Approaching Precision—Proofreading

Learning Objectives

  • Describe proofreading and how to do it
Black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe applying makeup in a dressing room.

Figure 1. Try and see the proofreading process in a similar light as you would an actress getting ready to go onstage- each step is essential and must be done with care and attention.

Proofreading can be seen as a tedious task that many writers avoid like a contagious disease. Sometimes, writers will simply lump several stages of the writing process into one, calling it all “proofreading the document.” Careful proofreading, however, is the equivalent of combing one’s hair, straightening one’s clothing, and buffing one’s shoes before facing the public. It is possible to enter the public in an unkempt manner, but the effect upon the public might not be what one expects or prefers.

If the other writing process steps have been performed adequately, then much of the proofreading stage will be routine and limited to the few mistakes that have escaped the writer’s attention during the multiple drafting, revising, and editing stages.

What Proofreading Entails

Proofreading involves checking for grammatical, spelling, and mechanical errors, which may include problems with verb tense, subject-verb agreement, parallel structure, sentence completion, alternate spellings, capitalization, and punctuation. Proofreading is often made easier by the use of colored ink, bracketed or parenthetical notations, or proofreading symbols for identification and correction.

Proofreading Example

The Strange Life of Death

Death in literature has experienced a strange life throughout the years. In some cases, death have has been portrayed as a welcome visitor guest whose presence is unwittingly included among family and friends (e.g., “The Ambitious Guest,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne). On other occasions, death has been ostracized as an enemy whose unwelcome morbid presence is forbidden or unsuccessfully avoided (e.g., Oedipus). The only consistent certainty about death have has been their the controlling inevitability with which death has been portrayed.

Subject-verb agreement errors should be checked in every independent and dependent clause. So too should parallel structure of words, phrases, and ideas. Detection of spelling or grammatical and mechanical errors should not be left to the electronic red or green colors of spell and grammar check: Electronic spell checks notoriously overlook homonyms—or erroneously insert them in place of other misspelled words. Such errors can only be found by the human eye.

Similar mistakes can occur with computer recommendations in grammar. Humans should not abdicate the task of reasoning and applying knowledge to a computer’s artificial intelligence. As the astronauts learned in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that artificial intelligence can come to some flawed conclusions.

Fresh Eyes

Close up of a person's eyes.

Figure 2. Every essay you write should be proofread by a set of fresh eyes-whether that be another person entirely, or yourself after stepping away for a short time.

Many writers find that they benefit from leaving a distance of time—and even place—between the most recent draft and the final proofreading stage before publication. These writers find that approaching a text with fresh eyes makes them better able to detect errors that might escape the attention of one who has spent a great deal of uninterrupted time with the document.

Writers who don’t have the luxury of waiting between completing a draft and proofreading it can still benefit from that fresh perspective by asking someone who hasn’t seen the document to proofread it. A word of caution is in order here, however: A writer would be wise to avoid asking the same person to proofread all of the writer’s documents, for fear of becoming too imposing.

No matter how proofreading is accomplished, it should be performed in a careful, methodical manner so that the document’s overall appearance is worthy of the writer’s professional and personal pride in the process and the product. Reading the paper backwards and forwards is a good way to slow down and look for small errors that need addressing.

What to Look for When Proofreading

In addition to all of the other stylistic and grammatical concerns already mentioned, when you proofread you want to look for things you might have missed in previous revisions such as incorrect or missing words, capitalization concerns, and citation issues.

Wrong Words

Wrong word errors are really common and are number one on the list. Sometimes, we make a wrong word error when we are using the thesaurus and trying to find the biggest word we can find in order to make ourselves sound really smart. This isn’t the greatest strategy. Sometimes, it’s better just to be simple, and it’s always better just to be clear.

We also have to be careful of the spell checker. Sometimes, we misspell words, and then the spell checker makes a change to a word we don’t want. Of course, we may be in a hurry and never even notice. Take a look at this sentence to see the problems wrong word errors can create:

  • Sometimes, I will just sit and watch strangers in the crowd, but it is defiantly awful when I accidentally make eye contact with one of them.

In this sentence, writing defiantly when we mean definitelydefinitely changes the meaning in the sentence.

Here is the sentence again with the correct word:

  • Sometimes, I will just sit and watch strangers in the crowd, but it is definitely awful when I accidentally make eye contact with one of them.

Missing Words

We are too often in a hurry when we edit. Our brains are great. We can read right through sentences and put in the words that need to be there even if words are missing. Of course, others might quickly notice the error, so we have to find ways to slow ourselves down and edit carefully. You don’t want to write a sentence like the following example that is missing a small word with big meaning:

  • I enjoy walking alone in the woods at night because I never what I will meet while I am out there in the dark.

Did you see the error? Look at the revised sentence below:

  • I enjoy walking alone in the woods at night because I never know what I will meet while I am out there in the dark.

Spelling

In the age of spell checkers, it’s hard to imagine that spelling errors would top the most common error list, but they do. First, it’s important to remember to run the spell checker. Even though you have to remember to check your spell checker, spell checkers are a good place to start when it comes to spelling errors.

Still, there are plenty of spelling errors the spell checker won’t catch. In addition to possibly creating wrong-word errors, as discussed earlier, spell checkers also miss misspelled words like names and other proper nouns, as illustrated in the following example:

  • On my vacation to France, I went to Pares and visited the Eifel Tower, the Louvre museum, and Jim Morrison’s grave.

The spell checker missed these errors. Here is the corrected version of the sentence:

  • On my vacation to France, I went to Paris and visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum, and Jim Morrison’s grave.

So, be sure to run your spell checker, but, then, don’t forget to double and triple check your writing. Spell checkers do not catch everything.

Capitalization

Be careful to capitalize words that should be capitalized, such as proper nouns, and not capitalize words that should not be capitalized. But, how can you know what should and shouldn’t be capitalized? If you are unsure, review the differences between proper nouns and common nouns in the Parts of Speech area of the Excelsior OWL.

Capitalization errors can really have a negative impact on the impressions your readers have of your writing. Take a look at the following sentence:

  • i took a walk in central park and saw a Mime, who was pretending to be a Policeman, get sprayed with mace by an elderly woman because she thought he was trying to steal her purse.

Now, take a look at the sentence with correct capitalization:

  • I took a walk in Central Park and saw a mime, who was pretending to be a policeman, get sprayed with mace by an elderly woman because she thought he was trying to steal her purse.

It’s important to edit carefully and review the rules if necessary!

Citations

It’s so important to remember to cite all borrowed information. No matter your documentation style, whether it is APA formatMLA format, or Chicago Style, all require some kind of citation for quoted, paraphrased, and summarized material.

REMEMBER: You must not only cite people’s words, but you must also cite their ideas. Errors of this nature can get you into a lot of trouble because incomplete or missing documentation is plagiarism.

Quotations

Using quotation marks correctly can be a little tricky, especially when you need to use other types of punctuation with them. Mechanical errors related to quotation marks makes the most-common error list because beginning writers often forget that commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. Here is an example:

  • “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity”, said Einstein.

In this case, the comma placed outside the quotation marks is incorrect. The comma should be placed inside the quotation marks like this:

  • “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity,” said Einstein.

It’s important to note, however, that not all punctuation automatically goes inside the quotation marks. Question marks are a little trickier. If the only part in quotations is a question, then the question mark should go inside the quotation marks; otherwise, the question mark actually goes outside of the quotation marks. Tricky for sure!

Also, beginning writers often forget that titles of shorter works, like essays and short stories, should be placed inside quotation marks. Longer works, like books and magazines, should be placed in italics:

  • I read the essay “The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson in the book Best American Essays of the Century.

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