Academic Proofreading: How Far to Go
  • 4-minute read
  • 22nd August 2023

Academic Proofreading: How Far to Go

Editors often ask us how far we can go when proofreading academic papers. The simple answer is that we must be careful not to alter the content of any academic essay. ‘Content’ means the arguments put forward, any facts presented, or positions taken by the writer. These are no-go areas for proofreaders. The actual writing is what concerns us.

EAL Writers

EAL students can be disadvantaged by limited English language skills. Often their tutors will ask them to get their work proofread before it can be marked. Therefore, it’s our job to help the writer say what they want to say in a way that is clear for the reader. We don’t need to query what they are saying or advise them to review facts (unless they are the subject of very obvious typos or misuse of words). Our aim is just to make sure they are able to say what they want to say, whatever it may be. 

By the same token, we cannot always know what they mean to say ourselves, so we have to take care. If a writer has used a jumble of words, but you can pretty much see what they are driving at, you can rewrite that sentence and add a comment asking if that’s what they meant. If, on the other hand, you are really unsure, or if there could be different interpretations, you should leave a comment asking them to revise it, as their meaning is unclear. 

Ultimately, it is still the writer’s document and they have to decide whether or not to accept our changes and suggestions. 

NB for Proofed editors: If the customer has only paid for proofreading but the document really needs editing, please contact Editor Support at the earliest juncture so that they can see if the customer can upgrade to the editing service. 


Below are some examples indicating how far you can legitimately go when proofreading EAL academic papers. We show the original text and three different approaches to proofreading it. 

Example 1

Original text Often student use acrylics paints when they draw after the classical painting, but one can ask maybe if they think the image they make is more like the same as them than what they use the watercolour?
Not enough* Often students use acrylic paints to draw from the classical paintings, but one can ask if they think the image they make is the same as when they use watercolours?
About right** Students often use acrylic paints when copying classical paintings. Perhaps they think images painted with acrylic paints look more like classical paintings than when they use watercolour.
Going too far*** Students prefer to use acrylic paints when painting in the classical style, as the results look more like oil painting.

* This still does not read well.

** You might doubt the point being made, but it’s now clear what the writer is trying to say, and it is in reasonable English.

*** You may have changed the meaning.

Example 2

Original text The beginning of ‘family’ is started by marriage or some partners prefers to live together, does not have any official marriage.
Not enough The beginning of ‘family’ is started by marriage. Some partners prefer to live together and do not have any official marriage.
About right Creating a family begins with marriage or, in some cases, the joining of partners who prefer to live together without having an official marriage.
Too much Couples who marry or live together may then go on to start a family.

Example 3

Original text Besides, SN/VTA can be activated only when we see total novel stimuli and it makes the constant brain react instant bigly. Also, the novelty is down to our motivation to get rewards and not a reward itself like dopamine. [NB This is quite an extreme quote, which you’d be justified in querying, but for the sake of the example, below are the approaches you could take]
Not enough Besides, SN/VTA can only be activated when we see totally novel stimuli and it makes the brain react instantly and in a big way. Also, this novelty is because of our motivation for rewards, rather than being a reward itself like dopamine.
About right In addition, SN/TVA, which causes an instant, major reaction in the brain, can only be activated by the sight of novel stimuli. This response to novelty is a result of the reward motivation driven by the dopamine in our brains.
Too much The dopamine in our brains triggers our need for reward, which makes us have an instant, overwhelming response to the sight of new things.
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