I’ve got used to the fact that academic proofreading comes in batches; the nation’s students all seem to have their assignment deadlines at the same time. So when one essay arrives in my mailbox, I know another won’t be far behind.

As with every other written text, essays vary considerably, and so do the expectations of students. So I thought you might like to know what’s involved if you send an assignment to me for proofreading.

What proofreading covers

The process of proofreading is the same whether the text is an essay, thesis, dissertation, novel, website, memoir, report… or any piece of written English.

I DO:

  • correct spelling, grammar and punctuation if it is wrong;
  • add or remove punctuation if it makes things clearer (eg, breaking up very long sentences), but only if the change is quick and straightforward;
  • check for consistency, eg, the spelling of people’s names, or the style of headings, numbering, bullet points etc;
  • flag up repetition of words or sentences;
  • proofread wording in graphs and tables;
  • check your referencing for consistency with your given style guide.

If I can understand the English well enough to see that it is wrong or inconsistent, I will make appropriate corrections. However, sometimes I can see there is something wrong with a sentence, but it is too confusing for me to put right. If I’m not sure that I have understood it, I will ask what you meant.

But what do I mean by ‘understand’? Let’s face it, there’s a huge amount of knowledge in the world, and I could be presented with an essay on almost anything…

Does a proofreader need expertise in the essay subject?

The short answer – no. In fact, it can help not to be knowledgeable about the topic, because then I’m not distracted by the content, and can just focus on whether the English makes sense.

If you’re not convinced, think of it this way: I can understand which of your words are nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on (because that’s my area of expertise), so I can see whether your sentences work, regardless of what subject-specific vocabulary you use. Here’s the kind of thing I was faced with in a dissertation on astrophysics:

Considering the extreme appearance of the hard band excess in Ark 564, further analysis was performed to examine its nature. To do this, the time series was investigated in a medium energy band (1-2keV).*

What does that mean? I’ve no idea.

Are the things, facts and processes accurately described? Again, I’ve no idea. That was for the tutor to know and assess.

Is the English grammatically correct and accurately punctuated? Yes. More to the point, in the rest of the essay, I was able to tell when it wasn’t, and sort it out.

But there are some things I wouldn’t sort out, and I don’t just mean the finer points of galactic nuclei.

What proofreading doesn’t cover

My job as a proofreader is to help you show off your knowledge and ideas to their best advantage. Spelling mistakes or muddled punctuation should not be a reason to fail (unless your subject is English language, perhaps!), but getting them sorted is a politeness to your tutor, and makes the whole reading experience smoother.

However, to be blunt, it is not my job to pass your essay for you. Obviously, the topic you are studying is pretty crucial, and we’ve established that I am unlikely to be an expert in your field.  But getting the grade you want is not just about getting the subject matter right.

I’m afraid I DON’T:

  • check or cross-reference your facts;
  • tell you how to organise the facts, or construct your argument;
  • rephrase or reorder over-long, confusing sentences or passages unless the English is actually wrong;
  • add text to bring it up to the desired word count;
  • reduce the text to bring it down to the desired word count.

With other types of writing, I’m happy to do those things if you want – but that would be editing, not proofreading. Sometimes, reading an academic essay, I can see that the paragraphs don’t flow well, or the facts seem to be in a strange order.  Sometimes, although the English is technically correct, I know that it would be much clearer with fewer words or less flowery vocabulary. But being able to make your point clearly is part of what you are being assessed on. That includes constructing your argument logically and coherently.

If I find the essay very confusing because of difficulties in these areas, I may mention them to you. But it is beyond my remit to tell you how to fix them.

I’m very happy to be part of your academic journey and help your words to shine. When you do pass with flying colours, it will be entirely because of your efforts!

*Legg, E. (2015) X-Ray Reverberation in Active Galactic Nuclei – D.Phil. dissertation. Used with permission.