How to Get an “A” on an Essay: Proofreading Tips

You’ve done your research, you’ve written your essay, and now it’s time to turn that sucker in, right? Nope. You have one more step—proofreading. Proofreading is an essential part of getting a good grade on an essay, and believe me, teachers will know if you haven’t proofread. Here are some tips on executing an efficient and successful proofreading that will hopefully earn you that “A” on your essay.

Proofreading using a physical copy of your essay and a pen can help you find errors that you may have missed when proofreading using only the computer. Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

Proofreading using a physical copy of your essay and a pen can help you find errors that you may have missed when proofreading using only the computer.
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1. Look for any sentences that make you go “huh?” and rewrite them if necessary (which it probably is). By a “huh” sentence I mean an unclear sentence that simply does not make sense or that requires you to re-read it in order to understand what the sentence says. If the sentence confuses you, then it will probably confuse your instructor as well.

2. Look for, and eliminate, fragments. Unless the piece is a creative essay, then you should have no fragments in your paper. Really. You shouldn’t. (This is a blog. I can do what I want, so there’s no use in pointing out my fragments. Really. Don’t.) Remember, a sentence requires a main clause with a subject and a verb. Here’s a good website that explains what a main clause is: http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/completesentence.htm.

3. Look for homophones. A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another, but the two words have different meanings. For example, “two” and “too” sound the same, but the first refers to a number and the second means “also” or indicates an excessive degree of something as in “too much ice cream.” (On a side note, there can never be too much ice cream.) Sometimes a word processor (I’m looking at you Word) will replace a word with its homophone, and this can render your sentence into a “huh” sentence.

4. Make sure that you know what each word means in your paper. Upgrading your essay’s language to more academic language is great. However, don’t throw in seemingly big words like “pedagogy,” “mitigate,” and “eviscerate” if you don’t know what they mean, because if you don’t know what they mean, then you probably used them incorrectly. Look up the word in a dictionary or on a dictionary website if you’re unsure of its meaning (note: pressing shift F7 in Microsoft Word, while helpful, doesn’t really count as “looking up” a word’s meaning).

5. Try to condense/shorten sentences that go on for more than three lines. This is a quick trick to check for any run-on sentences that you may have and to check for wordiness in your paper. It’s okay to have a sentence that is over three lines, but try to make such a rarity as opposed to the norm.

6. Make sure that your quotes have citations. It’s better to over cite than to under cite. Admittedly, this has some exceptions. For instance, let’s say that I write the following about Ellen Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise using MLA style:

For example, in her essay “Heron Bay,” Ellen Meloy writes,

In genealogy you might say that interest lies in the eye of the gene holder. The actual descendants are far more intrigued with it all than the listeners, who quickly sink into a narcoleptic coma after the second or third great-great-somebody kills a bear or beheads Charles I, invents the safety pin or strip-mines Poland, catalogues slime molds, dances flamenco, or falls in love with a sheep. (186)

In the passage, Meloy’s humor shines when she plays on the cliché of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” by writing, “interest lies in the eye of the gene holder.”

Notice how I quote the passage in the sentence directly after the block quote, but I don’t have a corresponding citation. That is because I’ve already cited where I got the information and to do so again right near the block quote would be redundant. Now, if I decide to use those quotes again later in my paper, then I would put a citation of “(Meloy 186)” so that the reader is reminded of where the information originally came from.

7. Make sure that your formatting is correct. Make sure that your works consulted (or bibliography or reference page depending upon your citation format) is in alphabetical order if need be, that your in-text citations are formatted appropriately, that your title page and headings are right, that your margins are correct, that your page numbers are in the proper spots, etc. If you’re unclear on what your formatting style requires, either consult a manual (I rarely do because they’re annoying and confusing) or go to a reputable website (which is my preference). The Purdue OWL is usually the go-to website and it has copious amounts of information regarding MLA, Chicago, and APA. I’ve yet to have an instructor disagree with OWL Purdue. Here are two of many websites for CSE formatting: https://www.libraries.psu.edu/content/psul/researchguides/citationstyles/CSE_citation.html and http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/DocCSE.html

8. Look for subject-verb disagreements. What this means is that you find the subject of your sentence, find the verb that correlates to that subject, and then see if they agree in number. Here are some examples:

a. “While the text primarily targets English and women’s studies academics, the informal tone of the writing provides easy access to most people who wish to know more about chick lit.”

The subject of the first dependent clause (in this case, the stuff before the comma) is “the text.” “Text” is singular, so its corresponding verb (“targets”) should be in the singular form. For the main clause (the stuff after the comma), the subject is “the informal tone.” “Tone” is singular. Notice how I’m throwing out the article and the adjective when I try to ascertain if the subject is singular or plural. This is just an easy way to get at the heart of the subject. Since “tone” is singular, the corresponding verb should be in the singular form. Is “provides” in the singular form? Yes, it is. Yay!

b. “Each of them offers a unique viewpoint.”

Determining the subject of this type of sentence can be tricky, particularly if you’re in rush during your proofreading. The subject of the sentence is not “them.” Rather, it is “each.” “Each” is singular. The corresponding verb should be singular as well.

I know that scanning for subject-verb disagreements can be time-consuming and an overall pain in the butt. However, making sure that your subjects agree with their respective verbs can help make the difference between a polished paper and a “needs work” paper. For more practice on subject-verb agreement, you can visit this website: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/ from OWL Purdue.

9. Get rid of contractions. Some people will disagree with me, but I believe that contractions do not belong in academic papers. If you’re doing a creative piece, then you’re welcome to throw ‘em in as you please. However, for academic papers, you should take the time to spell out your contractions.

10. Eliminate the word “thing.” Teachers hate “thing.” From what I’ve been told, most instructors feel like “thing” is a lazy word that can be replaced with a little extra thinking on the writer’s part.

11. Read your paper on a physical sheet of paper with a real-life pen in your hand. In an age when every essay must be typed, it can be tempting to proofread only on the computer screen. However, I believe that having your paper printed and in front of you accesses another part of your brain that will help you to find errors in your essay.

12. Read your paper out loud. This may seem weird, but hear me out. When we read texts silently, sometimes our brains will fill in the places in which we’re missing words or it will automatically fix something that is wrong. So, while your brain may perceive a sentence as being correct, that sentence may actually be missing a word. By reading your paper out loud, you engage your auditory mode of learning (something that I talk about in this post: How to Study for a Test the 4.0 GPA Way: Part Two), and you may discover those errors that your brain corrected for you when you silently read your paper.

Much of my advice is aimed at giving your paper that polished feel that many teachers look for. Admittedly, proofreading will not save your grade if you turn in a trash paper in which you obviously half-butted the content. Many teachers prize quality of content over quality of writing. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, your content will have trouble shining if your essay is written incoherently. There’s a balance in play. You must have both quality content and quality writing. You must have the wax on to the wax off, the icing to the cupcake, the peanut butter to the jelly (unless you’re allergic to nuts, then that might possibly kill you and your essay grade won’t matter). Don’t panic if you do have one or two errors that you don’t find (and most of us do) despite going through your essay with a fine-toothed comb. Most teachers will give you a little wiggle room. However, proofreading and eliminating needless errors can help take your essay from being “good” to “great” and “A”-worthy.

Bonne chance, mes amis!

Have any questions about this blog post, or have questions that you want answered about some other aspect of college and obtaining an awesome GPA? Do you think that I might have missed something? Write it in the comments below, and I’ll give it a go. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “How to Get an “A” on an Essay: Proofreading Tips

  1. Very helpful article to help in essay writing! I found myself making many of those mistakes when I was younger and I took great care in not making them as often 🙂 Proofreading is very underrated by many people and I think people should know that it is in fact, the most important part of writing, be it an essay or a work of fiction.

    • Thank you! I’m glad that you liked it and found it helpful. 🙂 You’re right, proofreading is such an integral part of revising, and revising is essential to writing well no matter what genre the piece of writing may be. Thank you for reading!

  2. I don’t do college essays, but 5 and 10 sure apply to a lot of writing. Along with the “thing” thing, I’ve also been warned about using “that” when it’s not necessary. If the sentence makes sense without it, take it out. Good article. Great stuff.

    • I’ve always had mixed feelings regarding “that.” Sometimes it feels okay to take it out, and then other times it feels like something is missing in the sentence even though it makes sense. Thank you, and thank you for reading!

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