Be Your Best


By the time you finish this you guide, you should:
  • know how to identify strengths and weaknesses in an article's claim, support, clarity, organization, and readability; 
  • Be familiar with effective proofreading strategies.


The following Internet and print sources can help you with the concepts covered in this unit:

Be Your Best: Usage describes some common problems in grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.

Updated August 17, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001


There is more to revising a draft than running spell check. In fact, the most important work you do on an article--work that could make the difference between something mediocre and something outstanding--may take place in the revision stage because it is in this stage that you can review what you have done, evaluate its success, and make improvements. 

When revising, you might want to think of yourself as an editor.  While most people think of an editor as someone who reads material and fixes problems in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, the role of an editor actually encompasses a large number of responsibilities that are best summarized as "preparing material for publication."  Thus, in addition to proofreading, the editing staff of a book publisher, newspaper, or magazine checks articles for accuracy, adjusts writers' material to conform to a consistent style and format, writes additional material such as headlines, and makes decisions about the appearance and order of articles.  In other words, editors transform a lot of raw material--such as manuscripts, photographs, or computer files--into the polished final product that readers and viewers see.

Whether you are revising your own draft or helping someone else to revise a draft, think of yourself as an editor who is preparing this raw material for other people's eyes.  Specifically, you should break the revision process into two distinct stages: editing and proofreading. 


In the editing stage, you try to see the big picture that a piece of writing creates.  It may help to break down this big picture into four general components:  claim, support, clarity, and readability. 

Claim: If what you are reading is an argumentative article, it should contain a claim.  Evaluate the success of this claim.  It should be clear and should state something that can be argued.  If you are reading someone else's article, try to state the article's claim in your own words and ask the writer if you got it right.

Support: If an article makes a claim, it should also include supporting evidence.  When editing, you should evaluate this evidence.  First, make sure that the evidence is relevant, credible, and sufficient.  Try to anticipate questions that readers might have about the material and then ask the writer or yourself these questions.  In particular, ask these five questions again and again: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  Demand exact figures and specific names.  The more specific the evidence, the more compelling it is.  Second, check the accuracy of the material.  While editors lack the time to check every fact in everything they read, they can and should check anything that they think might be wrong, either because it does not match what they think is correct or because it just seems like the kind of thing someone would be likely to confuse.  When editing material produced by inexperienced writers, you should check at least one fact in shorter articles (1-300 words) and three facts in longer articles (more than 300 words).  Of course, every inaccuracy you find should make you that much more wary.

Clarity: As you read each paragraph, underline its topic sentence. Comment on the connections between each paragraph and the paper's claim. Does each paragraph advance this claim? If not, why not? Is the order of paragraphs logical, or would a different structure be more effective? Comment on the organization of individual paragraphs. Are the "levels of generality" logical and easy to follow? Does the writer effectively use transitions to move you from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph? Do you understand the connections the writer is trying to make?

Readability: How has the writer packaged his or her ideas? If necessary, suggest ways the writer could engage the reader more effectively, perhaps by using more precise words, mixing long and short sentences, adding figurative language, or cutting unnecessary words.  See "Writing with Style."


If editing involves seeing the big picture and making sure that it is complete and in focus, then proofreading is a matter of seeing the little black marks on the page.  It's harder than it sounds.  Indeed, perhaps you have had this unsettling experience: You sweat over a paper, writing, revising, reading every paragraph three, four, maybe ten times. You confidently hand it over to your classmate or roommate and sit back to wait for the praise. Before your back hits the chair, the reader says, "You misspelled 'the' in the first sentence." How does it happen? The problem is that writers are too close to their work. They are so preoccupied by the evidence, transitions, paragraph organization, and style that they miss those pesky misspellings and comma problems that blaze like signal flares to other readers.

The key to successful proofreading is actually seeing the words and punctuation--not the cogent argument, not the solid organization, not the stylistic flourishes, but the little black marks on the page. You can see those marks if you follow this procedure.

  1. Do everything you need to do to the paper except proofread it. Include all the evidence you want to include, settle on a method of organization, put in all the transitions, and make all the necessary decisions about word choice, syntax, and the like. Now and only now should you print out your "proof draft." On this draft, you will look for nothing except surface errors such as misspellings, missing commas, missing words, and so on. 
  2. If you have time, leave the paper for a while. Go to lunch or take a walk. Try to separate yourself from it as much as possible.
  3. Review the basic principles of Standard Written English.  See my "Grammar Guide" or a credible published guide, such as The Ready Reference Handbook.  If you are writing for a publication, such as All American, you also may need to review the publication's "style"--that is, its conventional practices of spelling, mechanics, and other elements.  The style manual for All American is The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, a standard reference manual for many American newspapers.
  4. When you are ready to proofread, remove everything from your desk except your proof draft, a red pen, a hardback dictionary, and a grammar manual. Turn off the television and the stereo. You might even find it helpful to turn out all the lights except a desk lamp. Now you can focus on your draft. 
  5. Read the paper slowly. Mark any mistakes with a red pen. During this first proofing, you should be able to detect errors such as missing words, comma problems, and grammatical mistakes, such as errors in subject-verb agreement. If you are not positive what a word means or how it should be spelled, look it up in a dictionary
  6. Now read the paper again. This time, look at it in an artificial way. For example, you might try reading it backwards word by word or sentence by sentence. You also might try reading it aloud. All of these methods of artificially reading your words force you to see or hear things you might miss if you were reading normally and were distracted by the flow of sentences and paragraphs. 
  7. Using strategies such as these, proofread the paper again and again until you are comfortable with it; then, ask at least one other person to proofread it, as well. 
  8. Go to the computer and make the changes you have noted, as well as any valid changes suggested by someone else. As you make them, check them off the hard copy. After you have finished correcting the mistakes, glance over the paper to make sure all of your changes have been checked. 

  9. One or two days--not the night!--before it is due, print out the final version and put it in your notebook. Go for a run, pick up a magazine, or turn on some music. Relax. You're done!


  1. Topic Sentences: As you read the body of the draft in front of you--that is, everything but the introduction and conclusion--try to identify a topic sentence in each paragraph.  In other words, look for a sentence that seems to summarize the content of the paragraph.  If you find a topic sentence, underline or highlight it.  Now, evaluate this sentence by responding to the questions and instructions below.
    1. Does the topic sentence appear in a position where it can help readers understand the point of the paragraph?  The most effective position of a topic sentence is usually the beginning of a paragraph because it prepares readers for what will follow.  If the topic sentence does not appear in a logical position, suggest moving it.
    2. Is the topic sentence clear?  Try this test: If you can predict what the rest of the paragraph will cover without reading the other sentences in it, the topic sentence probably is clear.
    3. The most effective topic sentences look both backwards and forwards.  That is, they remind the reader of the overall claim of the article, summarize the content of the current paragraph, and show how this paragraph will support the claim.  Does this topic sentence connect the paragraph to the claim?  If not, suggest a change.
    If you did not find a topic sentence in the paragraph, suggest one.  Make sure that it satisfies the criteria above.