A critical examination of proofreading (from latest edition of Studies in Higher Education)

I find proofreading difficult, especially proofreading my own work. I’ve long taken the view that proofreading my own work is beyond my abilities, particularly when a manuscript has gone through multiple drafts. Friends and colleagues generally concur; “You’re too close the text” they sometimes say. I’m always grateful for the professionals who perform this service on my journal articles.

Joan Turner’s critical examination of the nature of proofreading in the most recent edition of Studies in Higher Education is the first treatment of the subject I have come across (not that I have especially been looking out for an article like this, but it caught my attention when the e-mail alert from the journal came into my inbox). Student support centres which provide guidance on writing often emphasise that they are NOT a proofreading service. She writes:

 Such services offer some analysis of issues of style, grammar or rhetorical organisation that students should be aware of and attempt to resolve in their own writing, but they do not provide a 'clean' copy or 'proof' that the student can immediately submit for assessment (p. 427).

The article engages the question of proofreading from different angles. For example:

  1. Is proofreading is a skill which all students should acquire— particularly students whose first language is not English? Is it part of learning to write well?
  2. There is an ambiguity between teaching writing skills and proofreading.
  3. There is a moral question about whether getting someone to read an assessed paper is unfair. And is there an ethical difference between asking a friend to read your work and paying a professional (or non-professional) proof-reader?
  4. Will a proof-reader ‘just’ improve the writing or will they also improve the content of the text? At what point does using a proof-reader become cheating? What is being accessed—the writing or the content? Is it possible to even separate writing style from content?
  5. Does use/ overreliance on a proof-reader lead to lower standards? Does it prevent the students from learning how to write well?

Article reference

Joan Turner, “Rewriting writing in higher education: the contested spaces of proofreading,” Studies in Higher Education 36, no. 4 (2011): 427-440.

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