William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

Here’s how to proofread an essay, with 12 clever strategies to take your proofreading skills to the next level. Because after all that hard work, don’t let careless mistakes drag your essay (and your grade!) down!

1.     Print it out

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.

I know we all need to do our bit to keep printing to a minimum to help the planet, but when your grade’s on the line, I think you can cut yourself some slack. Just make sure you recycle your printing when you’re done…

2.     Get into the mindset

Put your proofreading hat on: try and separate yourself from the “you” that wrote the essay, take up your red pen, and reading your work with fresh eyes. Try to pretend you’re marking the essay, not its author.

Going to a different location can really help create this kind of psychological distance between the “you” that authored the essay and the more “you” that is checking the essay. Move to a desk in another room if you can, or for a long essay, take it to new location altogether. Just make sure your environment is quiet and 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.

3.     Take a break before proofreading

Your brain and eyes need to be fresh if you’re going to proofread accurately.

Don’t jump straight from writing to proofreading – take a break, have a coffee, stroll around the block first. Get your mind clear and ready to focus.

Then once you’re ready, dive in.

4.     Tame your eyes

When you’re reading, your eyes move in jumps called “saccades”. As you read this, your eyes don’t focus on every single word in turn, they focus on a point only every few words, which means some words only ever appear in peripheral vision. If you’re reading quickly, you might only be focusing on a point or two per line, meaning the majority of the words are only appearing in your peripheral vision.

Peripheral vision isn’t good enough when you’re proofreading text for accuracy: it’s easy to miss things as your peripheral vision fills in details and assumes correctness.

You need to force your eyes to slow down and focus on each word in turn. 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 once you use one of these forcing mechanisms to get your eyes to read slowly and systematically.

5.     Know yourself

Know yourself, and the most common errors you make. I’m not going to list every possible type of mistake you should be checking for, but here a handful of common ones to get you started:

  • It’s and its
  • You’re and your
  • There, they’re and their
  • Affect and effect
  • Principle and principal
  • Using commas and semicolons accurately
  • Correct capitalisation of words
  • Tenses consistency within sentences (not switching between present and future)
  • Verbs agreeing with their subjects

If it’s a short text and / or you have particular problems with accuracy, you could consider doing your checking in stages: first time through checking for correct word use and spellings, second time for a particular punctuation issue, etc.

6.     Read backwards

A good 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, is to read the essay backwards. 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 at that point.

Solve the issue by reading each paragraph backwards, starting from the final word of the paragraph and moving in order to the first. The misspelt words will have nowhere to hide!

7.     Check for consistency

Sometimes, you have decisions to make in your writing, where which option you choose matters less than staying consistent throughout your essay. Check you’re not chopping and changing between different options on issues such as:

  • When to use ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks.
  • Full stops after bullets. Or not
  • Are you utilizing the US English or British English spellings of words?
  • Have you defined Any Technical Acronyms (ATAs) exactly once before using the ATA throughout your document?
  • Capitalisation of Technical Vocabulary that might or might not be capitalised.
  • Policy on spelling writing numbers as words or numerals, e.g. you might spell out “one” to “nine”, and use numerals for 10 and above.

8.     Check twice after every tweak

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 if you must, but make sure you check the amended paragraph at least twice.

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.

9.     Don’t just check the body text

Errors often hide in places like:

  • Footnotes / endnotes
  • Bibliography / reference sections
  • Captions, chart and figure labels

Even your titles!

Don’t let errors slip through in any of these places – make a point of checking them separately.

10. Check the numbers

Watch out for outdated in-text references – that’s where you say things like “see Figure 6” or “see Section 2” – particularly if you’ve been editing the document structure and the Figure / Section numbers may have been updated.

Similarly, if you ever refer to the total number of sections or parts of an essay, make sure the number you quote is actually the final number you ended up with, after your last and final round of edits.

11. Make use of available tools

If you’ve typed your essay, spelling and grammar checks are a handy tool to catch some (though not all) mistakes. Run through all those green / red underlined words and phrases, and make all necessary changes. Not every detected “error” actually is a mistake: you’ll sometimes need to use your judgement.

I’ve recently added to my writer’s arsenal and wish I’d done it years ago. It acts like a turbo-charged version standard “spell check”, helping me catch a much broader range of mistakes. 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.

I’m on the pro version now as writing is such an important part of my life, but even Grammarly’s * is a big improvement on the default spelling and grammar checks.

(* 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.)

12. 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 or phrase of text 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.

Good luck with your submission!

You’ve worked hard, and now you know how to proofread your essay like a pro: once it’s ready, don’t put it off, get it handed in, get it off your mind, and relax.

Until the next one… 😉

William Wadsworth