I attended a short course on proofreading and editing this morning and thought I would share some insights. The reason I went to the class in the first place is that my midterm report, a massive piece of writing, is coming up and I really needed to get some practical hints and pointers for my proofreading. There is a lot of good reading on this topic already out there but I want to stress the following points:
(1) Format comes first. Look at other theses in your area, journals, or even international style guides and decide early on what kind of format you want to use. Then build a template in your favourite software and stick to it.
(2) Consistency is everything. This includes all the styles you use, your spelling (e.g. Australian English vs. US English), formatting and use of abbreviations. The only time it’s recommended not be consistent is if your writing is bad and flimsy. Don’t consistently write badly but stop and take a break. Even just opening a new document to start fresh and copy and pasting selected parts of your work can help quiet a lot.
(3) Outline and prepare your chapters. This point can’t be stressed enough as it will greatly reduce the amount of confusion in your writing and will save you a lot of time. The way I do this is by writing my table of contents first and then adding 1-2 sentences per chapter that describe what I want to say and what I will use to develop the idea. This also gives you a framework if you stumble upon some great article that you want to include in your work but it doesn’t fit the current chapter you are working on.
(4) Edit and proofread for one thing at a time. If you focus on one aspect during your proofreading and check the whole document you will be much faster and more consistent in your corrections. Work your way down starting with possible errors in titles, subtitles and figures, basically things everyone will notice but you. The search function in word is your best friend here. Personally I have to check all my documents for double and triple spaces between words as I tend to hit the space bar while thinking. Very annoying.
(5) Read the first and last sentence of your paragraphs. This will help you to get a feel for the structure of your writing. It sounds weird but I found it very helpful to check if the order of my paragraphs is working and allows for a natural development of the argument.
(6) Read sentences out loud. I mean the actual sentence that you wrote at 2 am and not the one in your head. There can be a huge difference and it forces you to look at your text very carefully. It will make you sound like a crazy scientist. But that’s a plus right?
(7) Leave time between your editing and proofreading. Reading your text 30 times a day won’t help and you will miss obvious mistakes. It is a much better and efficient strategy to leave your text alone for a few days or hand it to a friend so you can get a new perspective.
(8) Practice your editing and proofreading on other peoples work. This is a great way of increasing your skills and to learn about what other people are doing. It also gives you that good feeling of accomplishing something without having to work on your own stuff that was supposed to be done weeks ago.
(9) Use citation software. Not really news but if you have avoided it so far it’s better to start sooner than later. There are many alternatives out there so try out some different ones if you are unsure. Be very aware of databases crashes (backup!). Nothing worse then losing all your references a few days (hours…) before submission date.
(10) And finally: Writing is thinking. I often have to start writing before I truly understand some specific topic or argument. This writing is often very crude, but it turns out to provide a great resource to go back to during this whole midterm writing process. It is much easier to stitch together a literature review if you have already written about some of the articles you are going to use.
Overall the class was useful and surely motivated me to work more on my midterm. Of course I didn’t do that today. But before you raise your finger and point at me for procrastinating and talking about writing instead of getting anything done – so are you by reading this.