The Art of Proofreading

One of the greatest frustrations that professors face is the lack of solid writing skills among some of our brightest students. To see a student who we other wise know to be smart and even articulate bury their written ideas under poor grammar, bad spelling, awkward colloquialisms, and misconstrued logic is painful, even heart-breaking. I’ve come to believe, though, that a big part of the problem is not so much that students are inherently lazy writers or that they simply don’t care enough to do well, but that they do not proofread their work, at least in part because they haven’t learned how to do it well.

I’m using “proofread” here to encompass what are really three separate steps: revising, editing, and proofreading. Technically, proofreading is the final review of a draft for typos, dropped words, and other minor errors. The real action is in the revising – taking the original “off the top of my head” draft apart and putting it back together as a better product. I had a teacher in high school who described it as “re-visioning”, actually re-building the piece to present a new and more thought out vision.

The reality is that we know our topic better after we’ve written an essay on it, so in revising we bring that improved understanding to bear on our original thoughts. Then we can begin editing, going through the piece to see if there isn’t a better way to express each idea, or if the words we’ve chosen are really the best words we could have used. Then we can proofread to make sure there aren’t any errors that might distract a reader away from our finely honed prose.

But for classroom essays, which are usually written under a tight schedule and on topics that their authors might not feel particularly passionate about, it’s fair to consider all three as part of a single process. Here’s a few tips to make that process more effective:

  • Spellcheck is not your friend! Yes, run your word processor’s spellcheck, and pay attention to the red and green squiggles that appear as you type to indicate spelling and grammar errors, but don’t be fooled: spellcheck is a first line of defense only, and a poor one at that. Relying on spellcheck to catch all of your errors is a sure way to look like an idiot, as spellcheck will not and cannot distinguish between “there”, “their”, and “they’re”, or between “your” and “you’re”. When you have a really bad typo, spellcheck may well change the word to something else entirely, making it difficult and even impossible for your reader to tease out what you might have meant to say.
  • Wait a few days before proofreading: One of the problems with proofreading is that our brains are really not up to the job. Brains are very good at seeing patterns, and even imposing patterns where none exists (think of the shapes we see in the stars, which are really only randomly placed points of light). Your brain knows what it mean to say, and so it tends to superimpose that over the actual words on paper that make up what you actually did say. By waiting a few days from the time you finish writing before you review your work, the short-term memory of what you thought you were writing will fade and you’ll be able to approach your writing with a fresh eye.
  • Read backwards: Another tip meant to side-step your nasty brain’s tricks. When checking your spelling, you want to look at words, not sentences – but the brain is much better at digesting sentences. Reading backwards allows you to ignore whatever meaning is supposed to be expressed by the words you’re looking at and instead focus on the words themselves.
  • Read out loud: That pesky brain again! We use different parts of our brains for reading and listening. A lot of times, what looks fine to our eyes will sound awful when we force ourselves to say it out loud. This is a good way to find awkwardly phrased sentences and passages, as well as to identify run-on sentences and fragments.
  • Write crappy first drafts: This is a tip that comes up a lot when writers are facing writer’s block – just sit down and write whatever comes to mind and don’t worry bout how good it is. But it’s also good advice for proofreading: learn to embrace the crappiness of your first draft, instead of seeing it as a final product.
  • Cut it in half, and then cut it in half again: Students always ask me about word- and page-counts. I include a page-count in my essay instructions not because I want exactly “x” number of pages but to give students an idea of the depth they should cover their subject in. The real answer to “how long should my paper be” is always “as long as it needs to be”. Here’s the trick, though: we almost always write much more than we need to. It’s much, much harder to write a good short essay than a mediocre long one. Most professional authors figure they need to write about 4 – 5,000 words to get a good 1,500-word article. Drastically cutting the word count means going over every sentence, again and again, to see if there’s a way to say the same thing better and more clearly. You don’t want to cut important details, you want to trim the fat away, leaving the lean, juicy meat behind. (Feeling hungry all of a sudden?)
  • Delete every comma: Commas are, as a rule, very poorly used by English-language writers. Of course, commas are necessary, but they’re generally not as necessary as we think they are. Delete all the commas (easy with the find-and-replace function of most word processors) and then re-read your text. The places where commas are necessary will be immediately apparent, and you won’t even miss the unnecessary ones you removed.

Students often don’t understand why professors put so much stress on the form of their writing: on grammar and bibliography formatting and margins and spelling and so on. They feel that the ideas they’ve expressed are the important thing, and they’re right. But form matters – if it didn’t, students wouldn’t be toting iPods around campus, they’d settle for cheaper and uglier models. A well-designed product is not just better-looking, it performs its job better and it’s a joy to use.

The goal of writing should be to produce iPods, not cheap knockoffs with names that kind of sound similar if you don’t read them closely. There’s real-world consequences, too: I recently read the results of a survey of Fortune 500 human resources managers, and some 80-odd percent of them said they will throw out a resume or cover letter if it has even one typo. So it’s clearly a good idea to develop effective proofreading strategies while you’re developing all the other skills you’ll need in the workplace. More importantly, though, writing is a reflection of thought, and sharpening your writing skills will help sharpen your thinking skills. And that is what you’re in school for, right?

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