Proofreading Tips: Dos and Don’ts for Proofreading Academic Writing

Academic proofreading is a common source of work for many freelancers. However, there are some specific rules and requirements for proofreading academic documents that set them apart from other types of documents. With that in mind, we’ve put together five dos and don’ts for proofreading academic writing:

  1. Do correct informal language.
  2. Don’t change the content.
  3. Do check citations and references.
  4. Do proofread quotes (but be careful about editing them directly).
  5. Do make direct edits for objective issues.

1. Do Correct Informal Language

While informal language isn’t necessarily incorrect, it is considered inappropriate in most academic writing. When proofreading, then, you should look out for and correct instances of informal language such as:

  • Contractions (e.g., “don’t” rather than “do not”)
  • Colloquial language or slang
  • Sentence fragments
  • Exclamation marks (unless part of a quote)

Subjective language should generally be avoided, too. However, there are some occasions where first-person pronouns are acceptable. These include clarifying the person or people being discussed, stating a position in an academic argument, or writing a reflective essay.

For more tips on how to achieve a formal tone, see our guide to formal writing.

2. Don’t Change the Content

Academic writing is often subject to specific plagiarism rules. This means that, as a proofreader, you cannot change a document’s content.

It can be hard to tread this line when working with ESL clients, as their writing may require some degree of rephrasing to clarify meaning.

To make sure you don’t go too far with your editing, then, either change the text and leave a comment asking if you have preserved your client’s original meaning or leave the text as it is and leave a comment with a suggestion (or two) for your client to make the edits themselves.

You also shouldn’t change or add to factual information by directly editing or commenting on the text – even if you know the information is incorrect.

The exception to this rule is if you spot an obvious typo in factual information (e.g., “Pride and Prejudice was first published in January 113″). If this is the case, leave a comment suggesting your client check their work.

3. Do Check Citations and References

Citations and references are part and parcel of academic writing. You don’t need to memorize every academic referencing style, but you will need to keep track of the style your client is using.

When proofreading citations and references, make sure that:

  • Dates and author names in citations match those in the reference list
  • Citations in the text have a corresponding entry in the reference list
  • The reference list is formatted in line with the relevant style
  • All the necessary information in each reference is present and formatted correctly for the source type
  • In-text citations are consistent and set out according to the referencing system

If you notice missing information in a citation or reference, don’t look for the information yourself or edit the reference directly. Instead, leave a comment for your client noting which details have been left out.

4. Do Proofread Quotes

As a proofreader, you generally won’t have access to your client’s source texts. For this reason, you wouldn’t normally directly edit a quote.

However, you should still look out for potential mistakes. If you notice something in a quote that doesn’t look right, leave a comment for your client and ask them to check their source.

You can edit the text directly if you spot an obvious typo, such as correcting “teh” to “the.” But make sure to leave a comment explaining to your client that you have done so and asking them to double check their source text.

You will also need to check that quotes are introduced and formatted correctly. Depending on what style guide your client is using, this might involve the use of colons, block quotes, and indenting.

We discuss how to proofread quotes in more detail in this post.

5. Do Make Direct Edits for Objective Issues

As we’ve discussed, you need to be careful with the extent of edits you make to academic documents. However, as a proofreader, you can make direct edits to the document if you spot objective errors, including:

  • Incorrectly introduced abbreviations
  • Incorrect or inconsistent capitalization
  • Typos in names and terminology
  • Mechanical issues relating to spelling, punctuation, and grammar

You may also need to correct overly complex language that detracts from the clarity of the document. The following sentence, for instance, could be simplified for clarity:

The caprine entities were marked with a crimson tinctorial elixir.

The goats were marked with a red dye.

However, make sure not to “dumb down” the text or remove appropriately technical language. Likewise, make sure changes made to simplify text do not change the meaning of the content.

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Join the Conversation

Denis Joseph says:
November 8, 2021 at 12:11AM
Does a bibliography listing have to be alphabetized? I came across one that had the listing from the year of publication—from the earliest to the most recent.
    Proofreading Academy says:
    November 9, 2021 at 9:53AM
    Hi, Denis. The order of sources in a reference list or bibliography will depend on the referencing system used. Most are alphabetical, but some, such as Vancouver-style systems, list sources in the order they are first cited in a document. I do not know of any systems that list sources in the order of publication, but some in-house styles might do so. The key as a proofreader is to know which system your client is using and to follow the relevant style guide.

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