Proofreading

Proofreading refers to a step in the writing process--the act of critically reading a document with the goal of identifying errors at the word and sentence-level. Proofreading is crucial to establishing a professional tone in school and workplace contexts. Learn how to edit documents so that your works meet the needs and expectations of your readers.

What is Proofreading

Proofreading refers to a step in the writing process–the process of rereading a document with the goal of identifying word and sentence-level errors.

Synonymous Terms

The terms proofreading, editing, and revision, and may be used interchangeably by some people. However, subject matter experts in writing studies make distinctions between these intellectual strategies by noting their different foci:

Revising

a focus on the big picture – the global perspective.

Editing

a focus on line-by-line editing – the local perspective

Proofreading

a focus on a last chance to catch any errors

  • Final check for errors

Proofreading may also be referred to as correcting or copy editing.

Related Concepts: Global Perspective; Local Perspective; Proofreading; Revision; Structured Revision; Styles of Writing


Why Does Proofreading Matter?

As noted for editing, proofreading is critical to establishing a professional tone in academic writing and workplace writing.

Have you ever sent off an email message or submitted a school paper only to later discover that it was full of typographical errors?  How could you have missed all of these errors?

The answer seems to have something to do with how our brains work. Our brains recognize patterns.  This is part of the reason why people who read frequently tend to read faster than infrequent readers: their brains more speedily recognize and process patterns of words on the page.

Texts that we write ourselves are the texts that we can read fastest of all, because our brains are already deeply familiar with the patterns of our words.

But what helps us as readers can hurt us as writers.  When we read our own work, our brains tend to quickly see the patterns that we put on the page rather than the individual words.  We see what we meant to write, and not necessarily what we actually wrote. 

To our readers, however, who are not as familiar with our words, the errors are more apparent—and they detract from our credibility as authors.

To proofread effectively, we need to distance ourselves from the text and see it as our readers will see it.

How to Proofread

The little changes that you make during editing and proofreading can have a profound and disproportionate effect on your target reader’s experience interpretation of your document.

The following techniques can help you critically evaluate your document at the sentence level:

  1. Don’t try to proofread a document in one sitting. Instead, alternate editing with other activities.
    • After working hard to develop the substance of a message, you may be weary of it and eager to turn it over to your instructor. If possible, however, you are wise to set the draft aside and work on another task before trying to edit it. For example, try editing after you first wake up, then after lunch, and then before dinner. Are you surprised that you can keep finding ways to improve the document?
  2. Don’t bother editing early drafts.
    • It has become commonplace for postsecondary writing instructors in the U.S. to suggest that writers not worry about proofreading during the early stages of a writing project. This can be sound advice because time spent proofreading could be wasted if what you’re editing doesn’t respond to the demands of the school assignment or isn’t rhetorically sensitive. Plus, why edit a freewrite when the goal during freewriting is to develop ideas?
  3. There are three strategies you can use to help ignore the content of your message and concentrate solely on grammatical, mechanical, and formatting errors:
    • Try reading your document backwards: Begin with the last sentence and move upward toward the introduction
    • Place sheets of paper above and below each sentence in the document as you read through it
    • Place slashes between each sentence and then evaluate each one separately
  4. If you are using a personal computer, try printing the document with a different font, such as size 14 or size 10 point instead of the normal size 12.
  5. Look for mistakes to cluster. When you find one error in paragraph seven, for example, carefully examine the surrounding sentences to see if you had a lapse of concentration when you wrote and copyedited that section.
  6. Look for errors that you often make, such as sentence fragments or subject-verb agreement.

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