Talk Grammar to Me Tuesday-Proofreading, Editing, and Revising, Oh My!

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In this week’s post, we are going to step back from discussing specific errors you might be dealing with in your writing and look at what students vs. instructors mean when they talk about proofreading, editing, and revising and which terms deal with grammar concerns and which deal with other writing concerns.

Proofreading can be used either with revising or editing. It simply means reading your draft carefully and with the intent of finding areas which need correcting or strengthening. Next, let’s look at two words which get tossed around quite a bit in classrooms, hallways, and our heads as if they are interchangeable: revising and editing.  To most students, these mean the same thing.  However, to many instructors, they entail different tasks and writing concerns.

Therefore, if a teacher is asking you to revise an assignment, you should generally conclude that he or she isn’t asking you to fix grammar errors dealing concerns such as those  with spelling, punctuation, capitalization, typos, or common word choice errors (their vs. they’re for example). Now,it’s not necessarily that you won’t need to fix those errors, but…you just aren’t there yet. Those are all editing or proofreading concerns, not areas for revision.

When we (tutors or instructors) look at errors or problems students are having in getting their ideas clearly across in their written assignments, we generally divide them into two categories: local and global.  Local are the type mentioned above.  A way to think about them is that they occur at a specific point in the paper, just as if you looked at a map of Illinois on Google Maps and found Georgetown, Danville, or Armstrong.  There’s a little red icon that looks like an upside down tear marking the spot where the town is. There are several, right? So, even though you might have several local errors of the same type (You use “their” instead of “they’re” twelve times in your draft.) they all occur at different specific points, just like cities or towns on a map do.

Global concerns are more widespread.  They occur through a passage or maybe over several paragraphs, or even throughout the whole essay.  You might think of them as townships or counties on a state map or states on a map of the US. Depending on the type of problem, they might be like a river starting near the top of the essay, like the Mississippi River in Minnesota, and winding their way throughout several “states” or paragraphs until we finally get to the conclusion all the way down in Louisiana.  They often include problems with unclear thesis statements, organization, coherence issues in paragraphs, points that are off topic or argue unintentionally against your thesis, problems with logical or critical thinking, or writing a paper that doesn’t accomplish what it is supposed to in order to let the instructor know if you learned what you were to learn from the assignment and/or class.

When do you revise and when do you edit? That’s a good question. Often, students are led to believe that writing is a linear process. They gather information, they organize it, they write a draft, they edit the draft, and Boom! it’s done. Ahhh…if only, amiright?  The answer to this question depends partly on what type of class you are in.  Are you in a composition class where you might do a rough and final draft?  If so, then do you understand what your instructor expects in a rough draft? What you think of as a rough draft may be what the instructor thinks of as a first draft, and they may want you to have done some revision past that part..conversely they may only be looking for a very rough draft where you explore how ideas in a draft might be put together.  If you don’t know, be sure to ask.

Are you writing in a class where the instructor is only going to see the final draft and grade you solely on that?  Then you need to make sure that your revision and editing are all done before turning in the paper.  An instructor in a class outside of a writing class expects to see a finished, “publishable” draft unless he or she states otherwise.  Even if the instructor doesn’t make explicit comments on your draft, both local and global problems will negatively impact your grade.  Generally, it’s assumed in classes like these that you either have everything under control, writing-wise, or you will take the initiative to get the help you need through the Writing Center or other tutoring available on campus. These instructors don’t teach writing as part of their class content, and therefore, expect you to be proactive if you need help meeting their expectations.  This is something that tutors in the Writing Center can help you with since we can help you understand what is expected in different disciplines (such as biology vs. composition class), what different instructors are expecting in their assignments (We’ve helped many of their students in previous classes, and many instructors talk to our staff about what they’re looking for.), and what is expected in different genres of writing often found in academia (writing a discussion post for your online pysc. class vs. a research paper for your crim. justice class, for example).

A good rule to follow is to try to get your draft together so that you have your intro, body, and conclusion done. You need a complete draft so that you have something to start with. Don’t try to get this first draft down and try to revise or edit as you go.  This will require two different parts of your brain who don’t play well together to try to work at the same time.  It won’t go well.  Just write.  Get it down.  Then go back and revise it.  Proofread for those global concerns.

Go to the writing center for help if you need to at this point.  Viewing our writing objectively is a hard skill, one that many people don’t master while they are still undergrad students. Don’t get discouraged if you are struggling with this.  You are not alone. Some people, even professional writers never really get to that point. The writing center staff won’t do the work for you, but they will read through your draft and talk with you about global concerns you might miss.  They can also help you brainstorm how to resolve these issues and prioritize them according to when your assignment is due.

If there are several issues you need to work on, try to set aside blocks of time where you can focus on them one at a time.  This will help you make more progress then if you try to tackle them all at once, it will give you a greater sense of accomplishment as you check off the items you’ve dealt with, and finally, it will make the whole undertaking seem more manageable. Once you have worked your way through your list of global concerns, go back and proofread your new draft.  Try to see if you’ve taken care of the issues you found before and if you’ve created any new ones unintentionally.

After you’ve taken care of the global issues, then it’s time to proofread to catch local errors-those which are related more clearly to grammar problems.  Realize that your tendency might be to focus on these up front to “get them out of the way.”  Many students think about their writing this way.  However, there are a couple of problems with this.

First, lets say you spend a good deal of time polishing your essay, correcting these types of problems in your draft, only to then delete two of the five pages because they don’t apply to your thesis (which would be a global concern)? How much time did you just spend correcting errors that are no longer in the draft?  How much harder is it going to be for you to press delete after you’ve highlighted those two pages once you’ve spent time trying to make them even better?

The second issue is that sometimes grammar becomes a nice diversion.  Have you ever “worked” on an assignment by checking your email or searching something related to your topic that you don’t really need to know, but hey, who knows when you will? Updating your Facebook status to “Working on that essay!!!” or added a picture to your Snapchat story with the caption “Killing all the writing!!!”?

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You get the idea. None of this is actually getting the work done, but we convince ourselves all the time that it is. (It’s all some sort of writing, right?)

Many grammar issues have rules that we’ve learned somewhere along the line, or at least we know they exist.  There’s the idea that there’s a right and wrong answer dictated by these rules. If we only we can find it and follow it, or find someone who can help us do that, then we can fix the problem. Global issues often don’t have such a clear fix.  They take more critical thinking, more awareness of our essay, sometimes they seem to open up new problems or send us back to a previous step in the writing process because we find we need more or different information or we need to reorganize our draft. It may feel like we are losing ground instead of gaining it for awhile. Things may get messier before they become clearer.

If we aren’t used to doing this type of work or have never been required to do it, we may feel lost or not understand the value of it.  Any or all of these things can lead us to try to skip revising for global concerns, even if we see them or have had them pointed out to us by a tutor or instructor, and revert to what we are more comfortable with-fixing local, grammar-based concerns. Make sure you don’t fall into that trap.  If the local errors are so pervasive that even you can’t make it through your draft without stopping and rereading to try to understand what you’re saying (or if there are a few sentences where that happens), then clean it up enough so it’s readable, but otherwise start with the global concerns and then move to the local ones.

And remember, at any point when you are revising or editing and need help, the WC staff is here to help. Stop by the office in CT 114 or make an appointment at to get help.



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