You'll hear the term 'proofread' used a lot at uni. Proofreading involves checking your assignments before you submit them to make sure they're your best work.
Proofreading your work properly can make a significant difference your grade — as much as 15%, or changing from a passing grade to a 2:1, in some case. This difference can be even larger in subjects that focus on accuracy.
What do we mean by proofreading?
Editing addresses problems with:
- responding to assignment and assessment criteria
- argument (including use of citation and sources)
Sub-editing examines the structure of your assignment and looks at:
- organisation of material
- presentation (including correct referencing and consistency of style in typography, headings and line spacing)
- sentence structure
Proofreading for errors
Looking for errors covers:
- spelling, punctuation and grammar
- typing mistakes
- page numbers
How to proofread
We've broken the stages above into key steps below to help guide you through the proofreading process.
You might find it useful to read through your work three times (once to address each of these steps) to begin with. You'll develop your proofreading skills throughout your studies. With practice you might be able to identify problems in just one or two reads.
You don't have to work alone – trading essays with a friend to look for errors or check argument structure can be extremely helpful in some subjects.
You can get support from the University Academic Skills Unit or your faculty learning support tutors too. They can help if you're struggling with proofreading as a whole or if you're having issues with a specific part of the process. You might be able to identify which elements of proofreading you're confident in, and which ones you find harder during a tutorial or before your meeting.
Key steps for proofreading
Whatever your approach to writing tasks – whether writing straight from a rough plan to a fair copy, or working through several drafts – the editing process addresses the following issues.
Have you responded appropriately to the assignment requirements, the expected learning outcomes and all the assessment criteria?
- Recheck and establish what each is (and its weighting in terms of marks).
- Check that every requirement has been met.
- Check exactly what was required. For example, if you were asked to consider two authors and refer to at least three theories, have you done so? Is your assignment within the word count?
- Check that every recommendation has been considered.
- Assess whether/what changes are needed.
Have you done what you set out to do?
- Make sure the introduction and main text match.
- Make sure the introduction and conclusion tally.
Is the content appropriate, accurate and cohesive?
- Have you used appropriate, up-to-date resources?
- Have you omitted any important issues, theories, models or research without explanation?
What is your argument, if there is one?
- Has it been introduced clearly?
- Are ideas/points clear, logical, sequential and properly referenced?
- Is the argument valid, and why?
Does your conclusion draw together the points you have made? (It should not include any new information.)
- Are your citations and references complete and correct? Are your citations appropriate and properly located in your text to assist the argument/ assignment?
- Does the bibliography reflect the assignment requirements and what you set out to achieve?
- Is the bibliography (reference list) at the end of your work complete and accurate?
Any changes you make are included in the next stage of the proofreading process: sub-editing
- Major changes – if major changes are necessary, you should go through the editing process again and then check the structure, paragraph by paragraph.
- All changes – are likely to have an impact on grammar, paragraphing and sentence structure.
Where any editorial changes have been made (especially where material has been moved around, e.g. cut and pasted) sub-editing is vital.
Sub-editing is best done on a printed version, as computer formatting often produces a different print layout (affecting things such as page breaks).
Identify and locate changes, then check for consistency and flow
- Check that paragraphs link.
- Check sentence structure, especially compound sentences.
- Check agreement of verbs and tenses.
For example, check that headings and subheadings have a consistent format and are not split across pages or printed at the bottom of a page.
Make sure your presentation follows any guidelines given in the course handbook. For example, check style of contents pages, typography and line spacing.
Citation and references
- Is citation accurate and correct (including all punctuation)? Check against the University Referencing Guide.
- Is the bibliography (reference list) complete, accurate and properly punctuated?
These are sometimes referred to as ‘transcription’ errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and presentation.
Learn which transcription errors are characteristic of your writing
These will differ according to:
- whether English is your native language
- your level of skill in spelling, punctuation and grammar
- how comfortable you are with the content of your writing
- your IT or typing skills
- visual skills and awareness
- external factors such as time constraints and stress
Establish what your own weak areas are and learn how to spot and correct them.
Allow enough time
How you approach a writing task will impact on the amount of time needed for proofreading for transcription errors. Serial writers and drafters may proofread for errors as they go along, but most people find this impossible, especially with long assignments.
Try to finish an assignment at least a week ahead of deadline, then put it aside. When you come back to proofread your work it will seem fresh, and you will more easily spot errors.
Tips for improved error checking
- Do not proofread on screen – what you see on screen may be what you remember writing or think you remember, not the actual text saved there.
- Trick your brain into believing that you are examining a new document by printing it in an unusual typeface or on coloured paper.
- Check for academic style (e.g. do not use contractions or slang and use first person only when directed); refer to the handout Academic writing style for further information.
- Check suitable elements together (e.g. check all commas, brackets, researchers’ names).
- Do not proofread when you are tired.
- Swap assignments with a friend/housemate and proofread each other’s.