A Guide to Proofreading and Editing

General advice on proofreading

  • After writing, set your text aside for a while before you start.
  • The best time to edit is early in the morning. Avoid editing late in the evening.
  • Natural lighting is best for your eyes. That’s also one reason why you should work from a printout of the text before you move on to the computer screen.
  • Read out loud while you do proofreading or have someone else do that.
  • Break down the text into manageable parts.
  • In tables, read down columns rather than rows.
  • Give special attention on headings, letterheads, footnotes and captions. Writers tend to overlook mistakes in additional text that does not belong to the main body of text.
  • The same goes for bold print, small capitals and italics. In general, double-check fonts that are unusual.
  • Read slowly. It might be helpful to point with your fingertips to read word by word.
  • Circle punctuation marks to ensure that you get back to them later.
  • Read the text line by line and cover up the lines below the one you are reading.
  • Watch out that your eyes are not attracted from the first big blunder to the next obvious error, skipping subtle errors in between.
  • Have a close watch on small words (prepositions, pronouns) as they are often ignored by less meticulous proofreaders.
  • Numbers are also part of the job. Check whether the numbers in your text are correct. Also, check the measuring units used in the text.
  • As for illustrations, make sure they are not inverted and whether the captions go with the right picture. Also, include labels.
  • Double-check proper names, especially foreign names.
  • Text that comes in tiny fonts also needs your special attention.
  • If possible (usually not during exams) use a digital proofreading system like PaperRater or Ginger.
  • Do your proofreading in different stages: start with structure, go on with content, finish with a language check.
  • Spelling mistakes are easy to detect if you read the text backwards word by word.
  • Work with a proofreading buddy to double-check your text.
  • Use a text-to-speech program like NaturalReader to spot all the mistakes you would otherwise overlook.
  • Work with a readability checker to ensure your text is easy enough to understand.
  • Sometimes, mistakes are repeated several times in the same text. Use the “find” function in your word processing program (e.g. MS Word) to spot all of these mistakes.
  • Keep your knowledge of grammar rules up to date and expand your passive and active vocabulary.
  • Make your correction work less tiresome and less tedious by listening to some nice music.

Questions for proofreading, editing and re-writing

I - Aptitude

  • Look at the task descriptions. Are all elements fully addressed in your text?
  • Check for the guidelines teachers normally issue for their classes. Does your text meet these requirements as well?
  • Is your text too long or too short?
  • Is it too detailed or is it not specific enough?

II - Structure

  • Is each paragraph related to the thesis you present in your text?
  • Does the text offer an introduction, a body, and a conclusion?
  • Are all the paragraphs linked to one another?
  • Are the proportions of each part of your text related to their weight?
  • Is the order of your points logical and clear to the reader?
  • Are there any gaps in your argumentation?
  • Are the important aspects clearly presented as main points of your text?
  • Are all paragraphs developed well?
  • Do all the arguments combine claims with evidence and proof?
  • Where do you need any further examples or evidence?
  • Is there anything in your text that would profit from further research?

III - Content

  • Does your text have a clear focus?
  • Do you get sidetracked and wander off the topic?
  • Are all the facts correct?
  • Have you defined the key terms in your text?
  • Are all the sources cited accurately?

IV - Rhetorics

  • Does your text meet the expectations of the audience?
  • Does the text use inclusive language that does not exclude minorities?
  • Have you taken into account that readers might not share your opinion, world view or values?
  • Do you provide enough background knowledge so that any reader may understand your points?
  • Do you create a tone appropriate for this specific genre?
  • Do you offer emphatic conclusions rather than mere summaries?
  • Will your text provoke further discussions?
  • Do you keep your text brief and simple?
  • Where should you eliminate redundancy?

V - Language

  • As for spelling, use a list of your favorite mistakes!
  • Look for confusable words! (witchwhich, then vs. than, much vs. many, to vs. too, lose vs. loose, their vs. there, its and it’s)
  • Many EFL learners have difficulties with adverbs and adjectives. (He sounded rather loud. – He sounded the horn rather loudly.)
  • Irregular verbs are not always easy to master, too. (buy – bought – has bought, swim – swam – swum, set – set – set)
  • Mind the articles! (an underdog, a university student; Love is all aroundfor the love of children)
  • Watch out for irregularplural forms and 3rd person-s! (He / she / it > s / -es, try – tries, man – men, calf – calves!)
  • If you’re an EFL learner, your first language might cause some trouble – look for translation blunders! (German: Im Text steht ... > English: It says in the text, German: Es gibt ... > English: There is ...)
  • Collocations can be dangerous as well (do vs. make, discriminate against )
  • Word order causes serious problems as well.
  • Generally, check the tenses – especially present perfect and past perfect (including their continuous forms) are difficult to handle.
  • Think carefully about the prepositions in your text! (in the picture, by bike, on the bus)
  • Make sure you handle do-support correctly - with “did” and “do”, use the infinitive!
  • Punctuation problems are also common – no commas before that-clauses!
  • Capitalization often causes problems!
  • Reported speech is also tricky (backshift of the tenses, adverbial expressions, possessive pronouns).

VI - Design

  • Is the overall layout okay?
  • Are all the fonts chosen attractive and readable?
  • Are the illustrations apt and technically fine?
  • Are the headings pithy and meaningful?

Proofreading marks and symbols

Correction signs used in the German Abitur




What your teacher wants to say:




This is grammatically wrong!




Replace this word! It cannot be used like that!




This word is misspelled!




This punctuation mark is misplaced!




Bad style. Find a more appropriate word from another language register!




What a dreadful scrawl! Even I cannot read this!




This claim or statement is wrong!




This is too vague. Say it more precisely!




Something seems to be missing here!




There is a logical fallacy here. This statement doesn’t make sense.




You’re wandering off the topic!




I don’t see what your last point has to do with your next point!




This is redundant, stop repeating yourself!

In class tests or term papers, some teachers – depending on temper – might use additional signs:

! = Watch out! --- !!! = Absolutely! Incredible! Shocking! --- ? = Huh? Pardon me? --- ??? = What? This is pure mumbo-jumbo! --- J = How funny! --- ~= Not again!!!

Proofreading signs in editing

Editing conventions differ a lot, nationally and internationally. Editors use a different set of correction marks. These are some of them:

  • sp = correct a spelling mistake or spell out an abbreviation
  • stet = ignore this correction
  • caps = capitalize this word
  • sc = this word should not be capitalized, use small letters
  • rom = set in roman (= regular) type
  • ital = set in italics
  • bf = the text should appear in bold print
  • = make a new paragraph
  • ˄, ˅ = insert
  • wf = wrong font
  • [ = set farther to the left
  • ] = set farther to the right
  • = insert full stop
  • # = delete space
  • ? = request for clarification by the proofreader

Useful resources for professional proofreading