The power of proofreading

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1276682_54712110During my time working with transition students at Monash University I graded 100s of essays, reports and argumentative papers written by students of varying skill levels. I noticed a common trend amongst most of the papers that received a Pass (P) or Credit (C) grade.

A lack of editing.

A short while after being a tutor at university one begins to notice the subtle differences between an essay that has been written one night before the assignment due date, and a paper that has been carefully planned, researched and written over the course of a few weeks.

The difference lies in the depth of proofreading students have undertaken prior to submitting their work.

In my time as a tutor I have read some pretty shocking papers, where the first word in a student’s essay has a spelling mistake, or where student’s Microsoft Office formatting begins to blur in and out of Arial font to Times font and so forth, indicating a stuck-together string of sentences rather than a carefully thought-out and well-written course of ideas.

This is where the real power of editing comes in.

Editing your work is not about just proofreading for sentence structure, spelling and grammar. It’s about making sure that your ideas flow concisely, that your argument is clear and succinct, and that your essay’s flow of logic is coherent.

Tips for Better Proofreading

1228816_66729135Proofreading your work really is the key to becoming a better writer. Why is that important? Well, if you are undertaking an Arts degree, or even an Education or Business degree, writing well is a ‘sink or swim’ sort of scenario at tertiary-level. At postgraduate level, writing well is a *must*. But, let’s perhaps look at the more practical applications. I, personally, have found it rewarding to learn how to communicate more clearly in written text. Expressing yourself fully, and sharing what is truly on your mind and in your heart, is a wonderful thing.

The crux of it:

The number one issue that I have noticed which prevents students from proofreading their work well is that students re-read their papers from the same perspective at which they first wrote them. If you want to proofread your work effectively, you must first learn how to read with a critical mind — not at the same level at which you first wrote your work.

Idea 1

After writing your first draft, imagine that you are a university professor reading over a student’s work. Of course, it is your own work you are reading over, but just go with it and pretend that you are an experienced English lecturer who is critiquing your written piece.

What sort of things do you notice with this new critical perspective?

You write as well as you read!

As a high school student my marks in English were not fantastic, far from it. I was receiving 60s and 70s in Grade 11 and the rare 80-90+ in Grade 12. At undergraduate level I managed to improve my grades for written papers to a general Distinction-level. By postgraduate-level, I had received HDs for (almost) all written works submitted, including a 15,000 word research dissertation.

What changed throughout the education that I undertook?

I noticed that I began reading more complex books.

When we read magazines or general literature, for example, we tend to adopt a similar vocabulary and level of expression in our own writing.

Good writers read good books. In other words, choose an author who you are really fond of, whose work you feel truly expresses the full spectrum of the subject matter in its entirety, and read the work comprehensively. Then, go out and find similar books. I guarantee that the more works you read in genres that greatly spark your interest, the better your own writing will become!

I recall reading a particular Grade 12 text that inspired me, and I remember asking my English tutor “I wish I could write that well, could you teach me how?”

“Well, he is a famous author, you cannot expect to reach a standard such as this” was her response.


All that’s required is a belief in yourself, and you can unleash your inner potential for writing!

Idea 2

Pick you favourite author, or someone whose writing you admire or respect, and pretend that you are reading your own work through that person’s eyes.

What sort of things do you notice when proofreading?

Does this give you a new perspective?


Many students believe proofreading is a waste of time, looking at their work just once or twice prior to submitting it.

This is far from the truth.

I have gone back and proofread some works 20-30+ times prior to publishing them in print. For an academic essay I would recommend at least 5-7 thorough proofreads prior to submitting your work to your teachers or lecturers. Higher grades are assigned where tutors can see that a student has put in real research and real effort into making their work the best it can be. Tip: As a tutor/lecturer, we are not going to Fail a student who has put in real effort and work into their assignments, we would feel bad for doing so if we did (and trust me, we can tell!).

The best piece of advice I can offer? Read with a critical mind, do not re-read your work passively. That’s the worst thing you can do.

Scrutinise and critique your own work to the utmost extent. Set your hopes on expecting to get a B-grade level for your work. Not too high to let your critical guard down, but not too low to put yourself down! Many students over-estimate how simple it is to get 90%+ for a paper, especially at tertiary level. You might set your hopes to get a high grade, but set your expectations at a realistic level.

More Ideas

Final hints for proofreading with a critical mind:

  1. Critique how each paragraph links together with other paragraphs. Does each paragraph have a distinct, powerful and well-justified purpose in the grand scheme of your work? If not, cut it.
  2. Does each paragraph flow logically back to your main argument or thesis statement? If not, think of how to link it back.
  3. Is your argument sound? What sort of evidence or logic have you put forth in support of your assertions? How could you make your main points even more compelling?
  4. Does the paper carry a voice of conviction and confidence throughout? Are you confident in your own position on the topic? If not, why not? You should be! (You have every reason to be)
  5. Have you said what you want to say in as few words as possible? Cut out mumbo-jumbo terminology, waffle, long-winded explanations etc. Be clear. Concise. Accurate.

Have fun writing!