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Often students get their essays back from the instructor with the comment, "You need to proofread better." Why is it often hard for students to find errors in their own writing? It is difficult because you did the writing in the first place!

The Meramec English department teaches composition using both the process and portfolio approaches. Usually, students will write at least four or five versions of an essay before submitting it for grading:

  • brainstorming ideas
  • writing a first draft
  • revising the first draft
  • peer-editing the draft in class
  • editing a peer-reviewed draft
  • polishing a final draft
  • revising a marked essay for placement in a final portfolio

As you already know, by the time you’ve looked at your essay five or six times, two things have happened: 1) you’re totally sick of it and 2) you’ve got most of it memorized. That makes it very hard to be an objective proofreader.

Remember, spelling and grammar checkers can’t replace careful, objective proofreading. So if you want better grades on your essays, you must learn to proofread.

Importance of Proofreading

First, your instructor expects that the essay you submit is your best effort. Second, many grammar errors—no matter how small—eventually annoy your instructor so much that your grade suffers. (Reading an essay that’s riddled with errors is like being dive-bombed by hundreds of gnats.) Third, you’ll improve your grammar knowledge by learning to proofread.

Three Tips For Better Proofreading

  1. Read backwards
  2. Read aloud
  3. Read with a pencil

1. Read Backwards

You read the last sentence, second-last sentence, third-last sentence and so on back to the beginning of your essay. This simple trick takes sentences out of context so that you can concentrate on errors and awkward phrases. If you’re like most students, when you reread your essay from beginning to end, your brain pays attention to the flow of ideas, skipping right over errors you need to fix.

The Bad News: Without years of practice, it’s hard to turn off the part of your brain that listens for logical flow and turn on the part that listens for correctness.

The Good News: When you read backwards, your brain can concentrate on the sentence you’re reading and notice errors.

2. Read Aloud Slowly

Yes, you’ll feel foolish, but remember why you’re reading aloud: to catch errors that might lower your grade. You can hear sentences that don’t sound right, so trust your ear. If you stumble over specific words or phrases, that’s a tipoff you need to revise to make those areas clearer to your reader. However, you must read exactly what’s on the page—not what you thought you wrote, what you intended to write, or what you’re positive you had written on an earlier draft.

3. Read With a Pencil

As you read aloud, track slowly, with your pencil moving underneath each word as you read it. This way, you’ll catch errors, awkward phrases, or places where you left out words. Revising on a computer can actually increase your errors because grammar and spell checkers make writers lazy.

Relying on a computer’s spell check is not proofreading. Do you check a dictionary to be sure the word you chose from the spell check list is the right one? For example, spell check lists these three spellings:


Which one is right? That depends on your sentence. Checking a dictionary, you read these definitions:

  1. weather = the state of the atmosphere
  2. whether = a conjunction indicating possibilities
  3. wether = a neutered male sheep

Once you know the meanings, you can easily choose the right word. Remember, spell checkers search for letter groups like the one you typed—but they can’t think for you.

Word processing programs make revision almost too easy. While revising on the computer, students make changes, but then sometimes delete either too much or not enough. The result is an unclear sentence or paragraph.

Here’s the bottom line: Unless you proofread carefully, you’re likely to submit an essay with errors you could easily have corrected.

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