Proofreading is the act of reviewing, identifying, and correcting errors in your research paper before it is handed in to be graded by your professor. Common errors found within the text of a paper can be both typographical [i.e., an error in typing] and grammatical [i.e., faulty, unconventional use of language]. However, the act of proofreading can also include identifying and correcting problems with the narrative flow of your paper [i.e., the logical sequence of thoughts and ideas], problems with concise writing [i.e., wordiness and imprecise vocabulary], and problems created by word processing software applications [e.g., unintentional font types, indented paragraphs, line spacing, uneven margins, or orphan headings, sentences, or words].
Editing and Proofreading Strategies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Proofreading. The Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Proofreading is often the final act before handing in your paper. It is important because most professors grade papers not only on the quality of how you addressed the research problem and the overall organization of the study, but also on the quality of the grammar, punctuation, formatting, and narrative flow of your paper. The assigning of research papers is not just an exercise in developing good research and critical thinking skills, but it is also intended to help you become a better writer. Below are step-by-step strategies you can follow.
Before You Proofread
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, review the text above concerning ways to improve the overall quality of your paper. The act of revision implies that there is something within the paper 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.
Individualize the Act of Proofreading
Individualizing your proofreading process to match weaknesses in your writing will help you correct errors 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:
In general, verb tense should be in the following format, although variations can occur within the text of each section 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.
General Strategies for Strengthening Your Paper
As noted above, proofreading involves a detailed examination of your paper to ensure there are no content errors. However, proofreading is also an opportunity to strengthen the overall quality of your paper beyond correcting specific grammar, diction, or formatting mistakes. Before you begin reviewing your paper line-by-line, step back and reflect on what you have written; consider if there are ways to improve each section of the paper by taking into consideration the following “big picture” elements of good writing.
Introduction. Look for any language that reflects broad generalizations, indeterminate phrasing, or text that does not directly inform the reader about the research and its significance. This can include unnecessary qualifiers or text, such as, "This study includes a significant review of the literature [what constitutes "significant"?], "There are a number of findings that are important [just state the number of findings; leave it to the discussion to argue the context of their importance], and, for example, "This research reminds me of...." [why does the research study relate to remembering something; is this first person perspective essential to introducing the research problem].
Research Topic. Make sure the topic does not come across as ambiguous, simplistic, overly broad, or ill-defined. A strong research problem and the associated research questions establish a set of assumptions that should be nuanced, yet challenges the reader to think. Review the Choosing a Research Problem page in this guide. Place yourself in the position of a reader totally unfamiliar with the topic, then, critically evaluate the research problem, any associated research questions you are trying to address, and the theoretical framework. Ask yourself if there is anything that may not make sense or requires further explanation or refinement. The rest of the paper will build on these elements, but the introduction of these foundational aspects of your paper should be clearly and concisely stated.
Paragraph Transitions. Review the overall paper to make sure the narrative flow is coherent throughout and that there are smooth transitions between paragraphs. Ensure that major transitions in text have a heading or sub-heading [if needed] and that the paragraph prior to the transition let's the reader know that you are about to shift to a new idea. Also, look for text that is overly long or that contains too much description and too little analysis and interpretation. Sometimes you need a long paragraph to describe a complex idea, event, or issue, but review them to make sure they can't be broken apart into shorter, more readable paragraphs.
Discussion of Results. Read over your discussion of the research findings and make sure you have not treated any of the evidence as unproblematic or uncomplicated. Make sure you have discussed the results through a critical lens of analysis that takes into account alternative interpretations or possible counter-arguments. In most cases, your discussion section should demonstrate a thorough understanding of the study's findings and their implications, both positive, supportive findings and negative, unanticipated findings.
Conclusion. Make sure you have done more than simply re-state the research problem and what you did. Provide the reader with a sense of closure by ensuring that the conclusion has highlighted all the main points of the paper and tells the reader why the study was important, what the paper's broader significance and implications might be, and, if applicable, what areas of the study require further research. Also note that the conclusion is usually no more than two or three paragraphs. If your conclusion is longer, look for ways to condense the text and be alert to information that is superfluous or should be integrated into other parts of your paper [e.g., new information].
Specific Strategies to Help Identify Errors
Once you have made any necessary revisions to your paper and looked for ways to strengthen its overall quality, focus on identifying and correcting specific errors within the text.
NOTE: Pay particular attention to the spelling of proper nouns [an individual person, place, or organization]. Make sure the name is carefully capitalized and spelled correctly, and that this spelling has been used consistently throughout the text of your paper. This is especially true for proper nouns transliterated into English or that have been spelled differently over time. In this case, choose the spelling most consistently used by researchers in the literature you have cited so, if asked, you can explain the logic of your choice.
Carduner, Jessie. "Teaching Proofreading Skills as a Means of Reducing Composition Errors." Language Learning Journal 35 (2007): 283-295; Gaste, Barbara. “Editing and Proofreading Your Own Work.” American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Journal 30 (2015): 147-151; Editing and Proofreading. Writing Center, University of North Carolina; Proofreading. Writing Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Proofreading. Writing Center, University of Maryland; Harris, Jeanette. "Proofreading: A Reading/Writing Skill." College Composition and Communication 38 (1987): 464-466; Editing and Proofreading. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Mintz, Steve. “Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Students’ Writing.” Higher Ed Gamma (Opinion). Inside Higher Ed, August 17, 2022; Revising vs. Proofreading, Kathleen Jones Wright Writing Center, Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Editing and Proofreading Strategies. Student Writing Support, University of Minnesota; Saleh, Naveed. The Writer's Guide to Self-Editing: Essential Tips for Online and Print Publication. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019; Writing a Paper. Walden Writing Center, Walden University; The Writing Process: Proofreading. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University.
Should you need help proofreading your paper, take advantage of the assistance offered by consultants at the USC Writing Center located on the second floor of Taper Hall, room 216. Consultations are free and they can help you with any aspect of the writing process. Walk-in help is provided when consultants are available, but you should schedule an appointment online because the Center gets very busy as the semester progresses. If you meet with a consultant be sure to bring a copy of your writing assignment, any relevant handouts or texts, and any outlines or drafts you've written. Also, the Center conducts helpful, fifty minute small-group writing skills workshops for students that cover a wide range of topics. These workshops provide an opportunity for you to improve your skills related to an aspect of writing that you may be struggling with, particularly if English is not your native language.