuse of unspecific determinates -- words such as "super" [as in super strong] or "very" [as in very strong], are unspecific determinates. How many/much is "very"? How incredibly awesome is super? If you ask ten people how cold, "very cold" is, you would get ten different answers. Academic writing should be precise, so eliminate as many unspecific determinants as possible.
Sentence fragments –- these occur when a dependent clause is punctuated as a complete sentence. Dependent clauses must be used together with an independent clause.
Singular words that sound plural -- when using words like "each," "every," "everybody," "nobody," or "anybody" in a sentence, we're likely thinking about more than one person or thing. But all these words are grammatically singular: they refer to just one person or thing at a time. And unfortunately, if you change the verb to correct the grammar, you create a pedantic phrase like "he or she" or "his or her."
Split Infinitive -- an infinitive is the form of a verb that begins with "to." Splitting an infinitive means placing another word or words between the "to" and the infinitive verb. This is considered incorrect by purists, but nowadays it is considered a matter of style rather than poor grammar.
Subject/pronoun disagreement –- there are two types of subject/pronoun disagreement. Shifts in number refer to the shifting between singular and plural in the same sentence. Be consistent. Shifts in person occur when the person shifts within the sentence from first to second person, from second to third person, etc.
That vs. which -- that clauses (called restrictive) are essential to the meaning of the sentence; which clauses (called nonrestrictive) merely add additional information. In general, most nonrestrictive clauses in academic writing are incorrect or superfluous. While proofreading, go on a "which" hunt and turn most of them into restrictive clauses.
Verb Tense Agreement -- do not switch verbs from present to past or from past to present without a good reason.
Who / whom -- who is used as the subject of the clause it introduces; whom is used as the object of a preposition, as a direct object, or as an indirect object. A key to remembering which word to use is to simply substitute who or whom with a pronoun. If you can substitute he, she, we, or they in the clause, and it still sounds okay, then you know that who is the correct word to use. If, however, him, her, us, or them sounds more appropriate, then whom is the correct choice for the sentence.
For more comprehensive guides to avoid grammar and writing mistakes in your paper, consult these sites: