With the semester waning to a close, final papers are readily being turned in. From past experience, I know many students end up writing up to the deadline. But if you can give yourself some time to proofread after writing, you can feel more confident about turning it in.
When you think of proofreading you think grammar—and this is important—an even more important aspect of your paper is thematic or “higher order” concerns. These are the big questions: your theme or idea, your focus, and your main argument. I’ve compiled a list of the big questions to proofread for before considering grammar:
Have you met all of your professor’s guidelines? Referring back to the prompt is key; this can describe page limits, format concerns, but, more importantly, prompts provide questions and specific expectations. Everyone wants to write what they want to. In an academic setting, you have to compromise. The best student papers are able to reconcile the author’s interests while maintaining the teacher’s guidelines. If you’re ever lost or overwhelmed by your topic in the middle of your paper, look at the assignment directions to refine your focus.
Speaking of focus, is your idea properly focused? Does your paper meander? Do you find yourself giving wild examples more for the sake of putting in something interesting rather than something related to the topic at hand (for instance, talking about Batman in a paper on Tennyson)? Does every paragraph contribute to your argument? Stay on topic. Refer to the prompt or your own thesis statement as a guide.
Is your thesis arguable? Your thesis should have a claim and a support: I’m arguing this because of, or for these reasons. However, one sided papers are not arguments. Try thinking of what is at stake in your paper, could someone disagree? If what your paper proposes isn’t debatable, then it’s reportage; why would anyone read your paper when they could easily google the answer? The point of a paper is to enter a discussion or debate. One side may win a debate (and you want your paper to “win” the debate), but each side brings in valid contentions.
Where is your thesis statement? There are many strategies for opening a paper: starting with a brief anecdote or “hook,” beginning with a problem, or gradually developing the context for your argument. When it comes to thesis placement, I say the sooner the better. It need not be the first sentence (though a punchy thesis statement can be a smart opening), but it should be clear and stand out early on before you begin developing your points so it doesn’t get lost in the jumble.
Are there reliable transitions between major points? When in doubt how to get from one point to the next, look back at your argument. Theses glue your paragraphs together. Every paragraph should cohere into the larger theme of your work. Transitional phrases are helpful (on the one hand, that aside, for example, although, etc.), but the best way to think about transitions is to look at the last line of the previous paragraph and think how you can go from that last line to the beginning of the following paragraph. These two paragraphs inevitably connect through the construction of your argument. The relevance of each piece of information you are bringing in illustrate, elaborate, and annotate your thesis.
Is your conclusion definite? How strong is your conclusion? Obviously, you won’t ever have the last word on anything, but you want to hammer home your argument. Ideally, everything before the conclusion should point to this end. If it does, you’re on the right track. Your conclusion should feel as natural as finishing a sentence or exhaling after taking a breath.
Have you appealed to your audience? When you first start a draft, you might think of writing the paper to yourself. Before you hand your paper in, you want to be sure you’re writing for other people, and, specifically, your professor. Make sure you make it clear who this paper is for. Are you talking about pharmaceutical problems the public should be aware of? Are you writing toward legislators to change policies? Are you writing to a specific critical field? Be obvious for the sake of clarity.
Is your ethos reliable? Have you established a professional tone for your paper, or do you speak in slang and colloquialisms? Do you back up your opinions with sources and make room for counter opinions? Do you sound like you know what you are talking about (not hesitant and second guessing your own points)? Are you direct and on point?
Do you support your points adequately? Are you pulling your argument from thin air? Do you rely on generalities and public/personal opinion? Make sure all the points you make come from sources or logical reasoning. Don’t rely on proverbs or opinions, but make citations and draw support from other critics. Make sure all your points add up to your argument and stay both relevant and focused. Don’t just talk aimlessly, but direct sources to your points, and direct your points to your argument.
Have you integrated all quotations, paraphrases, and summaries smoothly into your own writing? Quotes do not speak for you. Rather, they need to be integrated into what you have to say. Remember, you are entering a discussion and using sources to back you up, but you are using these sources to your own ends. Ultimately, this is your paper. When in doubt, whenever you paraphrase or use a quote, talk about how this source fits into your argument. You don’t want quotes to dominate your paper, because they will overrun your voice and make it sound weak and untrustworthy.
Have you properly documented your sources? A style handbook helps. I usually save the specifics for last, but usually mark who I need to cite within the text then make adjustments after I have worked out the important parts. It’s smart to mark your in-text citations early during the drafting so you don’t have to go back through and make sure everything is cited. Rather, you can work out the specific citation details when your paper is in proper shape.
These are just some thematic proofreading questions. After this you can read your essay out loud to check for awkward phrasing and to catch grammatical errors.
December 11, 2014