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The Process of Writing: Proofing

First of all, what is the difference between revision and proofreading?  Generally, proofreading is a systematic effort to spot and correct specific grammatical errors like runons, fragments, verb tense errors, and so forth.  The aims of revision are broader, looking at focus, organization, the need for expansion, etc.; you may catch some grammatical errors while revising, but you should not consider that a true proofreading of your document.

While it is quite possible to proof all through the writing process, that often isn't the best idea for a relatively inexperienced writer. For several reasons, it's best for a student to save the proofing stage until last. Mainly, proofing calls for a very different type of reading than when you are reading a paragraph with your mind on how all the sentences fit together into the overall point the paragraph is trying to make. Proofing must be done one sentence at a time, while reading with revision in mind usually calls on you to read for overall meaning. The two tend to get in each other's way. So one of two things tends to happen, each of them bad: Either you will proof fairly well but lose your focus on your overall purpose, or else you will think you are proofing but actually just skim your sentences. This second result is the most common one: Students think they are proofing a piece of writing, but actually have not done so in any effective, systematic manner.

In the section on Errorlogs, many details of effective proofreading are covered. Reproduced below is the heart of that section, a list of strategies which can help you systematize your proofreading.

Proofreading Techniques

Good proofreading techniques are simple to outline, as you will see below--but hard to practice. That's because most students are simply not used to applying the level of focused attention that good, meticulous proofreading calls for. What tends to happen is that students merely skim over a document and feel that they have "proofed" it, when in fact they've done nothing remotely resembling proofreading.

So use these techniques, but remember that if you use them halfheartedly, they won't help.

  • READ YOUR ESSAY ALOUD, NOT SILENTLY. The act of actually speaking each word and sentence will often cause you to stumble when you encounter missing or garbled words, whereas silent reading will allow you to "read" what you intended to write, not what you actually wrote.
  • WHILE READING ALOUD, START WITH THE LAST SENTENCE IN THE ESSAY AND GO BACKWARDS TO THE BEGINNING. This strategy breaks the logical connections between sentences. These logical connections are what make you tend to skim instead of actually proofing. As an example of how this works, try--right now--to say the alphabet backwards. Note how you are forced to stop and think hard about each letter, whereas anybody can say it frontwards, even a kindergartner, without thinking much about it.

    The same principle holds in proofing. By going from last sentence to first sentence, you are forcing yourself to deal with ONE SENTENCE AT A TIME, which is exactly what you must learn to do. (Of course, you don't read the sentence itself backwards; you read each sentence normally, but just start with the last sentence first, then the next-to-last, and so forth.)

  • While practicing steps I and 2, at the same time you should, at first at least, PROOF FOR ONLY ONE ERROR AT A TIME. Less experienced writers simply cannot look for a whole list of errors at once. So the thing to do is track your errors to DISCOVER YOUR MOST COMMON ERRORS and proof for these first, one at a time. For instance, if it becomes obvious you have a frequent problem with runon sentences, then you need to read your sentences aloud, one at a time from back to front, checking each sentence as to whether it's a runon. Of course, these steps assume that you know what a runon is and how to spot one and fix one. If you don't, you'll need to read about it in your grammar handbook, and quite possibly consult with me personally about the problem.

    Once you have proofed your essay systematically for this particular error, then you should go back through each sentence for your next most common error, for instance, subject/verb agreement <errors; then do it again for the third, and so forth.

Clearly, this is a very time-consuming way to proofread. But if you have a history of losing battles with formal English grammar, I'm afraid there is simply no shortcut. And the good news is that it does get easier. Gradually you learn to catch more than one error at a proofing, and even more gradually you learn to compose with fewer errors to begin with.

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Overview ~ Brainstorming ~ Outlining ~ Drafting ~ Revising ~ Proofing

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