The ultimate proofreading checklist
Back in days of old a “proof” was a literal paper document; a preliminary version before going to print. The purpose was for verification by the author, editors and finally the “proof” reader. These proofs had giant margins where notes would be scribbled. So, the proof was the last chance to get things right before you reeled off a few thousand copies at the press. Proofreading was, in consequence, a very important task indeed – saving many a barrel of wasted ink.
Today, proofreading is no less important, even if the majority of documents exist in zeroes and ones. Proofreading is the final phase before your work is submitted. It is the finish line. Which does not mean it’s time to slow down. Quite the contrary. Too many students see proofreading as a peripheral activity. Some skip it altogether. And it shows. Every now and then even published “scholarly” texts fall prey to typos and other errata. Bluntly put, this is sloppy. It undermines the rest of the work. On encountering something as easily amended as a typo, the reader is bound to suspect slapdashery elsewhere; and, indeed, they are likely to find it.
Proofreading is an integral part of the composition; it is not some additional side-concern. All good writers proofread. It works as quality control. Think about it like this: proofreading is the final opportunity to guarantee that your work truly depicts your abilities. Anyone gunning for top marks thus needs to make close acquaintance with the practice. It should be an ingrained habit.
There are many useful ways to approach proofreading. For your convenience, here is our checklist to help you get the best results.
Proofreading is not just scanning for typos. You have to make sure the work is stylistically on-point. This means that it flows nicely, is well balanced, exhibits verbal skill, and that it looks good. Your work is a reflection of your thinking. For this reason, it helps if it’s presentable.
Tone and language
Decorum is the issue, here. You don’t put your feet on the dinner table (hopefully). Likewise, certain ways of speaking are not welcome in academic discourse. For instance, most formal writing forswears contractions (“it’s”, “won’t”, “can’t”); so, “isn’t” is not permitted. These staples of everyday speech would be considered too informal for scholarly work. There would be a mismatch between register (the way you speak) and context (where you are speaking).
A quick glance at any academic essay or dissertation provides a clear example of appropriate language. It’s specific, technical, objective and impersonal. It’s not “street”. Slang is definitely out. The tone should be serious. This doesn’t mean dull (though, some texts might seem to defy this proviso). Only that frivolity should be avoided. You are not trying to entertain but to persuade. Of course, you might do so in a witty and urbane manner. But wit and urbanity should always be secondary to logic and clarity. In proofreading, therefore, you have to ensure that every part of the composition is properly styled and situated for critical prose. It should be presentable.
Coherency is a fancy word for flow. Your essay should flow at every level: from sentence to sentence; idea to idea; paragraph to paragraph. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. Say you started a passage by expanding upon Marxian dialectics but ended by discussing your favourite type of ice cream. In most cases, this would imply a breakdown in coherency. This example is exaggerated, but highlights the point.
The constituent parts of an essay must bind together in a logical fashion, like dove-tail joints. The end of one sentence should lead comfortably into the next. Think of this as guiding the reader by the hand through the subject matter. When proofreading, you are on the lookout for missteps, dead-ends and digressions. This can be tricky. We tend to perceive our own ideas as crystal clear, but that doesn’t guarantee that others will. Best to let someone else have a read of your work. If they think it flows well, its coherency is probably sound.
Typos, spelling, grammar and punctuation
Really, this is one of the easiest ways of guarding against lost marks. The computer spell-checker will do most of the work for you – in a matter of minutes. Accordingly, typographical errors are not on. Markers hold them in low regard. Such errors denote clumsiness. Also, they insert troublesome ambiguity into a text. Your ideas may be great. Mangled prose will still derail them.
Consider the following example. We read that: “Nazi Germany sponsored various authoritarian stats”. We may well assume that the author intends to say “states”. But we cannot know. Perhaps Nazi coffers were indeed tapped to finance partisan quantitative research. Likewise, punctuation mishaps can utterly up-end the logic of a phrase. As in the following: “Let’s eat mum!” In this instance, a comma would dissolve much matricidal panic.
The point is, spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes are tiny issues with big consequences; like putting tiny landmines under the logic of your essay. So, in a manner of speaking, in proofreading you have to mine sweep. Step carefully.
Good writing is about clarity. Usually, clarity comes with simplicity. Great ideas don’t need to be expressed in complex or convoluted ways. Beware of overly wordy, “run-on” sentences. Short sentences are generally easier to understand. Break things down into digestible portions. Avoid repetition. Look out for redundancies (saying the same thing twice). For instance, it is redundant to assert that something is “clearly obvious” because that which is obvious is necessarily clear. The prose is lucid when it conveys meaning efficiently. The reader should never be wondering what the point is. As George Orwell observed, “good prose is like a window pane”. It is transparent. So, in proofreading, make sure there are no murky patches on the glass. Remove anything that impedes clarity.
In academic writing, start as you mean to go on. The consistency of tone means balance. The authorial voice should remain steady, and shouldn’t swing too much one way or another. It shouldn’t be too apologetic nor too polemical (putting forward points aggressively). In practice, one point should not be given more attention than another point of equal importance. Nor should it be treated in a different intellectual manner. A sober, analytical temper is in order, whereupon every paragraph has a similar feel tonally. The reader wants the impression of an impartial reflective author, not a capricious scribe frothing one minute and fawning the next. In consequence, delivery should be evenly paced. Avoid rapid shifts in tempo; these will jar. Best practice is to read your essay aloud. Often, tonal inconsistencies which are not obvious on paper will be glaring in recital.
Clarification of points throughout
Essays frequently deal in large quantities of information, making numerous points of argument and analysis. For this reason, it’s good practice to clarify points throughout. Drawing attention to vital aspects of the argument provides the reader with intellectual touchstones. Ways to navigate the text. If you’re not making such clarifications, there is a danger that your central argument will be muffled. You need to direct and curate the interpretation of your own text. Consider this an insurance policy against your ideas being taken the wrong way.
Grammar and its usage
Faulty parallelism and homophones
Some errors are more difficult to spot than others; errors that may not raise eyebrows in spoken conversation. Faulty parallelism falls into this slippery category. Thus the proofreader needs extra vigilance in detecting it. Faulty parallelism is where comparable meaning clashes with incompatible grammatical form.
What does that mean? Good question. Here’s an example: “Writing guides help me with composing, proofreading, and to write lucidly”. This sounds right. But, alas, it’s wrong. This is because there is a grammatical clash. The terms “composing” and “proofreading” are gerunds (the “-ing” form) in the progressive tense. However, “to write” is the infinitive tense. The phrase grammatically fits with gerunds but not with an infinitive form. This becomes obvious when we omit the gerunds: “Writing guides help me with to write lucidly”. Now the error is obvious. The correct version of that sentence would be: “Writing guides help me with composing, proofreading and writing lucidly”. Breaking your longer sentences down (just as we have done above) will help you spot faulty parallelism.
Homophones are another precarious matter. They may be contextually correct while still being wrong. Confusing, for sure. An author could, for example, assert that a certain king “married his ant”. No spell-checker would contest the fact. But we may suppose an error is in play. Some mistakes are only detectable to human eyes. Resultantly, careful scrutiny of homophones is vital.
Varied use of vocabulary
The English language has a phenomenally large amount of words. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of all languages, English boasts the most extensive vocabulary. So, use it. Limited word-use indicates a lack of imagination. Also, it will read as soporific – that is, boring. If, when proofreading, you notice the same word popping up all the time – if the argument you’re arguing argues in a repetitive way – this is a signal that a revamp is required. A good thesaurus will be a powerful ally, here.
Consistent tense used throughout
The use of tense will depend upon the exact requirements of the subject. Nonetheless, it will be consistent. When proofreading, look out for sudden switches. One moment we are in the present, discussing how tense works. The next moment there’s a shift: we have (in the past) used different tenses. This isn’t grammatically wrong, but it goes against academic convention. Jumping between tenses comes off as disjointed. Certain scientific disciplines work a little differently. Authors will routinely refer back to an experiment done, for example, while writing in the present tense on what the findings suggest. For certainty on the convention, here, check with your subject tutor.
Word choice and diction
Introduce all acronyms
The proper form is to put all acronyms in parentheses (brackets) directly after the full term. Like this: “The United Nations (UN) is a vast intergovernmental organisation”. For every acronym, only introduce it this way once and thereafter use the shortened version (simply “UN” or whatever it might be). This saves time and valuable word count, which is the whole point of an acronym. Scan your essay carefully for this one.
Country-specific spelling and jargon
The English language isn’t, technically speaking, one language. Due to global variation, linguistics scholars speak of distinct Englishes. Be sure that your English is the right one for the job. This is important. As an example, if you submit in American English where British is expected, your work is potentially littered with, well, spelling mistakes. US English tends to favour “Z” over “S” in many instances. For example, “organization” and “realize” (US English) versus “organisation” and “realise” (British English). In fact, there are thousands of differences between these two Englishes. Further, Americans have completely different terms for certain things. So, what we Brits call a “tap” they deem a “faucet”; our “pavement” is their “sidewalk”; the “underground” for us is the “subway” for them. A multitude of other examples are available. What’s more, spell-checkers don’t necessarily pick up on these, which means you have to.
Eliminate any unnecessary adjectives and adverbs
Some believe that a sign of “bad writing” is heavy use of adjectives and adverbs. Mark Twain was of this school. “They weaken when they are close together,” he contended, but “give strength when they are wide apart”. Often-times, adjectives add little (or nothing) of value while wasting words. To say that “the bold and circumspect politician manfully yielded the floor” really only tells us “the politician finished talking”. The other words are just fluff. Terse prose trumps pretty phrasing. Adjectives and adverbs, improperly used, become a crutch. A substitute for verbal accuracy. When proofreading, be ruthless. Laser in on the fluff. Excise. This is what verbal economy is all about. Your work will be better for it.
Mechanics and formatting
Formatting, presentation, font and size changes
Sloppy presentation and formatting harm otherwise good work. They signal slipshod authorship. Fortunately, they are easily remedied. Font styles and sizes need to be consistent. The presentation should be tidy. A handy technique is to stand up, literally, and take a few steps back. How does your work look at a distance – graphologically? It should have a certain symmetry and be pleasing to the eye; or at least not jarring.
Essays are reasonable easy to format. Dissertations, theses and other long-form works are more complicated. In such cases, using a template might be prudent. Go over your work with a careful eye. Use the numerical “ruler lines” at the top and sides of your word processor. Make sure everything measures up.
Superscripts and footnotes/endnotes
Footnotes/endnotes are the scholarly pillars of your work. If they do not match up to the correct references, the text loses its foundations. It collapses. This will not do. You need to be extra careful here. A misplaced footnote looks precisely the same as correctly situated one. So check each note. Read the essay as if for the first time. Scrutinise the citations as you imagine a teacher would. Do they pass muster? Are some notes missing or incorrectly formatted? Footnotes/endnotes usually require a different format to the bibliography references.
Tables, graphs, illustrations/logical images
Get out the fine-tooth comb for this one. When presenting graphical content (tables and charts), there isn’t room for ambiguity. You are, after all, dealing with numbers. The numbers are either correct or they aren’t. This is especially important if the presented figures represent primary data. The data are the work’s lifeblood. One wrongly placed digit could skew your findings completely. The same rule applies to how the graphics are identified. So, make sure that “Appendix A” (in the text) takes you to the right place in the “Appendices” – or wherever the material is.
You need to be equally diligent with other forms of supporting material like illustrations and images. Ensure that all labelling is accurate and clear. Moreover, scrutinise the relevance of added visuals. These are supposed to add to the coherency of the overall text. Anything not strictly to the point is out. Finally, when using visual content, put a little extra care and attention into the presentation; this will give the work a professional, “complete” feel.
References and citations
A surprisingly large number of students miss the mark when referencing. True, it can be confusing. Each style has its own peculiarities. Different tutors want different styles. The same style can have different iterations. So on it goes. So much to learn.
Luckily there are numerous readily available referencing style manuals to steer you through. Your university almost certainly has an in-house guide, and you must follow this to a “T”. It may seem unjust, but you will be penalised for using the wrong referencing system – even if you use it flawlessly.
Which brings us to the next issue: precision. Formally, your references and citations demand as much attention as spelling and grammar. They are not an after-thought. Academia is structured around codified referencing systems for good reason. As a tip, it may be useful to pin examples of each style (that you regularly use) on your desk. If your essay contains links to websites, make double sure they work. Test the interactivity of your work. The user experience is always a top priority.
Even with all the written guidance in the world, for many students, proofreading is still a challenging and worrisome task. It’s a skill that has taken every one of our academics many years to hone and perfect.