Strategies for effectively editing and proofreading academic writing

By Nick Hopwood

Image Credit: Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

Article republished with permission.

When we think of academic writing, we often think of the painful, difficult process of getting words onto the page. But what about when we have a bunch of words down, what next? Does the act of writing get all the glory while we overlook editing and proofreading? Do we think about ourselves as writers too much, and as editors not enough?

Mark Haddon (a Whitbread Award-winning novelist) says of himself: “I’m not a terribly good writer, but I’m a persistent editor” (The Guardian, 2016).

The production of good journal articles, thesis chapters and other scholarly texts very much depends on editing and proofreading. 

I was recently contacted by someone who does these things for a living, who offered to share some tips and strategies. Our dialogue over email and various drafts (yes, we edited and proofread this post!) made me realise I had been underestimating the importance of these linked but distinct processes in writing. And that I was guilty of approaching them in ways that were unlikely to be really serving my needs and resulting in the best possible texts. I hope what follows is helpful – the professional’s perspective, interspersed with some of my own comments and confessions.

What was most refreshing for me was a reminder that I don’t need to be a good writer. I can write fairly crappy text and bring it up to standard by being a good editor and proofreader. And the ideas of making the familiar strange, needing to take these processes seriously, give them my full attention.

A professional perspective
For researchers and postgraduate students, both editing and proofreading are essential steps in effective academic writing. After you have completed your academic paper, both of these steps are crucial prior to submission of the paper to a journal for publication. Proofreading is more technical, focusing on correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation etc. This is typically done on the final draft of the paper. Editing, on the other hand, is a more formative process that takes place when you are still working on your paper. You might edit several drafts several times before getting to the proofreading stage. Editing can be thought of as helping to make decisions that inform the development of a draft. Editing can focus on broader structure, flow, coherence of ideas, match between (sub)headings and content, paragraphing, cutting words, and clarity of expression (sentence structure, concise phrasing, use of terminology). It might also involve checking or adding meta-text – features of your writing that provide signposts to a reader as to what to expect, how to navigate your text. Editing involves making choices about what to include, what to take out of the next draft, what to say more about, and what to say less about. It is part of how the writing comes to be, and can be considered as formative. Proofreading, however, is more corrective than formative, focusing more on grammar and syntax rather than semantics and logic. 

Nick: I find that distinction helpful. Editing is about the journey to producing a better text. Proofreading is about technical corrections. When the idea for this post was first suggested to me, I was reminded how important proofreading is. Not so long ago I got comments from journal reviewers saying my paper should be checked by a native speaker of English because it was so riddled with errors. As a native speaker of English myself this was pretty wounding to read. I had been so occupied with the ideas, and done some editing (for flow, coherence), but not full editing (for clarity) and certainly had neglected the proofreading side.

Authors often edit their own work (kind supervisors might also help out). Proofreading might be done by a range of people:

1.       By you, the author! Before you submit any articles for publication or theses for examination, authors are normally expected to do their own proofreading to the best of their ability.

2.       By members of a publisher’s production team. After an article has been accepted for publication, publishers typically conduct a further proofreading service and send queries to authors before publication.

3.       In some cases, professional proofreaders can be employed prior to submission, but this is dependent on funding being available, which is often not the case. They would perform a close and in-depth check on the paper to ensure the ideas discussed are easy to follow and the writing contains no major errors. 

Learning to edit and proofread your own work is important, but presents a number of challenges

Both editing and proofreading involve looking at a text with fresh eyes. If you’ve spent a lot of time drafting something, it can be hard to step away. Our concentration can lapse, our brains can complete sentences because we know what’s coming, it can be very easy to skip to the end of a paragraph or page.

Fresh perspective: making the familiar strange

Basically, both editing and proofreading need you to be able to make something familiar (your own writing) strange (in the sense looking at it as something new).

Here are some suggestions for practical strategies you might use.

Proofread and edit at a time when you are most focused and alert

This helps to ensure you are focused completely on the paper. If you are a morning person, it would be advised to work on it first thing. If you are a night owl, then spend the evening working on it. This means recognising that editing and proofreading are not afterthought activities, but high-stakes ones that deserve your full attention.

Nick: I confess I’m often guilty of doing some editing, and particularly proofreading, late in the day when I’m tired, bored, wanting to finish. I should come at it when I’m fresh, which for me is first thing in the day before I’ve switched my emails on and got distracted by the rejections or whatever other nasty surprises lie in wait.

Take a break from the text

Since you have written the text yourself, you are familiar with the content and this makes it harder for you to spot errors. Setting a text aside for a day or more, then coming back to edit or proofread it can help give you the distance you need from the text to engage with it as something strange (new) rather than familiar.

Nick: I often forget this, because there’s usually pressure to meet a deadline. However when I have had a break from a text (even if a forced break) I do find I can come at it differently. I feel less attached to the words that I’d spent so much time getting onto the page in the first place. So I’m much more ready to make the changes I need to.

Take a break from the task

This relates to the point about being focused and alert. Depending how long the text you are editing or proofreading is, it might not make sense to do it all in one go. 

Nick: Guilty again. I’m usually so ‘over it’ by the time I get to editing or proofreading I just want to be done. I need to be honest with myself that my brain-power is not up to the taxing tasks of editing and proofreading for long chunks of time. At least not if I want to do them well.

Use a hardcopy of the paper

Consider printing the paper out when you edit or proofread. This seems strange, but you would be surprised as to how much harder it is to spot errors on the screen compared to reading the hardcopy. Looking at something on paper rather than on screen can help it feel different and unfamiliar.

Nick: This works very well for me. So many times my draft exceeds a journal word limit and I need to cut hundreds of words. I try on screen and end up adding! And I know things need to change in terms of structure, content and flow, but for all the technological ease of cutting and pasting, I find an inertia. The text doesn’t want to change. But when I print off and get my pen out, somehow that distance between me and the text. I cut whole paragraphs. I spot sentences of 35 words that could convey the same information more clearly in 15 words. I end up drawing long arrows all over the place showing where I need to move the text. 

Nick again: I have noticed that a professional editor and proofreader whose desk is near mine at work always prints out in hard copy. He also uses a rule and goes through line by line. I’d describe his approach as meticulous and methodological. It isn’t quick, but he spots everything! I think the ruler could be really helpful when proofreading: it stops you skipping ahead.

Read it out loud

By reading the paper out loud, you force yourself to slow down the pace. You are also engaging with the text in a different way, making it unfamiliar. All sorts of issues can come up when you read aloud that might otherwise be missed.

Nick: Absolutely! Awkward as it is, reading aloud does work well for me. I am just bad at forcing myself to do it. When I have done it, I’ve noticed things like repetition stand out much more than they do reading silently (I realise I’ve said the same word or phrase many times). Sometimes using the same word is important and deliberate, but I find my early drafts tend to over-do this to the point of sounding like a scratched record. This also inflates my word count. Even more than repetition, I find reading aloud helps me notice long and clunky sentences. I find I run out of breath reading a sentence. The message: if you can’t read it aloud easily, the reader won’t be able to follow it easily either. And you don’t want tired, frustrated readers. (Reading aloud is one of the 10 tips suggested in The Writer magazine, too).

Read it backwards

This is especially valuable for proofreading. It may seem silly, but reading your text backwards will force you to go word by word, to really take things out of context. This would allow you to focus more on the words rather than the ideas, and helps to spot any sentence fragments and spelling errors. 

Nick: I sometimes use this, when I finding it hard to focus. I start with the final paragraph. That way I’m less carried along by the flow of the text and can see the sentences as technical entities in need of a technical check.

Edit or proofread one issue at a time 

Editing, say, for flow (the order of ideas, information and rhetorical moves across a text) requires your full attention. Doing this while also looking for over-long sentences, unclear expression, dodgy paragraphs etc is likely to mean you do none of these tasks well. The same goes for proofreading. There might be some errors you know tend to creep into your writing that you can go through one by one (e.g. looking for your use of commas or semi-colons; looking for double or single spaces). You might proof looking for singular and plurals, or use of tenses. The key point is not only to separate editing and proofreading, but to divide each of these up into even more focused tasks. This helps with focus, and is another way of making your familiar text strange.

Nick: I think there is a really good discipline here, because it suggests that before you start any exercise in editing or proofreading, you decide what aspect of that process are you going to focus on. This makes it a deliberate and intentional task, and can help to remind you of the different things involved. Too often I’ve just approached editing as a vague, all-encompassing ‘improve my text while cutting words’ scenario, which hasn’t served my needs well. 

Do what works for you

You might find some of these tips and strategies more helpful than others. The point is not that there are any general rules that must be followed, but that it is worth being explicit and thoughtful about how you approach editing and proofreading. Ask yourself: are my current practices serving my needs well, giving these activities the attention and thought they deserve? If not, consider approaching them in a different way and see if it helps!

Reblogged from Nick Hopwood

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