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Specific hints and tips for proofreading your own thesis, essay or dissertation

Posted on 11th August 2013; revised and updated November 2019

I know I've written a blog about this before, but with the ever-increasing cost of living and studying, and realising that I use certain tricks when proofreading work for students and academics, I thought I'd share a few more ideas about how you can proofread your own work if your university or institution doesn't permit external proofreading services, or you can't afford (or don't have time) to get it professionally proofread.

  1. Print the reference section out and even if you're checking the rest of the work on-screen, tick off every item on the reference list as and when you encounter it in the main body of the thesis/dissertation. This will ensure you won't have an in-text reference that is not on the reference section. If your reference section is really long or you have limited printer access, an alternative is to create a separate file with just the references in it, and every time you come across a new in-text reference, highlight the item in the other file. At the end, all those items not highlighted (or not ticked off if on paper) might need to be deleted (some reference sections should only include items mentioned in the paper, while other universities allow bibliographies to include extra texts not specifically mentioned), or you might need to check whether you have incorrectly referenced them in the main body of the work.
  2. Carrying on from above, with your printed reference section (or the separate file), go through each type of document in your references in relation to your university guidelines: are all your journals in italics, for example, are commas used where they should be, are spaces the same between authors' initials... Alternating between checking the main text and then spending a bit of time on some of the references might also be a way to keep working but stay fresh as the work itself will be varied.
  3. If you just have one final big project to complete, use the free 30-day trial for PerfectIt. You'll need to have a good grasp of English to use this and it won't replace a full proofreading service, but at a basic level it will pick up on inconsistent spellings, hyphenation, capitalisation, formatting and common typos. Edited in 2019: when I initially wrote this, I was using version 2 of PerfectIt, and it is now on version 4. There's still a free trial and the software is now able to pick up even more issues and also works on Macs.
  4. I don't like to give too much away about the magic involved in proofreading (!) but there are also numerous macros available that I find invaluable. Paul Beverley is a hero in the editing world for giving away his editing and proofreading macros for free, so if you have some knowledge of how to use these, I would certainly recommend you have a play around with the options. In particular, if you're working on a multi-chapter book or lengthy PhD thesis, the proper noun macro (ProperNounAlyse) can help pick up on inconsistent spellings of names, particularly helpful for avoiding getting your supervisor's name wrong in the in-text references!
  5. Use Word's Find function with the highlighting option turned on and specifically search for words you know you often misspell/mistype. Examples of this could be form/from, their/there/they're or your/you're so you then focus just on those words as you go through the file and check that they are correct in each instance.
  6. Do run Word's Spelling and Grammar check, but don't take it as Gospel. It doesn't always work, can't pick up on context in every instance and in particular may not get the grammar suggestions right but even if it just corrects some basic typos, it's worth the quick check.
  7. Other things to look out for are whether you use single or double quotation marks, whether they are straight or curly, and how you've punctuated quotes and references. If you have time, do separate passes/checks of the file to review your numbering of sections and tables and diagrams, and take another look through to check the layout looks consistent.
  8. Finally, don't forget to refer to your university's submission guidelines and make sure you've followed the format, reference system, word count limit, etc. details that are required at your particular institution.

Hopefully these ideas will help you finalise your work before submission. In fact, even if you plan on paying a proofreader, if you do all of the above before sending a sample to get a quote, the chances are the cost will be lower as the proofreader will see that lots of these items have been done.

If you have any ideas or hints and tips to add to this, why not let me know on my Facebook page...

Written by Kate Haigh.