The Impotence of Proofreading

| September 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

There are any number of easy-to-miss errors to be made in essays, ranging from “pubic-sector workers” to “casual relationships” between statistical variables. Missing punctuation can be fatal – thankfully, only figuratively – when you write “I ran out of snacks, so I ate my sons” or “When shall we eat Grandma?” The odd slip of the typing finger can turn a beautiful phrase into utter codswallop.

There’s a lot of fun to be had but, ultimately, when an assessor is laughing, he or she isn’t taking you seriously. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do matter. A misplaced comma or typo can change the whole direction of an academic argument and, while good assessors might go out of their way to tease your arguments from a tangled mass of thoughts on the page, it’s best not to expect them to do it (and risk the irritation or confusion that might result). A properly edited and proofread paper conveys a credible, well-considered and authoritative tone.


Getting the English right can be confusing and stressful.

Photo by CollegeDegrees360 / CC BY

Proofreading isn’t just about spotting errors, important as that may be. A really good proofreading or copy-editing job can help to explain your ideas well and to help you to express yourself clearly and confidently. Your primary job as a student is to research your subject and have well-reasoned, structured arguments. Mine as a proofreader is to help you to show that you’ve done that. Of course, we can’t promise you that our help will get you a first, but your assessor certainly won’t be laughing at your writing; you’ll be taken seriously.


  • Know the difference between proofreading and copy-editing, and ask for the one you want. A proofreader will check for errors, inconsistencies and formatting problems. A copy-editor will also advise on style, structure and appropriate language, and may also suggest changes to content.
  • Choose a professional who, like me, is a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
  • Make sure you know your university’s rules on using paid-for proofreading services. Some ban or discourage it, while many others positively encourage students to have their work professionally checked.
  • Ask your proofreader to check your references or bibliography. Any proofreader should know the major referencing styles by heart, which can help to make your essay look polished and professional.


  • Rely on a spellchecker. While it’s excellent for picking up on the obvious errors, it won’t necessarily tell you the differences between “affect” and “effect”, “everyday” and “every day”, “practice and practise”, and “envelop” and “envelope”. It won’t tell you that you need an Oxford comma, as I did in the last sentence, or that an event cannot be “very unique” or “extremely historic”. It won’t be able to unpick complex sentences with lots of different types of clause. For all of that, a human brain is irreplaceable (By the way, did you pick up on the typo in the title? A spellchecker wouldn’t…).
  • Expect a proofreader to write your essay, add in any content or develop any ideas which are incomplete. It’s plagiarism and any professional proofreader will balk at that.
  • Worry a jot about being judged. Proofreaders are here to help. We know that some people are dyslexic, or that English is their second language, or that spelling just isn’t their forte or interest. We also know that you may have to move on to your next assignment, or that you just want a fresh pair of eyes to look over your work. The rules of English are difficult and unforgiving: let a professional take care of that.

Hugh Jackson is a professional proofreader and copy-editor specialising in helping academics and students. For details of his work and fees, see his website,, or email him on



Category: College and Careers

Leave a Reply