Monday, March 17, 2008

In Soviet Russia, Paper Proofreads You!

By Travis Willmore

Say you have a classmate who trusts your writing judgment. We’ll call him Bob. There may come a time when Bob calls upon you to help proofread his work. This is a totally different situation from offering assistance in revising a paper, which has been dealt with at length here. Editing and proofreading involve targeted line-by-line changes to help fine-tune a paper. Excellent information on to proofread your own work, as well as that of others, can be found here.

If there is a recurring error in Bob’s work, it may be effective—and less discouragingly repetitive—if you note the first instance and mention that it recurs frequently throughout the paper. If the error is of uniform enough nature, he will be able to go through and make the corrections without having every individual instance marked. If he keeps capitalizing Coffee when you know that coffee is not a proper noun, you probably only need to mention it once.

Sometimes you will run across an unclear passage: one with more than one possible meaning. Rather than narrowing it down to a single specific meaning on your own, ask Bob what he intended the passage to mean before you proceed. If Bob writes, “I launched a cow from a wooden catapult on an English farm that must have been around since the 1580s,” does he mean the cow, the catapult, or the farm looks to be of 1580s vintage? Don’t just assume and fix the passage so it fits your assumption. Bob’s intention may well have been the less likely one.

You will also want to check with the writer about making changes when they deal with style preferences, rather than set-in-stone rules. If Bob doesn't use the serial comma (“this, this, and this” loses the second comma to become “this, this and this”), you have a situation in which either option is technically correct. In that case, it’s a good idea to check if Bob’s choices on the matter were intentional before making corrections that impose your own stylistic preferences.

More important than any of these individual techniques is the attitude you bring to proofreading when Bob calls you in to help fine-tune his work. Keep in mind that you want to be positive in your tone when pointing out problem areas, and recognize situations when the writer just wants you to add a coat of polish rather than rebuild the whole car. You will have a more satisfied Bob and he will have a more satisfying paper as a result.

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