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Proofreading and Revising

You’ve written a draft of your paper.  Now your work is done, so you should just turn it in, right?  No, WAIT!  Step away from the computer, take a deep breath, and don’t submit that assignment just yet.

You should always proofread and revise your paper.  A first draft is usually a very rough draft.  It takes time and at least two (or more!) additional passes through to really make sure your argument is strong, your writing is polished, and there are no typos or grammatical errors.  Proofreading will always give you a better paper in the end.

After you finish writing the first draft, your process should be something like this:

  • Take a break! Try to wait a day or two before looking back over your paper.  If you are on a tight deadline, then take a walk, grab a snack, drink some coffee, or do something else to clear your head so you can read through your paper with fresh eyes.  The longer you wait, the more likely it is you will see what is actually on the page and not what you meant to write.
  • Print out your paper, read through it, and mark it up using some brightly colored pen (so you won’t miss any corrections later on).  See below for suggestions on what to look for when you are doing this step.
  • Take another break.
  • Open your computer file and make changes to your paper based on your marked-up copy.  These changes could be major (for example, reordering your ideas, cutting sections, or adding more information) or they could be more minor (fixing subject-verb agreement or other grammatical issues, adding in missing words, correcting typos, etc.).

Make sure you leave yourself enough time to complete your draft and proofread it as many times as is necessary (for major assignments, you will want to go through the process described above at least twice).   It can help to give yourself smaller deadlines leading up to a major deadline (and some teachers even build this in for you).  For example, if your paper is due in four weeks, make a deadline to complete your research by the end of week 1, write your thesis statement and create an outline by the end of week 2, finish a first draft by the end of week 3, and spend the last week making multiple passes at proofreading and revising your paper.

 

What to Look for in the First Proofreading Pass(es): Higher-Order Concerns

Typically, early proofreading passes a paper should focus on the larger issues, which are known as higher-order concerns. Higher-order concerns relate to the strength of your ideas, the support for your argument, and the logic of how your points are presented. Some important higher-order concerns are listed below, along with some questions you can ask yourself while proofreading to see if your paper needs work in any of these areas:

  • The Thesis Statement: Does your paper have a clear thesis statement? If so, where is it? Does the introduction lead up to that thesis statement? Does each paragraph directly relate back to your thesis statement?
  • The Argument: Is your thesis statement supported by enough evidence? Do you need to add any explanations or examples to better make your case? Is there any unnecessary or irrelevant information that should be removed?
  • Large-Scale Organization: Could your paper be easily outlined or tree diagrammed? Are your paragraphs presented in a logical order? Are similar ideas grouped together?  Are there clear transitions (either verbal or logical) that link each paragraph to what came before?
  • Organization within Paragraphs: Is each paragraph centered around one main idea? Is there a clear topic sentence for each paragraph? Are any of your paragraphs too short or too long? Do all the sentences in each paragraph relate back to their respective topic sentences? Are the sentences presented in a logical order, so each grows out of what came before?
  • The Assignment Instructions: Does your paper answer all aspects of the writing prompt?  Have you completed all of the tasks required by the instructor? Did you include all necessary sections (for example, an abstract or reference list)?  Are you following the required style for formatting the paper as a whole, the reference list, and/or your citations? (That last question is technically a lower-order concern, but it falls under the assignment instructions and is something where you could easily lose points if you don’t follow instructions.)

When reading through your early draft(s) of your paper, mark up your paper with those concerns in mind first.  Keep proofreading and revising until you have fixed all of these larger-scale issues.  Your paper may change a lot as you do this – that’s completely normal! You might have to add more material; cut sentences, paragraphs, or even whole sections; or rewrite significant portions of the paper to fix any problems related to these higher-order concerns.  This is why you should be careful not to get too bogged down with small-scale problems early on: there is no point in spending a lot of time fixing sentences that you end up cutting because they don’t actually fit in with your topic!

 

What to Look for in the Later Proofreading Pass(es): Lower-Order Concerns

Once you have fully addressed the higher-order concerns, you can focus on more local fixes or lower-order concerns in your subsequent proofreading passes. Lower-order concerns include writing style, wording, typos, and grammar issues.  Yes, it’s true: grammar is a lower-order concern! Even though students are often very concerned that their grammar needs to be fixed, it is actually more important to focus on the quality of your ideas and the logic of how they are presented first.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t worry about grammar; it’s just that you shouldn’t make it a main focus until closer to the end of the writing process.  Some typical lower-order concerns are listed below, along with some questions that can help you recognize aspects in need of revision:

  • Style: Are you using an appropriate tone? Are you following the conventions that are typical of your discipline?   Are you using the required style for formatting?
  • Wording: Are you always picking the word that has the precise meaning you want? Are there any places where your wording is confusing or where your sentences are long and hard to follow? Are there any awkward phrases? Are you writing as simply and concisely as possible? Are there any redundant words or sentences that should be removed?
  • Grammar: Do you have any sentence fragments or run-on sentences? Are your subjects and verbs in agreement?  Are you handling your plurals and possessives correctly? Are there any punctuation errors?
  • Typos: Are there missing words?  Are any words misspelled (be especially careful to watch out for words that spell-check won’t catch, for example typing “can” when you meant “van”)? Are there any extra spaces that need to be removed?

Cleaning up these local issues is the final stage in the writing process.  Think of this as polishing up your writing, so that the quality of your prose matches the quality of your ideas.

 

Other Tips for Proofreading

  • Always read slowly and carefully when proofreading.  Don’t rush! If you try to go too fast, you will probably miss errors you would otherwise catch.
  • Read your paper out loud. This can be very helpful for catching typos, missing words, awkward phrasings, and overly long or confusing sentences.
  • Pretend you are the reader, not the author of the paper.  Try to look at what you wrote from the perspective of someone who does not know all the things you know.  Would a reasonably intelligent audience be able to understand your prose and be convinced by your argument?
  • Keep track of any errors you consistently make (within a single paper or in multiple papers).  Check out our  Common Writing Questions page for explanations of common errors and suggestions for how to fix them.  Detailed information about addressing various higher-order concerns can be found in our Writing Guides.  You can also contact our Writing Fellows to request help with any writing issues or more information about any writing-related topic.
  • Get feedback on your paper from your teacher, a classmate or friend, a Writing Fellow, or all of the above.  For more information about how to revise your paper based on such feedback, visit this page.
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