Proofreading: it’s the final hurdle on your race to the submission deadline, and a crucial step in creating a polished document. But how exactly do you proofread effectively and efficiently?
Whether you’re working on an essay, thesis, dissertation, research paper or article, take a deep breath. This is your one-stop “how to proofread” guide:
We’ve got 19 clever proofreading steps and strategies to take your skills to the next level and fine-tune your document for maximum marks. Because after all that hard work, don’t let careless mistakes drag your essay (and your grade!) down!
Proofreading and editing: what’s it all about?
Before we get down to those 19 strategies, what do we mean by “proofreading”?
The difference between editing and proofreading is actually pretty simple:
- Editing is a process that you begin after your first draft – it’s all about refining the quality, tone, word count, clarity and readability of your writing
- Proofreading is done to your final draft (once your content is ready, structured, signposted and feeling awesome!)
It’s all about checking that the elements of your essay or paper are consistent, presented correctly and free from errors. Think: spelling and grammar, punctuation, formatting, references and citations, figures and tables.
Essentially, you don’t want your examiner to be distracted from your winning argument by a sloppily presented document – and proofreading is the answer.
Here’s an example of the difference careful proofreading can make to your essay:
That all might sound daunting, but I promise it’s not! Especially if you work strategically and follow these 19 steps:
How to proofread: 19 killer strategies
Proofreading is a process, sure. But I don’t want you to get overwhelmed!
So I’ve grouped these top 19 proofreading strategies into 3 sets: preparation and mindset, checking every element, and making the most of your proofreading tools.
Part 1: Get into the groove with the right preparation and mindset
1. Leave yourself plenty of time
Hopefully you’re not reading this article the night before your deadline (and if you are – good luck!).
Because our first proofreading strategy is all about time.
Proofreading can be a tedious process of spotting and correcting small errors – definitely time-consuming! And the longer your essay, thesis or dissertation, the more time this process will need.
Plus, if you’re hoping for external help (whether friend or professional), you’ll need to leave them time to work too.
In my opinion, it’s best to give yourself a solid week for proofreading and corrections – if you can! That way, you’ll have time to …
2. Take a break before you start
Your brain and eyes need to be fresh if you’re going to proofread accurately.
You don’t want to be anticipating what you’ve written, rather than actually concentrating on the words on the page!
So, don’t jump straight from writing to proofreading – take a break!
If you can, take a few days away from your essay or thesis. If not, have a coffee and stroll around the block first. Get your mind clear and ready to focus.
Psst: Don’t forget to take plenty of short breaks whilst proofreading longer assignments too!
Ready? Perfect: you’ll be primed to dive into …
3. The proofreading mindset
It’s time to put your proofreading hat on!
Try and separate yourself from the “you” that wrote the essay. Try to pretend you’re marking an essay written by a friend you want to help get top marks!
Going to a different location can really help create this kind of psychological distance between “you” the author and “you” the proofreader.
If you can, move to a desk or armchair in another room, or take your essay to a library or quiet corner in your favourite coffee shop. Just make sure your environment is distraction-free – you’re going to need to concentrate!
If you really want to go to town on this, you could literally wear a different hat! It sounds silly, but when we look or behave differently, it can send powerful signals to our mind that it should be thinking differently too.
4. Print it out
This is a proofreading strategy I always do:
Many people (me included!) find it much easier to read closely when text is on a printed page rather than when it’s on a screen. So grab that stack of paper, a nice bright pen and settle into your chosen spot …
Psst: I know we all need to do our bit to keep printing to a minimum to help the planet, but when your grade is on the line, I think you can cut yourself some slack. Just make sure you recycle your printing when you’re done…
If that’s not your style, why not try reading your essay aloud to help you spot mistakes?
5. Slow down and tame your eyes
When we read, our eyes move in jumps called “saccades”.
Essentially, our eyes don’t focus on every single word in turn. Instead, they focus on a point only every few words, which means some words only ever appear in peripheral vision. If you read quickly, the majority of the words in your essay are only appearing in your peripheral vision.
And that means it’s easy to miss things! Your peripheral vision fills in details and assumes correctness (especially when you’re familiar with the argument).
So, to proofread effectively, you need to force your eyes to slow down and focus on each word in turn.
Try these methods for reading slowly and systematically:
- Use your finger or a pen to trace under each word as you read it
- Or have a ruler or piece of paper to hand to move down the page, revealing only one new row at a time
You might be surprised how many more errors you pick up!
6. Read backwards
Still struggling with slowing down? Here’s one more strategy for making sure you proofread carefully:
Read your essay backwards!
That might sound tricky, but it’s actually pretty clever and simple.
Often, our brains will trick us into reading a correct spelling based on the context of the rest of the sentence, and whatever word we’re “expecting” should appear next.
Solve the issue by reading each paragraph backwards, sentence by sentence. Start from the final word of the paragraph and move in order to the first. Those misspelt words will have nowhere to hide!
Psst: This is a great proofreading tip for hand-written essays where no spell-check is available (such as in an exam), particularly if you know you’re weak on spelling!
7. Know yourself
Our final proofreading strategy to get you prepared and in the groove is this:
Make sure you’re aware of the most common errors you make all the time when writing. Why not make a list to check off!
Maybe you always misspell “theorem”, get in a muddle about when to add commas or know you aren’t consistent about using en-dashes between dates (1914 –1919).
If you’re not sure about the correct way to do something, check the guidelines set out by your institution, ask your teacher or lecturer, or look at the style guide for your discipline (such as the Chicago Manual of Style).
Part 2: How to proofread every element in your essay, dissertation or thesis
Feeling daunted by how many things you need to check for accuracy? Don’t be. You can do this!
Think of it a little like breaking down a big study goal into milestones: all you need is this checklist, a plan of action and a little time.
Top tip: It’s often a good idea to take several passes through your document – especially if it’s a longer essay or you know you struggle with accuracy. That way you can deal with each element individually! Pass one: headings, pass two: references and citations … and so on!
8. The big stuff: overall structure
You’ve probably done lots of editing as you’ve improved your essay or thesis, so make sure to take the time and check everything is still in the right order and place! Introduction, Part 1, Analysis … etc!
It’s so easy for cut-and-pasted paragraphs or sentences to have actually just been copied – and now exist twice! Or for edited paragraphs to end abruptly mid-sentence …
Trust me, we’ve all done it!
Adding signposting to your essay is another crucial editing step that can easily get things out of order. Plus signposting often produces in-text references that are vital and need to be correct for things to make sense to your editor! (That’s when you say “see Section Two” or “as mentioned in the preceding three sections”).
Once you’ve made sure that everything still makes sense and flows in a logical progression it’s time to move onto the little details:
9. Spelling, grammar and punctuation
The most obvious check you need to make when proofreading your essay is for mistakes in your spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Don’t forget to check that you:
- Are using the correct capitalisation of words
- Have expanded all acronyms the first time you use them
- For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) can later be referred to as the BBC
I’m not going to list every possible type of mistake you should be checking for. But here a handful of common examples to get you started with your proofreading:
- Misspellings that are real (but very different) words, e.g. field and filed. Your spellchecker won’t spot these!
- Commonly confused words, homophones, and apostrophes:
- It’s and its
- You’re and your
- There, they’re and their
- Affect and effect
- Principle and principal
- Tense consistency within sentences (not switching between present and future)
- Verbs agreeing with their subjects
- Using commas and semicolons accurately
- Missing punctuation: does every sentence end with a full stop?
10. Formatting: from headers to italics
This next proofreading strategy is all about appearances.
A big part of how to proofread your essay, thesis or dissertation is getting the formatting right and consistent.
Psst: Chances are, if you’re writing a bigger assignment such as a thesis or dissertation, your institution will have provided you with a style guide that includes acceptable formatting for submission. Make it your ally!
The formatting includes lots of elements that contribute to the layout of your document:
- Headings and subheadings
- Are you capitalising them?
- What font and style should they have?
- Are they numbered (consistently)?
- Are you giving them indentation and/or justification?
- Are your paragraph breaks the same?
- Font sizes
- Create your own style guide page with body, figure, heading and subheading fonts laid out!
- Margins, page numbers and page breaks
- Are they consistent and suitable for printing and binding your thesis?
- Do your page numbers continue correctly after any blank pages?
- Are there any pages with only 1-2 lines of text? Avoid these!
- Are there rules in your discipline for how you use italics?
- Has it spread beyond the phrase you meant to italicise?
- Common formatting mistakes:
- Double spaces
- Spaces before punctuation .
- Mixing up m-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens
Make a list of the things you need to check for – especially if you spot a frequently recurring mistake!
11. References and citations
In my experience, referencing is one of those things that just makes people groan. It’s nit-picky, careful work. But worth doing right – you don’t want to plagiarism police at your door!
Proper referencing is a big part of academic writing, so make sure you’re following the correct method for your discipline. (Ask your teacher or supervisor for advice if you’re unsure!)
When checking your references, ensure that your citations match the references in your bibliography! Any quotations should also conform to formatting and referencing rules for your field.
And don’t forget to check the little details when proofreading, for example:
- Are your author initials spaced or unspaced? (e.g. C.S. Lewis vs C. S. Lewis)
- Which date format are you using? (e.g. 27th August 1854 vs August 27th 1854 vs 27/08/1854)
- If you have footnotes or endnotes, are your numbers all in order?
- Do you have any outdated in-text references to footnotes or endnotes?
Depending on your referencing format, it might be easier to do a separate proofreading pass through your essay to check for citation errors!
12. Figures and tables
Whether you’ve got charts, tables, figures, illustrations or graphs: don’t forget to check your captions and placement.
This is another key place where outdated in-text references might be hiding, particularly if you’ve been editing your document structure. Find where you say things like “see Figure 6”: are these numbers still correct?
Don’t let errors slip through and cost you marks!
13. Check for consistency
Our next proofreading strategy is an important one!
Sometimes, you need to make stylistic decisions in your writing, and which option you choose matters less than staying consistent throughout your essay.
Remember: if in doubt, refer to any guidelines your teacher or institution have given you, or the official style guide for your discipline (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style).
Check you’re not chopping and changing between different options on issues. Here are some examples you might catch when proofreading:
- When to use ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks
- Full stops after bullets. Or not
- Are you using the US English or British English spellings of words?
- Whether you prefer –ise or –ize endings
- Is there any Technical Vocabulary that might be capitalised inconsistently?
- Your policy on writing numbers as words or numerals
- e.g. you might spell out “one” to “nine”, and use numerals for 10 and above
- Or your figures might use roman numbers e.g. Figure IV
- If your headings and subheadings are numbered (e.g. 1.1, 1.2), check they’re consistent, and that order is correct against the table of contents!
14. Check twice after every tweak
And finally, our last tip in this section on how to proofread absolutely everything in your essay is …
I think the single biggest thing I’ve learned about how to proofread an essay is to be super, ultra, incredibly careful about errors creeping in after editing.
You know how it goes: you’re on your final proofread before submission, and you spot a clunky sentence that could be tidied up with a little rewrite. You make the change, but don’t check it properly, and leave a fresh mistake in your work.
By all means, make a small tweak here and there in the proofreading phase, but make sure you check the amended paragraph at least twice afterwards!
If you find you’re making a lot of major edits, pause the proofread phase entirely to give your essay a round of editing. Only return to proofreading for accuracy once you’ve done all your edits.
Part 3: Make use of available tools
The third and final set of “how to proofread” strategies is all about making use of the tools available to you. And trust me, when it comes to proofreading, there are plenty of services, websites and plugins and even Word functions you can use to make your life easier!
15. Get the most out of Word’s editing functions
If you’ve typed your essay or thesis in Word then you’ve got plenty of proofreading firepower at your fingertips!
And it’s not all about those handy grammar and spellcheckers either – although they are a great place to start:
- Run through all those green and red underlined words and phrases, and make all necessary changes.
- Remember: they’ll catch some (though not all) mistakes. Homophones and misspelt words that are still real words – definitely weak spots and up to you to catch!
- Not every detected “error” actually is a mistake: you’ll sometimes need to use your judgement
So how else can Word help you to proofread thoroughly?
- Setting your language correctly can be a big help to the spellchecker’s effectiveness – US and UK English have plenty of subtle differences!
- Use the “Navigation” bar (Ctrl+F) features to search for common mistakes or overused words (and find synonyms in the thesaurus!).
- The Navigation bar is also a handy place to count through numbered headings and make sure you don’t have Section 1.1 twice!
- Set up your text preferences (such as -ise vs-ize) and your font style preferences to quickly correct inconsistencies and format headings with ease
- Making your own style guide page can be a big help in seeing how it all looks and works together
- If you have a friend helping you to proofread – or if you’ve just got your proofreader hat on – the “Track Changes” and “Comments” features can be a great assistance when it comes to actually making all the tiny corrections!
16. Get proofreading with Grammarly
Another great online tool to assist you with proofreading your essays and dissertations – in fact, any piece of writing! – is Grammarly.
I’ve recently added Grammarly* to my writer’s arsenal and wish I’d done it years ago. It’s a proofreading strategy I definitely recommend.
It acts like a turbo-charged version of the standard Word grammar and spellchecker, helping me catch a much broader range of mistakes.
The ability to set your audience, level or formality and language (academic, email, casual etc) is a great feature that helps with any awkwardness of writing in a more formal academic style.
Honestly, it’s not perfect and will often flag perfectly correct words and phrases as errors. But I’d much rather that way round than it missed out on flagging potential errors to me.
Plus – it’s free to create an account! I’m using the pro version now as writing is such an important part of my life, but even Grammarly’s free version* is a big improvement when it comes to proofreading your essays and theses.
17. Avoid plagiarism like the plague
You don’t want to be caught copying others’ work.
Universities and Colleges often run essay submissions through tools like Turnitin which will put a big red flag against essays with too high a percentage of text which matches source material online.
Even if you didn’t intend to “cheat”, sometimes a careless late-night library moment can allow a passage you copied into your research notes to somehow end up in your finished essay.
Avoid this problem by having a rule that you’ll never copy text directly from articles or books, unless it’s a clearly marked direct quote.
For extra peace of mind, consider running important submissions through a plagiarism checker.
18. Find a proofreading buddy
Of course, your friends and family aren’t exactly proofreading “tools” – but this is an important strategy for when you’re stuck!
But when you’re stuck in writing and editing mode and can’t get enough space between you and your essay to put your neutral proofreading hat on …
Then finding a proofreading buddy can be a great help – especially if you can swap assignments and offer them a little assistance too!
Having an external eye brings some much-needed objectivity to the proofreading table – your buddy is far more likely to spot mistakes you miss because your brain is seeing what it expects to in your familiar argument (see #5!).
19. Seeking professional help
Of course, there’s also the option of finding a professional proofreader. Whether you’re aiming for top marks or getting accepted for publication, there’s often lots on the line when it comes to polished submissions!
First up, it’s important to check what your institution allows, and whether you need permission. Don’t forget – you don’t want to be accused to collusion or cheating!
Sometimes hiring a professional isn’t permitted – or perhaps it’s simply not in your budget. If it is however – that can be great news. Remember: you’ll need to budget in plenty of time for them to work – its slow work!
Getting professional help can also be a smart move if you struggle with reading or writing in English.
Learning differences such as dyslexia or dysgraphia can make life difficult when it comes to proofreading your essays and assignments. If English is not your first language, or you struggle with writing in academic English, you might be facing similar challenges.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options:
- Your university or college language centre can be a great help – offering courses, advice and even lists of peers to approach as proofreaders.
- There are also many professional proofreading services that cater to academic writing – from local services in your university town, to internationally renowned companies.
Good luck with your submission!
That’s it – 19 comprehensive and foolproof proofreading strategies for flawless writing!
You’ve worked hard, and now you know how to proofread your essay, thesis, dissertation or research paper like a pro! So once it’s ready, don’t put it off, get it handed in, get it off your mind, and relax.
Now your work is ready for the next step, be sure to check out my guide to printing and binding your thesis for submission!
And if you’re not sure if your essay is ready for proofreading quite yet, why not polish your content and grab some extra marks with more of our helpful writing skills guides:
- how to create effective paragraphs
- about the ideal length(s) for your paragraphs
- how to transition between the stages of your argument
- the 70+ top connective words and phrases to improve your writing
- how to signpost your essay for top marks
Until the next one… 😉
*Please note: Grammarly is one of very few products I’m sufficiently enthusiastic about to recommend to my readers, and I may earn a small commission if you sign up to Grammarly services through the above links.