How to Proofread an Essay for Spelling and Grammar

Video Lesson on How to Proofread an Essay for Spelling and Grammar

Proofreading is the last step in revising an essay - don't skip it! A single typo can sometimes ruin the hard work of an entire paper. This lesson will help you find the right proofreading strategy for you.

Proofread Essay for Spelling & Grammar

You've brainstormed, you've written and revised a smashing thesis, you've picked compelling examples and crafted exciting body paragraphs, and then delivered a smashing conclusion that's definitely going to convince your reader of your beauty, intelligence and wit. So you're done, right? Of course not! There's one more step to go, and that's to proofread your essay.

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is the final step in revising your essay, where you check for grammar and spelling mistakes, missing words, and typos that you might not have caught while making other edits. It's also really tough! Mark Twain once wrote 'You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.' In other words, you've written the piece, so your mind tends to fill in the blanks even when errors are staring you in the face.

Why Proofreading?

I'm not going to lie to you. Lots of students skip or shortchange the proofreading step when writing their papers. Writing a good essay is hard work, and after developing and reorganizing and polishing your paragraphs and examples, it's easy to get too tired of looking at your own piece to want to proofread it. Can't you just turn it in? Won't your teacher understand?

That's a perfectly understandable way to feel, but it's the wrong perspective. Proofreading is important not because of what it adds to your essay, but because of what it prevents. And what it prevents is catastrophe: nothing less than the annihilation of all of your hard work because of a misused comma, a run-on sentence or an incorrect possessive. Sounds melodramatic, doesn't it? But take this passage from one of the stories in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

'Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.'

The sentence is firm, conclusive, and elegantly phrased. Now look at the same sentence with some proofreading errors:

'Life is infinitaly stranger then anything which mind of man could invent.'

Notice that the meaning of the sentence hasn't changed at all, but one misspelling ('infinitely'), one grammar mistake ('then' instead of 'than') and one typo ('the' is missing from the sentence), and the sentence has completely lost its power.

Remember that an essay is an argument that you are building for your reader, ultimately trying to persuade him or her of your point of view. By skipping the proofreading step, you risk letting silly mistakes slip through. Taken on their own, they may not matter much, but in the context of your essay, an error like exchanging 'to' when you mean 'too' can ruin your credibility. Proofreading allows you to maintain that credibility.

Proofreading Strategies

Get up from your paper and do something else for awhile. Seriously, go read something, eat a meal, play a game - whatever you can do to get your paper out of your head for awhile. If you try to proofread immediately after you finish writing, it's much harder to see the mistakes you may have made. This won't work during a timed test, of course, in which case you should still use the strategies that follow without taking a break. But if you can stop looking at your essay for a bit, you should.

Find the Right Proofreading Strategy for You

It's important to find a proofreading strategy that works for you. Some people prefer to proofread with a paper copy of their essay, for instance, while others are comfortable editing on their computers. Everyone's different, so it makes sense to try some of these strategies until you find the one that's the right fit. Here are a few.

  • If working on a computer, use your word processor's spell checker and grammar checker before you proofread.Make sure to review each correction individually, however, as your computer doesn't always have perfect grammar or understand a certain spelling in an unfamiliar context.
  • Read your essay back to yourself. When you read your essay aloud, the little errors that you might normally glaze over suddenly pop out at you. If you're in a room that should be quiet (like a testing center), just read quietly under your breath so as not to disturb your classmates.
  • Read your essay backward. If reading aloud isn't your style, try reading your essay from the bottom up, starting with the last sentence of the last paragraph and working your way backward. This way, you take away the context of the sentences and have to look at each individually.
  • Figure out the types of errors you typically make, and proofread for one error at a time. For instance, if you tend mess up 'their,' 'they're' and 'there' a lot, look for this type of error in your paper first. Or if you have trouble with commas and semicolons, go through your paper and just check these punctuation marks. Make sure your tenses don't shift, that kind of stuff. Correcting for one error at a time makes it easier to not become overwhelmed and will make you a more efficient proofreader. Once you've covered the mistakes that usually trip you up, do a final general proofread for anything you might have missed.
  • Don't forget to proofread your changes. You may think you're finished with your proofreading, but if you've made any significant revisions - say you read your paper aloud and didn't like a particular section so you changed it - don't forget to proof these changes too. I'd be pretty embarrassed to count the number of times I've revised a piece of writing only to see some error crop up in a section I'd rewritten because I was too lazy to proofread it.
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