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How to proofread like a pro

By Susan Prior 09 Jun 2019
Person proofreading their work

Have you ever received an assignment back with comments like ‘sentence structure’ or ‘incorrect grammar’ in the feedback? Before you get disappointed or frustrated, let me reassure you that these types of mistakes can be avoided (or at least minimised) by knowing what to look for when you proofread your assignment. This blog will provide you with tips and strategies to self-edit your assignment with confidence and make sure you’re securing as many marks as possible!

Why proofread?

Your university lecturers and tutors expect your assignments to be of a certain standard. Taking the time to ensure your assignments are easy to read and error-free not only makes it easier for your marker to understand your ideas, but improves your chances of getting a good grade. In a survey on lecturers’ perceptions of students’ literacy, more than a third of responding lecturers said they deducted marks for writing errors.

When editing your own work, it’s important to think logically and clearly about your words and to be methodical as you go through your assignment so that you don’t miss any errors. To help you do this, it is recommended that you edit your assignment in stages rather than leaving it to the last minute and doing one final read through.

'I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.' - Shannon Hale.

Stage 1: structural edit

During this phase, go through your assignment and eliminate any errors in logic and reasoning. For example, does your introduction outline a thesis and does the body of your assignment discuss or answer this thesis? Have you presented your points logically or do you need to readjust?

Stage 2: grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure

This is when you start getting into the nitty gritty of your proofing. There are a number of elements to check during this phase of editing that require you to have a basic understanding of grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. If you’re not familiar with these, don’t worry. I’ve listed some of the more common problems below:

  • Is your sentence structure complete? For academic writing, it’s important that every sentence you write has a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought.
  • Do the subject and verb in your sentences agree in number? That is, singular subjects require a singular verb, and plural subjects require plural verbs.
  • Can you identify any dangling modifiers? When a modifier (a word or a phrase) has no target word in the sentence to describe, it is dangling. For example, ‘Hungry, the cake was all gobbled up’ should be changed to ‘Hungry, Simon gobbled up the cake’ to make it clear who/what gobbled up the cake. \
  • Have you set your language to Australian English in Word’s Spellcheck function?
  • Have you checked for homonyms (e.g. pair, pear, pare? These don’t get picked up by Spellcheck).
  • Is your language precise? Can you eliminate jargon, clichés, discriminatory language, redundancy or repetition?
  • Are you using active voice?

If you have any grammatical challenges, check out

Stage 3: ‘pre-flight’ check

One of the key things when self-editing is to give yourself time to let your work sit, so that by the time you come to proofread your final draft you have fresh eyes. Another way to look at your assignment from a new perspective is to read it aloud, read each individual word backwards from the end, or read a printed version.

When it comes to this third and final stage of editing your assignment, it can help to develop your own ‘pre-flight’ check, which will help you make sure each element is complete and error-free before it is submitted. Here are some of the things you should check during this final stage, to get you started:

  • title page
  • final word count; generally, 10 per cent over or under the specified word limit is acceptable, but be sure to check your course assessment specifications
  • footers and headers
  • references and reference list (make sure these are how they’re supposed to be as per your recommended style guide)
  • appendices
  • cover sheet (if required)
  • formatting (as specified in assessment details or criteria sheet).

Understanding the basics of grammar and having the patience to assess your work methodically and from different perspectives can help you to avoid lost marks due to simple errors. By taking the time to work through these three stages for each assessment piece, you’ll not only be improving your work, but will be honing your skills in proofreading. The ability to self-check your work is a skill valued in almost all careers.

If you’d like to learn more about any of the topics covered in this blog, you can access the recording of my webinar Proof you need to proof your work online.

To find out more about how USQ can support you to develop academic writing and editing skills, visit the Library on-campus or online.

Susan Prior