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11 Tips for Proofreading Your Dissertation, Thesis, or Paper

Writing a dissertation, thesis, or paper is one of the final stages of your research. You’ve already conducted your research and have painstakingly written down all your findings.


But now you also have to ensure that what you’ve written has correct grammar and spelling and is something people in your field can follow.


You have to proofread your manuscript. Even if you submit your paper to a journal. While they have editors and will point out some mistakes you’ve made, your chances of acceptance improve when your paper is already in tip-top shape. Not to mention that reviewers can sometimes be very particular about grammar.


Below, you have 11 tips to help you with your proofreading. These are:

11 Tips for proofreading your dissertation, thesis, or paper

1. Leave enough time for proofreading

This tip should go without saying, but procrastination is a real thing. And I get it; proofreading can be tedious work, especially if you’ve already read your manuscript several times.


But if you don’t have enough time, you’ll end up rushing, and you’ll likely leave in mistakes.


Consider how many words you can proofread per hour or day. Then calculate how many days you’ll need. And then add some more days to that so you have some extra time if you need it.


If you’re not sure how fast you can proofread, try proofreading the first page of your paper. Then you can calculate your proofreading speed in words per hour.


And, if you also want to hire a professional proofreader, don’t wait until the last minute. You can’t expect a great job on your dissertation if the proofreader only has 24 hours.


2. Check your style manual or guidelines

The first thing to do when you start is to check your style manual or the guidelines of your university.


For instance, the psychology faculty will often use APA style for their papers and dissertations. If your subject falls under the humanities, you’ll likely use the MLA style guide. 


Moreover, journals also have their own guidelines. So, if you want to submit a paper to a journal, check their guidelines as well. They usually follow one of the well-known style guides, but sometimes they have additional rules.


3. Start with checking your formatting

Consistency with formatting is important, but it’s one of the things that’s most often overlooked.


To start, check all your headings and subheadings. Each heading level should be styled the same way.

For instance, you can use title case or sentence case styling. Title case is where most of the words in your heading are capitalized (like the title of this blog post). Sentence case is a style where you only capitalize the first word and proper nouns (like the subheadings in this blog post).


Do you number each section? Do you use bold or italic formatting?


To ensure consistency, you can use the styles option in Word. This is incredibly useful. It will also allow your headings to appear in the navigation pane, which allows you to check your headings in one go.


Aside from headings, also check the captions of your figures and tables. Are these all styled the same way? Is the order correct? Are they referred to in the body of the text?


4. Check your references separately (and cross-reference!)

Don’t just check your references while you're proofreading your entire text. Instead, dedicate a special pass to checking your references.


First, check which referencing system you should use. This will depend on the style guide or guidelines you’ll follow for your thesis or paper.


In general, you can have an author-date system, like APA, or a numbering system, like Vancouver style. Another option is the short-title system, which uses footnotes. This is used, for instance, by the AGLC style guide.


First, go to your reference list and go through each instance to ensure it’s styled properly. Then, cross-reference your list with the in-text citations.


Highlight the in-text citations that match the references in your list. That way, you’ll notice straight away when an in-text citation doesn’t have a proper entry in your reference list when you’re doing your proofreading pass.


Is there a citation that doesn’t have an in-text reference? Keep the reference in a separate document. As you’re doing your proofreading pass, take note of any place where that reference could be inserted. Otherwise, remove the reference from your list.


5. Create a style sheet for consistency

Especially when you have a long document, such as a dissertation or a thesis, a style sheet can be a big help. But when you’re writing a paper, a style sheet can also be a great reminder of certain style rules and spelling choices.


You can use a style sheet for a number of things, but definitely put down your choice for capitalization, hyphenation, spelling choices (for words that have multiple spelling options), and treatment of numbers.


It’s also a good idea to use the style sheet to keep track of your abbreviations.


This ensures you’re consistent with your choices.

(Most of these tips also apply when you've written a nonfiction book, like a self-help book!)


6. Take breaks

Proofreading a long string of text can be exhausting. Take breaks. Otherwise, you’ll likely lose focus and miss small errors.


Break down your dissertation or paper into smaller segments and proofread each segment with a break in between. For instance, you can take blocks of 500 words or 1000 words (depending how fast you are or how tired you are).


7. Pay special attention to acronyms and abbreviations

When you use acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms, you write them out the first time you use them and then use the acronym. However, in a dissertation, it might be sensible to introduce the abbreviation in each chapter. Otherwise, the reader might’ve forgotten what the abbreviation means.


You can also provide a list of acronyms at the front of your thesis or dissertation. This can be helpful if you have a lot of them.


If you put your abbreviations onto your style sheet, you can also easily check them as you’re going through your manuscript. Make sure that you’ve written the abbreviation correctly and haven’t accidentally moved some letters around.


8. Run a grammar check

Even if you’ve edited your manuscript meticulously, there’s still a good chance you missed something. You’re only human, after all.


And sometimes, you introduce a new error while you’re editing. For instance, you adjust the spelling of a word only to accidentally add on an extra “d” somewhere.


Running a grammar check can help you identify some of these errors. You can use Word’s built-in spelling check or use software such as Grammarly or ProWritingAid.


Naturally, while these tools help, they won’t catch every error (or you wouldn’t have to edit your manuscript yourself). And sometimes, they think something is an error when it isn’t. So always check before you adjust anything based on the spelling checker.


9. Check your work for plagiarism

It would be pretty horrible if you turn in your thesis or paper and you’re then accused of plagiarism. Even if you provide a reference, it’s still considered plagiarism if you directly quote a lot of the material. When possible, paraphrase your references in your own words.


If it’s discovered that you plagiarized a substantial portion of your written work, there can be serious consequences.


There are software options that will help you check for plagiarism. For instance, ProWritingAid has an option for this.


But you can also use Word’s tool. When you open the Editor in Word, there’s an option to check for plagiarism at the bottom. It will check your document against online sources. This may not be enough if you’ve used a lot of papers and books as references (I’m not sure Word can also check it against PDFs, for instance).


You can also use a free plagiarism checker like that of Academic Help.


10. Make several passes for different issues

Editing is more than just checking the grammar and spelling of your work. As said, it’s also checking your formatting, references, figures, and tables.


It can help to create separate passes for each issue. For instance, you do one pass for your formatting and one for your figures and tables. Then you check your references, after which you start your editing pass for grammar and spelling.


After that, you apply your style sheet by double-checking your abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. You also check your word list and search variations of the words in the list to ensure they’re all spelled the same.


Then you make a pass with a grammar checker and do a final pass for your table of contents.


The above is just an example, of course. You can create your own flow for the different passes.


11. Ask for outside help

Editing your dissertation, thesis, or paper is a lot of work. And, if grammar isn’t your strong suit, you may still have a lot of errors once you’ve finished.


If you simply don’t have as much time or you want to make sure your manuscript is as error free as possible, you can ask for outside help.


This can be in the form of a trusted friend who happens to be great at grammar or a professional editor. There are agencies you can use or you can find an editor yourself. In the latter case, make sure your editor has some expertise in your field so they understand the topic of your manuscript and any language that’s common in your field.


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