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Tips for Better Writing: Six Steps to Proofing Your Own Work
Karen S. Oakes, a professional writing instructor and service learning facilitator in the writing program, shares some tips on copyediting in another piece in the Tips for Better Writing series. The series highlights writing advice in collaboration with the Writing Center, which is part of the writing program in the College of Arts and Sciences and available to all University students.
Print it out.
“The best way to proofread your own work is to read aloud from a hard copy with a pen in your hand. Reading aloud makes you move more slowly, and your ears often catch errors that your eyes would gloss over. Your eyes will actually read more of the words that are on a printed page than what is on a screen, so it’s always a good idea to read your text from print.
“If you’re reading with a pen in your hand, you can fix visible errors and mark places that just don’t sound quite right, and then return to these later.”
Start with a clean read.
“In my experience, most students tend to edit for spelling, grammar and punctuation all at once, and that’s fine. Microsoft Word and other word processing programs do a pretty good job of flagging basic spelling errors (though they don’t always catch misuses of words, such as “their” for “there” or “its” for “it’s”). The problem is this: students too often look just at those places Word has flagged in red (spelling) or green (usage). Certainly check those, but do it as you read—start at the beginning, and work through the entire text.”
Use spell check effectively.
“Spell check has improved significantly in the last 10 years, and you can generally trust it. Just know that the program won’t necessarily tell you if you’re using the right word, just that you’ve spelled a word correctly. That’s why reading aloud is so helpful—your ears will let you know if something doesn’t sound quite right.
“(And on a side note, if you don’t know what a word means—really know it—don’t use it. You can’t be certain that you’re using it correctly.)”
Check an online source if you’re not quite sure.
“Online resources can be helpful if you know what you’re looking for (i.e., what error you’re trying to correct). Grammar Girl is pretty entertaining and helpful. OWL (the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University) is another good one. If you’re not exactly sure what’s going wrong in your writing, Grammarly offers a really useful online diagnostic service that will help you check your text.”
Get a fresh set of eyes from a friend or a classmate.
“It’s always helpful to have a fresh perspective on your text, but bear in mind that not everybody feels comfortable critiquing someone else’s grammar (and some people just won’t do a very good job). That said, you generally can trust peers to do a good job with these two valuable tasks: pointing out passages that sound awkward or “off” and (even more importantly) helping you to know whether your argument is making sense or not. That’s really useful input to get as you’re nearing the end of a writing project.”
Work on your ideas, revise and then edit.
“I advise students to think about writing, revising and editing as separate processes. Sure, some writers can perform these tasks simultaneously, but experienced writers will always revise and edit more at the end, even if they’ve been improving as they go.
“For many people, it helps to just get a draft down without worrying what it sounds like—this is where you do your thinking and working through ideas. Once you know what you’re trying to say, then you can make your paper say that. That’s revising—re-seeing your work and improving organization and clarity. The editing work comes later, when you’ve got your ideas down and are ready to polish them.
“There’s no point fixing sentences that aren’t going to be in the final draft, so wait until your content is pretty stable before you worry about going over it with a fine-tooth comb.”
Photographer Chase Guttman is an intern with Syracuse University’s Student Social Media Team.