Proofreading guide for students

Late last year I wrote and published a series of posts on proofreading advice. This is the first of those posts: Proofreading advice: take a break.

GuideI have put a lot of that advice into a PDF guide that is now available on my Resources and Information for Students pages. You can also download it by clicking on the image opposite.

My 4-page guide has been written primarily for students. I enjoy working on dissertations and theses, but not all students can use the services of a proofreader. If you aren’t allowed to use professional help, or if money is tight, I hope this guide will be of some assistance.

It contains four steps to help you prepare for proofreading your own work, as well as a list of common errors to look out for. The common errors include mixed -ize/-ise endings, incorrect use of apostrophes, and references that aren’t according to style.

Authors may not find all of the advice relevant to them, but they will probably find some of the information of use.


‘Affect’ and ‘effect’

EffectAffect and effect are often used incorrectly, particularly in student essays. In most contexts, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. When you affect something, it produces an effect – and I think that is where some of the confusion stems from.


Affect as a verb means ‘to influence or change’ or ‘to make a difference to’, and it is the most common use of affect.

The new rules will affect thousands of people.

It can sometimes mean ‘to pretend’ or ‘to take on or adopt something pretentiously’.

I affected a happy disposition.
He was known to affect an American accent.

It has limited usage (usually related to psychology) as noun referring to an emotion or feeling.

His reaction displayed a happy affect.


Effect as a verb means ‘to do’ or ‘to bring about’.

I will effect change.

But the most common usage of effect is as a noun meaning ‘a result’.

It had an immediate effect.

The a, an or the test

If you struggle to work out which word you need to use, this simple test might help. Does a, an or the appear in front of it? Or if you inserted a, an or the would the sentence make sense?

The effect was insignificant.
It could an affect your lifestyle.

If the answer is yes, you probably need effect (the noun). If the answer is no, you probably need affect (the verb).

Proofreading advice: use red ink

Studying2Use a pen with red ink to mark corrections and amendments. As a professional, I typically use red and blue ink on proofs. When I don’t have to differentiate between the causes of problems, I always use red. It’s bold and stands out – it is almost impossible to skim over without noticing.

If the idea of using red ink gives you horrible flashbacks to your time at school, choose another strong colour. Make sure it won’t be easily missed or hard to read (no silver glitter pens).

You may find it useful to use a ruler to guide you as you read line by line. It will help you to focus on the text and you won’t lose your place. Read slowly. Mark your corrections clearly to avoid any confusion later.

Previous articles in this series:

Proofreading advice: create your own style sheet

If you are a student, you should have a style guide supplied by your department or institution. That doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful to supplement it with your own (more limited) list.

All writers, particularly authors, should think about putting together their own style sheet. (Publishers and large organisations are likely to already have a house style guide but you might want to keep a list of any things it doesn’t cover.)

Keep a record of the style decisions you make and then tidy it up into a neat list.

The style decisions you make should include the following:

  • Word endings: ‘ize’ or ‘ise’?
  • Numbers: numerals or words?
  • Commas: serial or not serial?
  • Dashes: spaced en rules or closed-up em rules?
  • Quote marks: single or double?

There will be lots more, and many are not as simple as choosing one option for all circumstances – just make sure your decisions make sense. should also keep track of words you have hyphenated and any alternative spellings you have chosen.

If you are formatting your own work, extend your style sheet by creating a design specification. This should include decisions such as how headings of equal importance should look and what size the margins should be.

It may seem like a lot of effort, but a style sheet should help you spot where you have been inconsistent. Spotting inconsistencies is a key part of the proofreading process. If you aren’t sure where to start, there is a sample style sheet available on my Resources page.

Articles in this series:

Proofreading advice: read out loud

You’ve taken a break and printed off your work. Now you need to decide how you are going to divide the text into manageable chunks.

ReadingIt will depend on the length and style of the project, but you might find proofreading a chapter and then taking a small break is a good way to maintain focus.

Before you start reading to spot errors, read the text through at least once with clarity and sense in mind.

Don’t be afraid to read out loud. Errors are often obvious when you say them. As you read, it may be useful to imagine someone else listening to you. Would the listener be able to understand what you are trying to convey? Would they be able to follow your argument or narrative?

It’s best to revise any areas you think aren’t clear or don’t work before you begin proofreading for spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Articles in this series:

Proofreading advice: print it off

When you are ready to start proofreading your writing, print it off. You will be surprised by how much easier it is to spot errors on paper than on a screen. sure the text is black and that colours are only used when appropriate. (Refer to your style guide if you aren’t sure what is appropriate.) When you mark corrections using a colour pen, the corrections will stand out best against black text and on white paper.

Physical distance makes it easier to spot errors in format, style and layout. Hold the pages out in front of you, pin or stick them to a board, or ask someone to hold them up for you. Don’t forget to check the pages against each other for any inconsistencies.

Articles in this series:

Proofreading advice: take a break

I’m tinkering with a guide to help students who wish to proofread their own work, and I thought I would share some of the advice on my blog.

You’ve finished writing. You’ve made your edits. The next step is to proofread.


     If it looks like this outside, you know where you should be.

Save your work. Put down your pen. Switch off the computer. Take a break.

The best thing to do, I think, is to go outside. Take a walk and get some fresh air. If you can’t go out, do something else to take your mind off the work. Bake a cake, knit a small hat, clean the bathroom. Do whatever you like doing to relax.

If you have enough time, leave your work for a day or more.

This should create distance, and distance should help you spot errors. When your words are not fresh in your mind, you can look at your writing from a different perspective.

That’s when it’s time to start proofreading.

Articles in this series:

Resources page have put together a page of resources. I mentioned a few books in my previous posts that I think are helpful or interesting, and I thought it might be handy to have a central list. It may be of interest to writers and students in particular. The books I have included are accessible and fairly straightforward.

I have also included a couple of websites I find or have found helpful.

I’ll update the page with any new discoveries.

‘I.e.’ and ‘e.g.’ are not interchangeable I proofread essays, I often find that these two abbreviations are used as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.

I.e. is the abbreviation for id est. This means ‘that is (to say)’. Use i.e. when you want to introduce another way of putting what you have already written.

E.g. is the abbreviation for exempli gratia. This means ‘for example’. Use e.g. when you want to introduce an illustrative example.

I am now on Royal Holloway’s register of approved proofreaders

I am delighted to be able to say that I am now on Royal Holloway’s register of approved proofreaders!

Founder's Building

Founder’s Building

Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) is located in Egham, Surrey. I visited the Centre for the Development of Academic Skills on campus at the end of last week.

I passed the proofreading assessment, and I have agreed to abide by the proofreading policy that is in place for RHUL students. I was also given training on RHUL’s error identification code.

I have very clear boundaries in regard to the proofreading that I do for student clients (these are written into my terms and conditions for students). The guidelines given by RHUL are a little stricter in that they only allow the identification of errors. For RHUL students, these guidelines will take precedence over the services stated in my own terms.