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Editing & Proofreading Strategies for Specific
Writers who are effective editors and proofreaders use specific
strategies for searching for particular types of errors. With this in
mind, the most important thing to remember is that you can't check
for everything in one reading. Make a list of errors typical of your
writing -- starting with most serious or most frequent and moving to
the less serious or less frequent. Then make several passes through
your paper, looking for one type of error during each pass.
This handout reviews errors writers frequently make and provides
"tricks of the trade" for catching each type of error. Note:
Each error below is followed by the editor's mark teachers frequently
use when pointing out the error.
Commas should appear after emphatic opening words and introductory
phrases and clauses which come before the main sentence. To catch
errors omitted after introductions, try these strategies:
- Check the first two words of each sentence to figure out if
the sentence has an introductory element.
- Note: Introductory elements (whether words, phrases,
or clauses) always establish one of two things: they establish time
- As a result, the first words of a sentence will provide you with
a tip about whether or not you'll need an introductory comma.
- If the first words indicate that you're being teased and the
primary information is being withheld until time and/or condition is
established, a "break point" will occur where you should insert a
comma to let readers know that the main sentence is coming up. The
comma should appear at this break point.
- Until you get a feel for the types of words that establish time
or condition, refer to the following list of words which commonly
begin introductory phrases or clauses.
If you have two complete sentences (or independent clauses), they
must be connected with both a comma and a connecting word (or
coordinating conjunction). If the comma is missing, the error is
called a run-on. To check for run-on sentences, use the following
- Skim the paper, looking only for the seven coordinating
conjunctions: and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet.
- When you find one of the seven coordinating conjunctions, cover
it with your finger or a piece of paper; determine if the word groups
on either side can stand alone. If there are complete sentences on
each side of the coordinating conjunction, then you should show the coordination or balance by placing a comma in front of the conjunction.
If you have two complete sentences, and they are connected by
only a comma, the error is called a comma splice. To find
comma splices, follow these steps:
Information on strategies for fixing run-ons and comma splices is
- Skim the paper, stopping at every comma to check and see if
there is a complete sentence on each side of it.
- If there is, you'll need to decide
- if you'd like to separate the ideas more and give each of
them more emphasis or
- if you'd like them to remain in the same sentence because you
want to stress their relationship.
- If you'd like to separate and emphasize the ideas more, use a
more emphatic punctuation mark -- the period -- which will signal to
your reader that you are moving from one completed thought to
- If you'd like the ideas to remain in the same sentence because
their relationship is important, fix the comma splice by linking the
sentences with a comma and a coordinating conjunction or with a
A sentence fragment is a group of words that's punctuated as if it's
a sentence; however, it's missing a subject or a verb -- or has a
subject and verb but includes a word that makes it dependent on
another sentence. To find sentence fragments in your writing, try the
- Check every sentence to ensure that it has a main subject and verb.
- Pay special attention to any sentence beginning with a word that
- Since most fragments are actually pieces of sentences, pay
special attention to sentences which begin with "and," "because,"
"such as," "for example," "for instance" -- or any other word or
group of words indicating that it's going to explain something. You
should check the group of words carefully to make sure that it has a
main subject and verb following such introductory elements.
- Also check for groups of words beginning with words showing
dependence (i.e. after, although, because, before).
- Even though these words may be followed by a subject and
verb, this group of words can't stand alone unless another subject
and verb follow.
- For example, "Because I followed the presidential debates
carefully" is a fragment; although it has a subject and verb ("I
followed"), the word "Because" makes the whole group of words
dependent -- probably on the sentence before or the one after.
- NOTE: You can save yourself a lot of time in
looking for fragments if you figure out the type or types of
fragments you usually make. For help in isolating fragment patterns
typical of your writing, see Common Causes of Fragments.
Items in lists must appear in the same grammatical form; that is, if
one word has an -ing ending, all must.
Sentence that aren't parallel will feel awkward, won't flow. To check
for problems with parallelism:
- Read your paper, pausing for sentences that trip you up, that
feel awkward. Check them for parallelism.
- Look in particular for words or word groups in a series, and
check words or word groups joined by "and" and "or."
- Make sure that these items match in grammatical form, that is,
in word forms (parts of speech and order).
- If those elements don't match in form, you must either make them
match or restructure your idea to avoid the need for parallelism.
More information on parallelism is available.
SPELLING & TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS
Most strategies for catching spelling and typographical errors
involve either increasing your awareness of the types of errors you
tend to make or slowing down so that you see what's actually on the
page. As you read the following suggestions, consider which would be
most useful for you. One or more of these strategies are usually
- Although spelling problems often seem insurmountable, most
writers find one or more patterns are typical of their spelling
errors; therefore, the first step to proofreading for spelling is to
keep a chart of the words you often misspell. This list can provide a
reference sheet that you can keep next to you as you write. It can
also serve as a diagnostic sheet you or a tutor can use to identify
error patterns that you can search for in your papers. An example of
such a chart, Personal
Spelling List, is available.
- Slow yourself down and read for spelling and typos rather than
- Isolate each line with a straightedge -- a piece of blank
paper, a notecard, the edge of a book -- and point to each word with
a pencil or pen.
- Read from the end rather than the beginning of a line so that you
can't get caught up in what you're saying.
- Using this strategy, you'll be able to separate the individual
words from the meaning; you'll be able to proof quickly but
systematically; and, of course, you'll be much more likely to catch
extra letters, omitted letters, transposed letters, and so on.
- Caution: reading backwards won't allow you to identify errors with sound-alike words (such as
"to"/"too"/"two," "there"/"their," or "its"/"it's"); therefore,
you should skim your paper, looking specifically for them.
- Find a good spell checker, and learn how to use it.
Caution: this method does not catch sound-alike words either,
so skimming should supplement the spell checker.
Searching for omitted words is a bit different than searching for
spelling or typographical errors, but some of the same strategies are
- Read your paper backwards: that is, read the last sentence;
then go to the second to the last, etc.
- If you prefer to read straight through your text, you should use
some strategy to slow yourself down. Reading aloud often helps. In
fact, any strategy that will cause you to be a careful reader rather
than a speed reader will be useful.
- Place your pencil or pen on each word as you read it.
- Isolate each line with a straightedge; even a piece of paper will
Subject/verb agreement errors frequently happen when a phrase
intervenes between the subject and verb, as in the following
If you looked specifically for the subject and verb, the error would
probably be obvious and the correction easy.
So, to find and fix subject/verb agreement errors, you need to
systematically look for subjects and verbs:
More information on subject/verb
agreement is available.
Searching for errors in pronoun reference or agreement requires that
you look for pronouns and the nouns they point to:
- Skim the paper and find each pronoun.
- Once you find the pronoun, skim backwards until you find the noun
- Make sure that each pronoun agrees in number with its
corresponding noun. Once again, the simplest way to check agreement
is to count.
- If you can't find the noun to which the pronoun refers, you
should either insert a noun to serve as a referent or change the
pronoun to a noun. Caution: Be careful when there is an
article ("a," "an," "the" ) in front of a noun. The article makes the
noun singular. ("Parents have a tough job. A parent should recognize
how tough his or her job is." )
- Be particularly careful in checking for agreement with the
singular pronouns "each," "everybody," and "everyone."
- Although people frequently say "Everyone . . . their" to
avoid gender bias, writing requires that such singular pronouns be
matched with singular pronouns: "everyone . . . his/her," "each . . .
he or she."
- If you feel uncomfortable using either of these constructions,
either make all pronouns plural (All doctors have their reports.) or
omit the second pronoun altogether (Each doctor has a report.).
Information on solving the pronoun
puzzle and avoiding gender bias is available.
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© 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 The Write Place
This handout was
originally written by Robert Child at Purdue University and was
revised by Judith Kilborn for the Write Place, St. Cloud State
University. It may be copied for educational purposes only. If you
copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name
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Last update: 26 March 1999