Proofreading 1: non-sequiturs and flow

A recurring theme on this blog and in any conversation I have ever had with students about their essays is proofreading. Proofreading is a very important step in the writing process, and one that is too often neglected by students. This will be the first in an ongoing series of posts about proofreading and editing your written work.

What is proofreading? Proofreading is simply a process in which one searches for, identifies, and corrects errors in written work. Taking the time to carefully go over your work before submitting it to your prof can make the difference between a pass and a fail, a C and a B, or an A and an A+.

That sounds simple enough, but how does one actually go about proofreading an essay?

Methodically and very, very carefully.

If you ask ten writers how they proofread their work, you will likely get ten answers. Remember as always that the secret is to develop a system that works well for you. What follows here is an example of a proofreading process that I have made use of in the past.

The first step is to read through your essay from beginning to end. The goal here is not to find and correct mistakes so much as it is to see how the essay reads. Is it well organized? Does one sentence flow naturally into the next? Does one paragraph follow on naturally from the previous one? If anything is amiss, if a sentence seems out of place, if a paragraph seems to come out of nowhere, or if any part of your essay seems awkward and poorly written, mark it, and move on.

Some things to watch out for:

  • non-sequitur: [Latin: "it does not follow"] a non-sequitur can be many things, but in historical writing non-sequiturs normally takes the form of a logical mis-step. If A=B and B=C, you cannot then assume that A=D. For example saying that all Benedictine monks are human, and all Swedes are human, therefore all Swedes are Benedictine monks is a non-sequitur.
  • statements that simply do not follow on from what has been written before: For example: ‘Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as “Royal Arsenal” enjoyed its first period of great success under manager Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. His tactical innovations, changes to the club kit, and alterations to the stadium took the club from mid-table obscurity to the top of English football. Alan Smith scored the winning goal for Arsenal in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup final in Copenhagen.’ The last sentence is true, it is vaguely related to the preceding two sentences as it is part of Arsenal’s history, but it simply does not flow smoothly. This is not a logical error, but a stylistic one.
  • lack of flow: this is related to the previous example, but may not be quite as jarring. When you read through your essay, ask yourself whether the text flows naturally from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.

Once you have read through your essay, it is time to start making repairs to the essay’s organization and structure. There are no shortcuts here. The only way to fix an essay with poor structure and organization is to methodically work through it and FIX the problems.

First, non-sequiturs must be eliminated! If your argument is based on a logical fallacy then no cosmetic repair will be able to gloss it over. If you discover a non-sequitur, you really have no alternative but to revisit your research, reconsider your conclusions, and give serious thought to how you can repair your argument. This is not a happy discovery to make, but it is much better that you find it in a draft essay rather than your prof finding it in your submitted work. If you are facing a short deadline, try talking to your prof to see if an extension is possible. Extensions are often given at the discretion of the prof (depending on the policy of your school/department), and if you take the time to carefully explain that you discovered a problem when proofreading your final draft, and that you would like some extra time to work it out, your prof may be receptive to an extension. It is one thing not to submit on time because you left everything to the last minute, quite another to discover an error in an otherwise completed work before the due date. Remember though that you are NOT owed an extension on your essay. Your prof is completely within his/her rights to deny your request.

Second, if you found any sentences that stick out like the Alan Smith example above, you can alter the structure of your paragraph to make them fit, you can change the sentences themselves, or you can delete them. This will depend on why the sentence is there in the first place. If in this example, I wanted to write about 1930s Arsenal, I would delete the sentence entirely. If I wanted to write about famous Arsenal goals, then I would have to introduce the subject, and no doubt introduce many earlier examples, before moving on to the 1994 CWC final. In this case it would be very difficult to make the sentence fit by changing it and not making extensive changes to the essay itself. However there are many instances in which a simple change to one sentence can greatly improve an essay.

Having eliminated non-sequiturs and removed or repaired sentences that do not fit, it is now time to make sure that your paragraphs flow naturally and that your essay reads as a coherent whole rather than a series of unconnected statements. The previous sentence is an example of one technique to improve flow. It is a connecting sentence that links this paragraph to ones that preceded it. Using sentences such as this is a simple but effective way to improve the flow of an essay. Paragraphs are used to group together similar ideas, concepts, or arguments within an essay, but that does not mean that you should ever forget that the individual paragraphs must come together to form a single coherent essay. If you find that a paragraph seems out of place, think about how you can make it fit. You can add an introductory sentence, rewrite the paragraph itself, or possibly move the paragraph to a different part of your essay where it fits more naturally.

Remember at this early stage of proofreading that you are focusing on structural and organizational problems. If at this stage a typo or mistake catches your eye, you can mark it quickly, but keep reading. If you recognize that a footnote is missing or incorrect, mark that too and move on. You will come back to these things later. The reason for this is simple: in the process of making changes to your essay’s structure and organization, there is a good chance that new typos and mistakes will be introduced. Don’t worry about that; it happens to all writers. For the time being, when you find a typo or other mistake, just mark it and move along, secure in the knowledge that you will fix it later. Also, a very thorough review of your references (footnotes, endnotes, etc) will be done before you submit your essay, so mark any such errors too, and remained focused on your structure and organization.

One last tip for this section that applies to all others as well: don’t be afraid to have someone else read your work. This can be a friend, classmate, parent, or historyhelp.ca. The reason for this is that once a person has written, re-written, edited, proofread, re-written, etc., an essay multiple times, his or her capacity for critical review is severely diminished. Put simply, we all lose the ability to spot errors in our own work after we have worked on it too many times. I guarantee that even if you think an essay is perfect, a critical reader with a good eye for detail will find errors that you have missed.

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