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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.


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 Strategies

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

  • Revise the larger aspects of the text. Don't proofread for the purpose of making 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 to step away before proofreading.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words before looking for mistakes. Throughout your paper, you should try to avoid using inflated diction if a more concise phrase works equally well. Simple, precise language is easier to proofread than overly complex sentence constructions and vocabulary. At the same time, also identify and change empty or repetitive phrases.
  • 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, 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:

  • Think about what errors you typically make. Review instructors' comments about your writing and/or set up an appointment to 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 so that you can learn how to avoid them while writing.
  • 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 your 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 may be surprised 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 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.

  1. Abstract--past tense [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 I reviewed have already been published]
  4. Methodology--past tense [the way I gathered and synthesized data has already happened]
  5. Results--past tense [the findings of my study 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]

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.

  1. Work from a printout, not a computer screen. Besides sparing your eyes from 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 [e.g., misspelling the name of a person].
  2. Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences and missing words, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not have identified while reading the text out loud. This will also help you adopt the role of the reader, thereby helping 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 and allows you to 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 confirm 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 Ctrl F search [find] feature can help identify repeated errors faster. For example, if you overuse a phrase or repeatedly rely on the same qualifier [e.g., "important"], you can do a search for those words or phrases and in each instance make a decision about whether to remove it, rewrite the sentence, 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 word-to-word typos [like typing "he" when you meant to write "the"]. The spell-checker function can catch some errors quickly, but it is not a substitute for carefully reviewing the text. This also applies to the grammar check function as well.
  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 identify 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.

NOTE:  Pay particular attention to the spelling of proper nouns [an individual person, a place, or an 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.

USC Writing Center

USC Writing Center

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.