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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: 10. Proofreading Your Paper

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definition

Proofreading is the act of searching for errors before you hand in the your final research paper. Errors can be both grammatical and typographical in nature, but also include identifying problems with the narrative flow of your paper [i.e., the logical sequence of thoughts and ideas], problems with concise writing, and finding any word processing errors [e.g., different font types, indented paragraphs, line spacing, uneven margins, etc.].

Strategies for Proofreading your Paper

Before You Proofread

  • Be sure you've revised the larger aspects of the text. Don't make corrections at the sentence and word level [the act of editing] if you still need to work on the overall focus, development, and organization of the paper or you need to re-arrange or change specific sections [the act of revising].
  • Set your paper aside between writing and proofreading. Give yourself a day or so between the writing of your paper and proofreading it. This will help you identify mistakes more easily. This is also a reason why you shouldn't wait until the last minute to draft your paper because it won't provide the time needed between writing and proofreading.
  • 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, precise language is easier to proofread than overly complex sentence constructions and vocabulary.
  • Know what to look for. Make a mental note of the mistakes you need to watch for based on comments from your professor on previous drafts of the paper or that you have received about papers written in other classes. This will help you to identify repeated patterns of mistakes more readily.
  • Review your list of references. Review the sources mentioned in your paper and make sure you have properly cited them in your bibliography. Also make sure that the titles cited in your bibliography are mentioned in the text. Any omissions should be resolved before you begin proofreading your paper.

NOTE:  Do not confuse the act of revising your paper with the act of editing it. Editing is intended to tighten up language so that your paper is easier to read and understand. This should be the focus when you proofread. If your professor asks you to revise your paper, the implication is that there is something within the text that needs to be changed, improved, or re-organized in some significant way. If the reason for a revision is not specified, always ask for clarification.


Strategies to Help Identify Errors

  1. Work from a printout, not a computer screen. Besides sparing your eyes the strain of glaring at the computer, proofreading from a printout allows you to easily skip around to where errors might have been repeated throughout the paper [e.g., misspelled name of a person].
  2. Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not have identified while reading the text out loud. This will also helps you play the role of the reader, thereby, encouraging you to understand the paper as your audience might.
  3. 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. This also helps you deliberately pace yourself as you read through your paper.
  4. 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.
  5. Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes. 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 over and over again, you can do a search for those words or phrases and in each instance make a decision about whether to remove it or use a synonym.
  6. 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.
  7. End with using a computer spell checker or reading backwards word by word. 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"]. The spell-checker function is not a substitute for carefully reviewing the text for spelling errors.
  8. Leave yourself enough time. Since many errors are made and overlooked by speeding through writing and proofreading, setting aside the time to carefully review 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.
  9. Ask a friend to read your paper. Offer to proofread a friend's paper if they will 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 for 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 set up an appointment review your paper with a staff member in the Writing Center.
  • 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 how to avoid them.
  • Use specific strategies. Develop strategies you are most comfortable with to find and correct your particular errors in usage, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation.
  • Where you proofread is important! Effective and efficient proofreading requires extended focus and concentration. If you are easily distracted by external activity or noise, proofread in a quiet corner of the library rather than at a table in Starbucks.
  • Proofread in several short blocks of time. Avoid trying to proofread you entire paper all at once, otherwise, it will be difficult to maintain your concentration. A good strategy is to start your 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 that you have already reviewed.

In general, verb tense should be in the following format, although variations can occur within the text depending on the narrative style of your paper. Note that references to prior research mentioned anywhere in your paper should always be stated in the past tense.

  1. Abstract--past tense [a summary description of what I did]
  2. Introduction--present tense [I am describing the study to you now]
  3. Literature Review--past tense [the studies you are reviewing have already been written]
  4. Methodology--past tense [the way that you gathered and synthesized data has already happened, otherwise, how could you write your paper?]
  5. Results--past tense [the findings have already been discovered]
  6. Discussion--present tense [I am talking to you now about how I interpreted the findings]
  7. Conclusion--present tense [I am summarizing the study for you now]

Cogie, Jane, Kim Strain, and Sharon Lorinskas. "Avoiding the Proofreading Trap: The Value of the Error Correction Process." The Writing Center Journal 19 (Spring/Summer 1999): 7-32; Editing and Proofreading. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Editing and Proofreading Strategies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Harris, Jeanette. "Proofreading: A Reading/Writing Skill." College Composition and Communication 38 (December 1987): 464-466; Lunsford, Andrea A. and Robert Connors. The St. Martin's Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Madraso, Jan. "Proofreading: The Skill We've Neglected to Teach." The English Journal 82 (February 1993): 32-41; Proofreading. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Proofreading. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Proofreading and Revising. Online Writing Center, Walden University; Proofreading a College Paper: Guidelines and Checklist. Troy University Library Tutorial; Revision: Cultivating a Critical Eye. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Revision Guidelines. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Where Do I Begin? The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University.