Proofreading Dissertations: Key Strategies to Optimize the Process

by Dhanya Alex
Proofreading dissertations: Tips to optimize the process

Importance of a well-structured PhD dissertation

If you are reading this, you might have just finished writing or are in the process of finishing your PhD dissertation/thesis. Congratulations are in order, but before submitting your work for review, it’s essential to check your work, focusing on the content and readability. Examiners often tend to be consistent in their practices and recommendations; they review your PhD dissertation based on the contribution to knowledge, critical and analytical dimensions, and good language without typographical or grammatical errors.1  

Good writing is a continuous process involving modification and revision, and proofreading is fundamental to this. But PhD students often underestimate the importance of proofreading the dissertation and skip this step, usually due to deadline constraints.  

But language is as equally important as content. I have come across papers that have been rejected even before peer review because of poor English. This is because, like any reader, reviewers are likely to be annoyed by errors in writing and structuring.2 Proofreading is a final review before your dissertation is presented to the reviewer and the public. It involves reading content with caution and marking surface errors if any.   

Proofreading vs. Editing

Editing and proofreading are different steps in revising your dissertation. Editing comes first, immediately after you finish writing your PhD dissertation, and involves major changes to content, structure, and language. Proofreading is the final stage of checking your dissertation before you submit it. It is less ambitious and focuses on correcting minor errors, especially before you decide to print it. It is also an opportunity for you to recognize the most common errors you make in your writing so you can avoid them in the future. The table below gives the main differences between proofreading and editing. 

Table: Differences between proofreading and editing

 Proofreading Editing 
Purpose Correcting surface errors, such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Identifies inconsistencies in terminology, formatting, and referencing. Improving the overall writing quality in relation to content, language use, and expression.  
Extent of changes Minor aesthetic adjustments to the text. Extensive changes to the text.  
Key questions answered  Are there spelling errors or misplaced words? Are there grammatical or capitalization errors? Are punctuation marks, including quotation marks and apostrophes, used correctly? Are homophones, such as “were,” “where,”  
“we’re,” used correctly? Are there any unnecessary spacings, such as double spaces, particularly at the beginning of paragraphs or after full stops? Are there inconsistencies in document formatting, including incorrectly numbered headings? 
Are proper words/terminologies used to express your ideas?  Is there unnecessary use of passive voice? Excessive use of passive voice does not make for compelling reading. Is the tone appropriate for the target audience? Is your writing concise?  Is it gender-neutral? Are you following all the submission guidelines?  

Tips for effectively proofreading dissertations

Create checklists: It is a good practice to keep a checklist of items to review.3 Common errors to look for and tips to avoid them are listed below. 

Inconsistencies in the use of UK and US English: Set the language of your document for your preferred version of English, and perform a quick spell check using the spell-check tool.  

Spelling or Typographical errors: Spell check is useful but ineffective in avoiding homophones or malapropism. Look for subtle differences in sound or the context of the text when proofreading your manuscript. 

Inconsistent abbreviations: This will require developing a basic understanding of rules relating to abbreviations, such as avoiding them in abstracts or headings and avoiding contractions. 

Punctuation errors: Consistency and proper use of apostrophes, quotation marks, colons, hyphenation, etc., requires a basic understanding of punctuation rules.               

Grammatical errors: A common tip to identify grammatical errors involves reading your sentences backward (i.e., reading the last sentence, then the one before that, and so on), reading out loud, etc. Other methods include using a Spell Checker, hiring a proofreader, or using language and grammar checking tools like Paperpal

Formatting errors: Familiarize yourself with your PhD program’s formatting rules before writing your dissertation. Avoid formatting mistakes, especially in the preliminary pages of your writing. You can also check for and use the dissertation template provided by the program. 

Avoid distractions: A quiet environment with no disturbances is important when sitting down for proofreading. 

Take frequent breaks: It is suggested to leave a decent period between finishing the writing and proofing it so that you approach it with a fresh mind. 

Get outside help: We’ve all seen those memes where you can somehow read words with jumbled-up letters. An outside perspective will help better identify errors, if any. 

Proofreading is the last step in the dissertation writing process. However, it is not something you should skip. Submitting a dissertation that hasn’t been proofread can damage your reputation as your work will almost certainly contain errors. Proofreading dissertations can be the difference between an outstanding and mediocre submission.  


1. Chetcuti, D., Cacciottolo, J., Vella, N. What do examiners look for in a PhD thesis? Explicit and implicit criteria used by examiners across disciplines. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1-16 (2022), DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2022.2048293  

2. Golding, C., Sharmini, S., Lazarovitch, A. What examiners do: What thesis students should know. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563–576 (2014). DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2022.2048293  

3. Harwood, N., Austin, L., & Macaulay, R. Proofreading in a UK university: Proofreaders’ beliefs, practices, and experiences. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(3), 166-190 (2009). DOI:10.1016/j.jslw.2009.05.002 

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