So, you've written a paper. Congratulations! You put in hours doing the research, making an outline, writing, and rewriting so you'd have the perfect essay
to hand in. But hold on, you're not quite done yet. Before you finish you need to proofread your work. It can seem like a hassle when you're so close to being done, but making sure your paper is error-free is a necessary last step for every assignment.
What to look for ... the big picture
Before you get down to the nitty-gritty of looking for errors in spelling or grammar, first you need to take the time to read through your entire paper and evaluate the overall quality of the writing. You'll want to do this first in case your paper needs big changes - you can focus on the smaller edits once you've got the paper in tip-top shape. When reading through your work, ask yourself these questions:
Is your thesis clear?
Your paper needs to have a strong, clear thesis in the introduction that lays out your argument for the reader. If you're writing about investigative work you've done, then the research question and hypothesis should be prominent and easy for the reader to identify. It's common to stray from your initial thesis as you work on your paper, so make sure that your thesis matches the argument and evidence you present in the body of your work.
Does each paragraph have a topic sentence?
Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that spells out the main point you're trying to make. Reading through the topic sentences of your paper should give a good overview of your argument, and if you find any paragraphs that don't fit well with the overall flow of your paper you might consider rewriting to clarify your point.
Do you have good transitions?
Transitions are one of the keys to good writing
- they make your paper smooth and easy to read. When reading through your work, pay attention to shifts from paragraph to paragraph and section to section. Are there any moves that are jarring or out of place?
Does your argument make sense?
Lastly, read through your work to ensure that your argument makes sense. Did you include all the important points you found in your research? Do you explain your evidence sufficiently? Did you address any important counter-arguments or contradictory research? If you're writing about investigative work, make sure that you do a good job of drawing a clear line between your results and your conclusions.
What to look for ... the fundamentals
It's a basic part of any proofread
- you have to ensure everything is spelled correctly. Spell checking programs on the computer have made this task easier, but that doesn't mean you can just sit back and accept your word processor's suggested changes. Instead, read through your work to make sure you haven't accidently included words that are spelled correctly but are incorrect in the sentence. For example, your computer won't notice if you type "The main character, being for New York, grew us used to the cold weather" instead of the correct "The main character, being from New York, grew up used to the cold weather."
Also keep an eye out for homophones - words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings. Your spellcheck won't catch common homophones like your/you're and there/their/they're.
It's easy to get in a rush when you're typing and leave out the occasionally "the" or "to," and it's also easy not to notice those mistakes when you're reading - our brain naturally fills in those missing words. So, pay extra attention when you're proofreading so you don't leave anything out.
Make sure each sentence is punctuated correctly. Look out for common mistakes like comma splices and run-on sentences as well as correct usage of punctuation fundamentals like colons, semicolons, and quotation marks. Often punctuation marks will vary by style, so make sure not only that you're following the guidelines for your particular assignment but also that you're consistent throughout the paper.
Check elements like the margins, title page, headings, spacing, and indentations to make sure that you've followed the directions for your assignment. If you aren't sure how to format your paper, choose a style guide like The MLA Style Manual
or The Chicago Manual of Style
Do you cite your sources whenever you quote or paraphrase from them? This is one of the most important elements of your paper you need to double-check - if you accidently leave out a citation or forget to name your source, then you're committing plagiarism. So double-check that you've included all the appropriate citations, and also compare your Works Cited page to your paper to check whether all the resources you cite are listed in the Works Cited, and vice versa.
Tips for Proofreading
- If you have time, set your paper aside and come back to it in a day or two. With a little bit of space between you and your work you'll be able to evaluate it with a clear head.
- It can be difficult to see mistakes in your own work - often we gloss over errors because we know what we intend the sentence to say. To avoid this, try reading the paper backwards sentence by sentence. It'll help you identify errors in grammar and wording you might otherwise miss.
- Reading out loud is also a great way to pick up mistakes you might miss if you just read to yourself.
- When all else fails, have somebody else look over your work. A new pair of eyes will see mistakes you might miss, and a second reader can help you find gaps in logic or confusing passages.
- If you have time, don't check for all possible errors all at once. Instead, read through once for content (i.e., are any big edits needed?), once for spelling, once for grammar, and again for formatting issues.
- Be consistent. Many elements of style aren't set in stone, so it's up to you to decide what you want to do. When that's the case, make a choice and stick with it throughout the paper.