Academic Editing and Proofreading Guide for Non-Native Researchers
This guide is for postgraduate PhD and Master’s students who are interested to learn how to edit and proofread their own academic work. Academic work could comprise manuscripts of any format, including PhD/Master’s theses or dissertations, journal papers, conference proceedings, research proposals, extended abstracts, or anything in between. Hopefully you would learn a thing or two after reading this guide, and this would help you to increase your chances of your paper getting accepted for publication.
After about editing and proofreading thousands academic manuscripts of all types, lengths and disciplines (ranging from linguistics and social sciences, engineering and artificial intelligence, medicine and life sciences, all the way to finance and management), we aim to highlight the most common language errors that non-native English speakers make when editing their research manuscripts.
We also provide some examples common mistakes and how to edit them. Language errors can be categorized into two major classes, namely, (1) technical, surface-level errors, which can be resolved by korektury; and (2) formative, readability errors, which can be resolved by editace.
Before we delve deeper and take a closer look at all of the components involved, we should first explicitly clarify the difference between editing and proofreading. Essentially, people tend to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a significant difference between editing and proofreading, especially in the context of academic writing.
Editing is a more formative process that takes place on every draft of the manuscript. Editing involves refining the manuscript in terms of sentence structure and composition, coherency and flow of ideas, clarity and concisenessa academic tone. It also assists to improve the overall readability of the manuscript and bring it up to publication standard. An editor would aim to ensure that it gets the author’s meaning across to the intended audience in the best manner possible.
Oftentimes, this also takes into account cutting irrelevant words and eliminating redundant portions of the text to ensure that it communicates the author’s message in a straightforward and concise manner. The editor makes choices about what to keep, what to take out of the subsequent draft, and what to emphasize in more detail.
In the process of editing, semantics and factual aspects of the writing come into play. This is a broader process (compared to proofreading), comprising extensive structural adjustment, rephrasing, additions, deletions, formatting, and commenting on the content.
Korektury, on the other hand, focuses on technical, surface-level of grammar and syntax rather than on semantics and readability. It is more corrective than formative. Proofreaders are essentially ‘word mechanics‘, focusing on adjusting grammatical/syntactic, punctuation and spelling/typographical errors.
Since it is not the role of the proofreader to address factual issues or the actual context of the research work, they sometimes read one word at a time, or even read the text backwards, to help pay closer attention to each individual sentence. Proofreading is a lighter process (compared to editing), but also requires very careful attention, as the manuscript is sent off to the publishers after being proofread.
Which comes first?
If you plan to perform both tasks at once, editing should come before proofreading. This is because in the former, you would re-organize portions of text and make additions and deletions to improve readability and coherency of ideas. You would also adjust sentence structure, and improve academic tone and style. These are major modifications, hence editing. Once that is over, proofreading for surface-level errors (e.g. typos) can be performed as the final step, right before the manuscript is sent for review.
Editing for readability errors:
1. Coherence, cohesion and flow of ideas
Coherence and cohesion in academic writing is the ‘bridge’ between words, sentences, and paragraphs. Coherent and cohesive writing seamlessly connect ideas/concepts in each sentence and paragraph. In other words, this is the ‘glue’ that sticks your ideas together. This ensures that the ideas discussed are unified and flow well, and your readers are able to easily follow your train of thought. At the word level, always maintain parallel construction, which involves presenting words and ideas in parallel grammatical form, especially in lists.
Four factors to help maintain coherence:
- Arranging your statements, ideas and topics in logical order
- Repeating key terms and nouns
- Using consistent pronouns
- Using strategic transition signals to link your ideas together
If your writing lacks coherence, and you shift in topics at the sentence and paragraph level, however, your readers would have a hard time following your writing. For example, if you are discussing Theory A, you would want to discuss Theory B next, not jump to Theory C. This is something you would certainly want to avoid in your writing.
2. Sentence structure and composition
‘Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The most common issues with sentence structure are run-on sentences, sentence fragments, overuse of the passive voice and incorrect use of conjunctions. Avoid the use of very long and complex sentences.
Run-on sentences are sentences that are improperly formed by connecting two independent clauses. Longer sentences does necessarily mean they are better. Sometimes, they are stretched too far, to the degree they become run-on sentences. Sometimes a comma is inserted in between two sentences to results in a run-on sentence (referred to as a comma splice).
Alternatively, simplicity and directness should be your main priority. This can be done by using simple sentences, or by adjusting the sentence structure to a correct version. This is done by using a period to split the sentence into smaller ones by using a period, or by using a semicolon, comma, or a subordinating conjunction to adjust the sentence structure. Some examples:
Incorrect run-on: I am writing a research paper It has taken six months.
Incorrect run-on due to comma splice: I am writing a research paper, It has taken six months.
Correctly splitting run-on in two: I am writing a research paper. It has taken six months.
Correctly using a semicolon: I am writing a research paper; it has taken six months.
Correctly using a comma and subordinating conjunction: I am writing a research paper, but it has taken six months.
Sentence fragments are groups of words that do not form a complete sentence or idea. This is often a case of a missing subject or predicate. An example of a sentence fragment wherein the subject is missing: Was implemented in the study. This can be easily corrected by adding a subject, like so: A survey was implemented in the study.
Overuse of the passive voice occurs when you prioritize this style over the active voice, which is always recommended in academic writing.
Passive voice: The survey was completed by the participants in three hours.
Active voice (recommended): The participants completed the survey in three hours.
Incorrect use of conjunctions occurs when conjunctions are inappropriately used in between clauses. This is a very common error that tends to re-occur.
Incorrect: Although the model achieved high accuracy, but it was relatively slower than state-of-the-art.
Correct: Although the model achieved high accuracy, it was relatively slower than state-of-the-art.
3. Clarity and conciseness
‘A good style must first be clear’ (Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, 350 BC)
Clarity refers to concise sentences that are short, to-the-point and easy to read. Use words frugally to eliminate redundancy and wordiness. Adding too much irrelevant ‘filler content’ tends to dilute your paper and shift the focus of the topic discussed to another entirely different one. A good question to ask is “does this sentence or expression contribute to the topic being discussed?” If not, remove it. Avoid unnecessary text in academic writing, and be as clear and concise as possible. Put yourself in the reader’s place. This would help you to maintain a good level of clarity by avoiding extra irrelevant text. Academic manuscripts such as PhD theses and journal papers always have a specified wordcount anyway. Keep in mind that it is your ideas that should be complex, not the sentences discussing them!
Some tips to maintain concise writing are:
- Remove unnecessary words that do not contribute to the meaning (The author attempted to meet the participants and requested for them to carry out the survey sessions [17 words] can be condensed to The author carried out the survey with the participants [nine words]).
- Merge synonyms together (Authors, researchers and scholars agree that… can be changed to Authors agree that… ).
- Eliminate expletive constructions (it is, there are, there was) (There was a total of eight datasets for evaluation can be replaced with Eight datasets were used for evaluation).
- Edit mercilessly! Refine your sentences so that they are short, simple and are to-the-point.
4. Academic terminology and tone
Academic style comes with a formal, objective tone in the majority of disciplines. This distinguishes it from other types of creative writing styles, which can be more subjective in nature.
It is easier to discuss what to avoid in this case.
- Avoid the second person in academic writing. Commonly, always maintain your writing in the third person for theses (e.g. the researcher conducted… instead of I conducted…), and in the third or first person in journal papers. (The journal would recommended which point of view it accepts.)
- Avoid giving your personal opinions; discuss factual, logical arguments instead.
- Avoid working on your own. Always backup your statements by citing related studies in the related literature.
- Avoid the use of informality, slang words, metaphors and figures of speech. Maintain the use of formal words available in a well-known dictionary (e.g. Merriam Webster).
- Avoid the use of contractions (can’t, weren’t, etc.).
- Avoid exaggeration and vague writing. Precision is always preferred.
- Avoid rhetorical questions.
- Avoid overuse of the passive voice.
- Avoid making broad generalizations (rarely, never).
- Avoid an emotional or subjective tone (sad, upset).
- Avoid using too many adverbs (clearly, very), and adjectives (fantastic, outstanding).
- Avoid using casual, everyday language, and replace them with key terminology and diction from the discipline of your research topic.
Proofreading for surface-level errors:
1. Grammatical/syntactic errors
This involves checking the manuscript for any gramatické chyby and fixing them accordingly. Some common grammatical errors are subject-verb agreement, noun-pronoun agreement, verb tense, squinting modifiers, overuse of adverbs, incorrect article usage, and active voice.
The primary rule here is that a singular subject should always correspond to a singular verb (the list is), while a plural subject should always correspond to a plural verb (the lists are). A tricky example is the group of researchers is analyzing the results. One would argue, well the group of researchers is plural. However, following this rule, the subject is group and not researchers, hence, we use the verb is here and not are.
The basic rule to remember is that if the noun is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. For example: Every researcher must specify his or her field of study. Since the the noun researcher is singular, the corresponding pronoun (his or her) must also be singular. Another example is: The researchers must specify their corresponding fields of study. Since the noun researchers is plural, the corresponding pronoun must also be plural (their).
The most common tenses in academic writing are the simple present, simple past and present perfect.
The simple present is used to discuss a general truth, or to discuss implications of results. For example: The firm adopts employee satisfaction protocols that are updated yearly. Another example is: This results demonstrates that…
The simple past is used to discuss a completed event that occurred at a specific point in the past. For example: Smith et al. (2021) claimed that the majority of the population was in agreement with…
The present perfect is used to discuss an event that has occurred at an unknown point in the past. For example: Researchers have investigated this phenomenon…
For research proposals that discuss a study that will be conducted in the future, the future tense is used. For example: This research will explore the existing literature on…
Squinting or dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier occurs when a modifier is placed within a sentence but it is unclear whether it is modifying what precedes it or what follows it. For example:
Incorrect: To enhance the results, the experiment was conducted again.
Correct: The experiment was conducted again to enhance the results.
Overuse of adverbs
It is not recommended to use too many adverbs or modifiers in academic writing, since they often very closely relate to the verb they modify. Using too many unnecessary adverbs portrays cluttered writing and will annoy your readers.
For example, blaring can be used without the adverb in blaring loudly, since blaring is already considered loud. It can be said that strong verbs are weakened by unnecessary, often ‘redundant’ adverbs. Use them sparingly, only if they contribute to the meaning of the verbs they modify.
Articles are used to indicate if a noun refers to a general (a chair, an apple) or a specific (the chair at my desk, the apple in my bag) item. The indefinite articles are a and an, and the definite article is the.
- The rule of thumb is to to use a/an with countable, singular nouns (a chair, an apple).
- Use an if the word starts with a, e, i, o u and y (only if the y is pronounced like a ‘y’). Some examples are: an apple, an institute, a university.
- Use a/an on the first mention of the countable, singular noun, but use the with later mentions. For example: I found an institute that teaches Computer Science. I later found out that the institute also teachers Programming subjects as well.
- Use the to specify a particular entity, or an entity that is well-known. For example, the final exam, the apple in my bag, the universe.
In academic and scientific writing, using the active voice often helps to ensure clarity for readers, and allows for more simple and concise sentences. You avoid overuse of the passive voice, and use it sparingly.
Active voice: Smith et al. (2021) conducted a study on the new dataset.
Passive voice: A study on the new dataset was conducted by Smith et al. (2021).
There are cases when the passive voice can be used strategically, e.g., when the action-taker (subject) is not important, and you want to emphasize the action itself. For example: The participants of the study each received a phone call one week prior to the interview. The use of the passive voice is intentional here, since the author does not want to use the first person (I called the participants of the study…). It is clear that the researcher has performed the action here, and that he wants to emphasize the action, which is more important then the subject, since it is already implicitly known. When you are unable to decide whether to use the active or passive voice, stick with the the former.
2. Spelling/typographical errors
‘That awkward moment when you spell a common word correctly, but it just looks so wrong that you stare at it forever, questioning its existence’
- This involves checking the manuscript for any spelling or typographical mistakes and adjusting them. Some tips are:
- Use an automated spell checker first, since it can assist to perform an initial search for spelling mistakes.
- This also involves adjusting the manuscript to US or UK English format, and remaining consistent of this throughout. The English style to use is determined by the journal or publisher.
- Consistency is important, as various synonyms are sometimes used interchangeably. It is always recommended to try to stick to one particular variation of a word and stick to that.
- It is important to keep in mind the capitalization of proper nouns and key terminology. If you are unsure, refer to a dictionary.
3. Punctuation and comma usage errors
This involves checking the punctuation (commas, colons, apostrophes, etc.) of each sentence, and making sure the punctuation symbols are being applied properly. These help to enhance the clarity of your writing and keep the content organized. Punctuation can be done last, and this involves carefully inspecting punctuation on a sentence-by-sentence basis.