Recently I’ve been teaching quite a lot of Academic Writing and exam preparation, and something which will perhaps sound obvious when I say it – or perhaps not – has become apparent. Namely, proofreading your own work can be really challenging.
If it’s been a while since you wrote something other than a few informal emails, FB and text messages, you might have forgotten how difficult proofreading can actually be. As a teacher, spotting your students mistakes is a piece of cake. But spotting your own…
And if we put ourselves in the position of a student who’s still grappling with the grammar, spelling and punctuation (apart from trying to make their writing coherent and use all the damn linkers their teacher insists on), the challenge becomes even greater.
There are numerous correction techniques we can use as teachers to give our students feedback on their writing, and I’m hoping to blog about them quite soon. What I want to explore here, however, is how to help our learners to avoid making the mistake in the first place through improving their proofreading skills – something which has never really occurred to me before and which I think is rather neglected in teaching writing.
For example, as a language student – both at university and in language schools – I’ve never really been taught how to check my work for mistakes. But told to do so anyway by the teacher. So as most of us, I’ve picked it up as I went along, through trial and error. And as a teacher, I’ve also never really taught my students how to proofread their writing before handing it in although I’ve always expected them to do it.
So here’s a not-altogether-exhaustive list of 10 proofreading tips. I’m planning to go through with some of my students to see if it helps improve their quality of writing. I’ve also tried to apply them to this post, but do let me know if you spot any mistakes.
Take a break:
If you’ve been toiling over your written assignment for quite some time now, you’ve probably become so familiar with it that you won’t be able to spot any mistakes. Your ideas will sound crystal clear and perfectly logical. But probably you will be seeing what you think you wrote rather than what’s actually on paper. So setting the text aside can help you clear your mind and see it anew when you get back to it. Ideally, sleep on it. If you’re in a rush, relax for as long as you can, before proofreading. Try closing your eyes for 5 minutes and clearing your mind. Or gaze through the window and think about something else.
I’m not sure why, but it’s much more difficult to proofread on the screen. Perhaps because if you’ve been writing the text on your computer, your eyes are probably already quite tired. Printing it might also help you see your writing from a different angle. A fresh perspective. Try it. It definitely works.
One thing at a time:
Remember – it’s not a sprint (although in an exam situation you might be pressed for time). Divide the process of proofreading into several stages. This will enable you to focus on a particular aspect (e.g. punctuation; subject/verb agreement) more closely and increase your chances of spotting the mistakes. Also, shifting your focus should help you stay concentrated and fresh for longer, as you will be looking at different and new aspects of your writing at each proofreading stage.
Check the flow:
Before you start looking at language mistakes, read the text for the overall meaning. Check if it’s logical. Try to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who knows little or nothing about the topic. The best texts are the least convoluted ones. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, play the devil’s advocate to see if you’ve used solid and convincing argumentation.
Typical mistakes first:
Prepare a list of the most typical and recurring mistakes that you’ve made in your recent assignments. Alternatively, ask your teacher for help. Don’t go for too many. Select maybe 5 that are the most persistent. Have this list in front of you and focus first only on the mistakes listed there. They can be quite difficult to spot, because you might have made them so many times that they seem correct to your brain. So read the text carefully. Once you’re happy the typical mistakes are out, proofread again for other errors.
Read it backwards:
I’m not joking. Try it. Reading it word by word from back to front will shift your attention from the content to the text itself. This should help you spot some spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes which have so far been overlooked.
Read it aloud:
And backwards! No, this time I’m only joking about the last one. But reading aloud can actually be very helpful. You might be able to hear the mistakes you were not able to see. This technique is particularly effective for spotting punctuation errors, run-on sentences and some word endings (e.g. -s).
Don’t rely on grammar and spelling checkers:
Of course, Word spell-checker for example, can be very helpful. But they also make you lazy. And many mistakes are overlooked by them. For example, “to” and “too” are both perfectly good words, so the error in “I like reading to” will not be underlined. Neither will “His advise was really helpful”. Sometimes a correctly spelled word might be underlined because it’s not found in the spell checker’s dictionary. In short, grammar and spelling checkers are quite smart, but only as far as it goes. So do use them, but don’t treat them as the ultimate solution. You will still need to proofread.
Double-check all the figures, proper names and references. Often one zero missing in a figure can cause a whole lot of problems. Make sure the information given in your text is accurate. Watch out for commonly misused words.
Ask for help:
If all else fails, ask somebody else to proofread your text (for example, in exchange for one of their texts). It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay somebody to proofread your work. Even just a quick look by a friend, relative or colleague can often make the difference. They’ll be looking at your work with a fresh pair of eyes and are much more likely to spot the mistakes that have escaped you. If you know you have problems with a particular area (e.g spelling), ask your proofreader to focus on it. This should make it more effective and time-efficient.
I hope you can use these 10 tips to improve the quality of your work before your teacher or tutor gets there with a red pen. And as a teacher, you can use these to develop your students’ proofreading skills.
If you have any other tips or proofreading techniques that work for you, leave a comment below.
When composing my list, I used these sites: