How to edit and proofread your essays like a pro

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Whether you’re writing a novel, an assignment or simply a text message, it’s important to have at least basic editing and proofreading skills. When it comes to writing essays, incorrect grammar and punctuation or not adequately answering what has been asked can lead to losing precious marks. Follow these tips and you’ll be editing and proofreading your essays like a pro in no time.

What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

Editing and proofreading are two distinctly different tasks that are undertaken after the writing process has been completed.

Editing is checking and improving the piece of writing as a whole, for content and language. For example, is there an introduction, body and conclusion? Does it flow? Does it answer the question and cover all the key points? Are there clear, well-defined paragraphs, ideally with a single idea in each? Have you kept to the word count? Have you removed repetition or redundant information?

Proofreading is looking at the piece in closer detail to check spelling, grammar and punctuation. This takes place after the final edit, with the aim to pick up errors missed in the editing process. Although it is common for students to at least partly proofread their essay throughout the writing process, it is important to leave the main proofread until after all the drafting, re-drafting and editing has been completed.

Take a break

Ideally you’d have a break from your piece of writing for at least a few hours before editing and proofreading the final draft to ensure you are reading it clearly. Reviewing when your mind and eyes are fresh helps you to more objectively see what you have actually written, as opposed to what you intended to write. Ensure you allow adequate time to find and correct errors – it is hard to proofread well at 4am on the day the essay is due!

Block out distractions

When you sit down to edit or proofread your essay, make sure you minimise distractions. For a start, turn off your phone! If you can hear other people speaking (whether it be in person or on a television or radio in the background) it can be a huge distraction when you are trying to read something. If you can’t find a place where silence is possible, consider listening to white noise – a steady, consistent sound that comes in many forms, from thunderstorms and waves, to a heartbeat. White noise contains all frequencies of sound so it masks other noises occurring around you. You can search online for ‘white noise’ to find heaps of free clips.

Edit and proofread on hard copy

Even professional writers and editors often prefer to review their work on hard copy rather than on screen. Reading aloud is also helpful, as it can enable you to hear awkwardness and mistakes in your writing that you might otherwise skip over when reading silently.

Brush up on the basics

Many students lose marks for making basic grammatical errors. It pays to know things like the difference between their, they’re and there, how to use apostrophes, and where to place commas. There are several useful websites that provide these sorts of grammar tips.

Read slowly and carefully – don’t just skim

It’s surprisingly simple to accidentally leave out a sentence, a paragraph or even an entire page – so slow down! Computer spell checks will not catch these errors and a tired or rushed student may not either. Be sure to read through the final hard copy of the essay, exactly as it is to be submitted, to check that the pages are in the correct order. Another useful tip for proofreading is to read backwards – that is, read each sentence in the essay starting with the last sentence and work backwards to the first. Isolating each sentence makes it easier to find errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Don’t rely on a computer spell check

Computer spell checks are a great back up and they’re helpful for correcting things like reversed letters or repeated words, but they don’t pick up everything. For example, they may inadvertently correct a misspelled word to the wrong word. They can also struggle to accurately determine context. Take ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ for example – both are spelled correctly so won’t necessarily be picked up in a spell check but each is used in different contexts.

For those of you currently working on an assignment, check out this editing and proofreading activity to see if you’re on the right track.