Proofreading, to many students, is a dirty word. Visions of poring over endless lines of text dance in their heads, trapping them until the composition is “good enough”—and even then, mistakes may have slipped through, causing them to wonder in frustration why they even bother proofreading if mistakes persist anyway.
Proofreading, however, is a vital tool for the writer regardless of experience or age.
A fact of writing is that every writer proofreads—and if they don’t, their writing reflects the lack of attention to detail with misspellings, misplaced commas, and errant apostrophes wiggling into the composition, calling to the reader, “Look at us! We don’t belong, and now we’ll distract you from what’s actually important!”
This distraction is the result of a lack of proofreading.
The most common problem I encounter when grading compositions submitted by students is not structural, such as a misplaced body sentence, or a major grammatical error, such as fragments or comma splices. It’s simply many little errors that, when grouped together, distract me from the main points of the composition. They draw my attention to the fact that the writer simply did not proofread—or if they did, could have benefited from more thorough proofreading.
If you painted a picture, you wouldn’t leave a blank spot in the top right corner. If you learned a sonata for the piano, you wouldn’t skip the last five measures. Writing a composition is similar—until you proofread your work, polish your writing, and make it the very best it can be, you are not finished. You owe your best work not only to your reader but also to yourself after all the effort you’ve put into your composition.
Until you proofread your work, polish your writing, and make it the very best it can be, you are not finished.
What, then, are some of the most effective and painless ways to proofread a composition?
Here are three ways to effectively proofread a composition:
1. Take it in bite-sized pieces.
2. Make a checklist of common errors.
3. Don’t rely on spellcheck to catch everything.
Take it in bite-sized pieces.
The principle that Mr. Stephens applies to teaching composition applies to proofreading as well. Trying to catch every single mistake via one read-through of your composition is not only frustrating but also unrealistic. Focus on looking for one type of mistake at a time. The first time may be commas; the second time may be contractions. Proofreading your composition multiple times will take more time but will also provide you with a cleaner copy.
Make a checklist of errors you know you tend to make.
Pronoun/antecedent agreement? Write it down. Lack of transition words? Write it down. Comma splices? Write it down. Providing yourself with a checklist like this will prevent post-submission moments of panic regarding your forgetfulness to check X problem or Y error. Plus, the more you train yourself to look for your common mistakes, the more you’ll start to recognize them and fix them before you even enter the proofreading stage.
Don’t rely on spellcheck to proofread everything for you.
Microsoft Word’s red and green squiggles certainly inform us of some mistakes but will not catch all mistakes, especially those that deal with the finer and more specific tenets of grammar and MLA style, such as what to do with numbers and when to use an Oxford comma. Spellcheck is a useful tool, but don’t replace your own mind with it. Artificial intelligence has yet to match a real brain, at least in areas of composition.
The more you do it, the more you’ll improve.
As you follow the above tips and learn your own idiosyncrasies better, you’ll gain a better idea of what to look for and how to avoid mistakes before you even begin proofreading. Proofreading requires practice, but this practice will produce prowess.
Essentials in Writing