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How to Proofread

Proofreading appears far from foolproof. Even if we can proofread other people’s writing just fine, we tend to miss the simplest mistakes when proofreading our own work.

Well, here is a tried and true, foolproof proofreading1 technique:

  1. Proofread your paper backward. Not like this: “.drawkcab repap ruoy daerfoorP” (silly!)—but sentence by sentence, from the end of the conclusion back to the beginning of the introduction. Proofread the last sentence, then the penultimate (second-to-last) sentence, then the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sentence, and so on.
  2. Read each sentence twice, both times out loud:
    • The first time, read and listen to the whole sentence. Actually use your vocal chords when you move your lips. Read it the way you mean it; read it expressively. Does the sentence say what you want it to say? Does it sound good to you, or does something sound not quite right? Does the punctuation structure the rhythm and meaning the way you want them? (you know, commas for pauses, question marks for questions, etc.). If something sounds off, look away from the page and say, out loud to the air, what you mean. If you need to, rewrite the sentence completely on a separate piece of paper until you get it the way you want it, and only then revise it in your essay.
    • The second time, read the sentence out loud slowly, and point to every single word as you speak it. Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They read at a normal or impatient pace and glide their pencil across the words like a seagull, maybe hovering for a split second over every third or fifth word. That won’t work. At all. Read. every. word. as. if. it. were. its. own. complete. sentence,. and. point. rudely. at. each. word. If you do, you’ll discover all kinds of things you missed on the first pass, like words that you thought were there but aren’t, mismatching pronouns, misspellings, typos (sometimes mind of funny ones [kind of]), and more.

The above method of proofreading works, and it works for good reasons.

Proofreading is checking to make sure that the writing came out correctly on the page. Not surprisingly it only works when you see the words that actually are on the page. And, surprisingly, this is exactly what we do poorly when proofreading our own work. We—all of us.

When we read our own writing, we’re not entirely reading what’s on the page; we are involuntarily replaying in our minds what we were thinking when we wrote it. And we thought the page correctly (as far as we could tell, anyway). So when we read—or rather replay the thoughts of—our writing, the words seem just as correct as when we first thought them.

This is why we usually are able to proofread other people’s writing quite well. The writing came out of somebody else’s head, not ours, and so we actually see the words on the page in front of us.

One key to proofreading your own writing and actually finding and correcting errors is to separate what you wrote from your original thinking. That’s why you proofread from the last sentence to the first: reading backward completely disrupts that original thought process.

Another key to proofreading effectively is to compare the words on the page to what they ought to be. We can do this by using not only one but two of our senses, seeing and hearing. Proofread out loud and you can compare what you are seeing on the page to what you are hearing in your head. So speak up!—at least enough to hear yourself clearly.

Finally, we need to proofread on two levels, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. Each sentence is a complete thought. Reading the sentence aloud for sense, you can hear whether the thought is complete or incomplete, whether it is syntactically and structurally sound, whether its tenses and references are consistent, whether it communicates exactly what you mean. But while concentrating on meaning (i.e. grammar), it is easy to miss small mishaps on the level of individual words and even individual letters (i.e. mechanics). Pointing to each word focuses your attention on the small stuff. Pointing and reading aloud enables you to focus on small stuff and compare what you’re seeing with what you’re hearing. This is why you have to go slowly and point at each word, one at a time. Reading at a normal pace and gliding the pencil across the words has no effect; all you’re doing is creating a blurry comparison, and distracting yourself by waving your pencil, to boot.

This all might sound like an awful lot of trouble. It does take a long time to proofread thoroughly, and after you’ve spent hours writing, it can be excruciating to read the damn thing again—out loud—backward—twice. It’s one thing if you’ve been getting D’s or F’s on papers because of grammatical and mechanical errors; then you’ll want to beef up your proofreading efforts as much as you can. But what if you’re not losing grade points, or only losing what you can live with losing? What if your writing is clear enough for the professor to be able to work out what you meant to say by mentally correcting your grammar for you while reading your paper? Why put in the extra time doing something that—as far as I know—no one enjoys?

Self respect, and the respect of your reader, in that order. That’s why.

Your writing, all writing, has content and form. Broadly speaking (for the purposes of this argument), the information and ideas are the content, and the grammar and mechanics constitute the form that expresses that content. Presenting writing that has errors because you didn’t take the time to find and correct them is analogous to showing up at a party with your butt crack showing and a booger dangling from your nose like a lost participle. Does presenting yourself this way make you a bad person? No, but the presentation is slovenly. An unproofread paper shouts: “I don’t care enough about my own thoughts to care for them, to make them clean and presentable to others in the public sphere.” If you don’t think that professors really feel this way about papers that aren’t proofread—and often, at least while reading them, about their authors—then enjoy your stay in Fantasy Land. And I will go out on a limb and claim that many writers, especially students, feel similarly when they present sloppy writing. I know I do. When I dash something off and present it as a final draft to someone without taking the time to clean it up, I feel a kind of shame. Honestly. (God, I hope after saying all this I’ve found and corrected all the errors in this post. It’s the good-faith effort that counts.)

It may be easiest to discern your own feelings about your writing after you’ve presented a final draft that you truly tried your hardest to make pristine; writing that articulates information and expresses ideas precisely as you meant it to do, writing that speaks what you had in mind, felt in your heart, and intended to communicate. Expect feelings like satisfaction, pride, and authority.


  1. This assumes you have already revised and read the paper through for sense. All you’re doing here is catching and fixing errors. 

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