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tactics for proof-reading

Practical tips for effective proof-reading – by Pat Thomson


I am one of the world’s worst at proof-reading my own work. I’m quite good at revising, but not so good at the final checks. Regular readers of this blog will sometimes spot the odd proofreading omission  – the good news is that I usually pick it up, albeit often after a few days 😦 .

Proof-reading isn’t an easy thing to do – most writers are inclined to see what we thought we’d written, rather than what we actually have. We miss the odd spelling mistake, missing comma, over long sentence, the too often repeated word. It’s hardly surprising we miss these slip ups as most pieces of writing that are ready for proof-reading have been through multiple drafts and revisions. The proof-reading trick is to try to make the text appear unfamiliar and strange, almost as if someone else had written it.

So here’s a few tactics that can help:

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good academic writing – it’s about revision not editing


Creative writers are accustomed to the idea that their writing must go through several drafts. However, much of the advice on offer to academic writers proceeds as if all they have to do is produce a draft which is then edited, tidied up, everything made neat and clean. I have seen many a thesis completion timetable come unstuck because doctoral researchers do not grasp the fact that by and large this is not what happens. Most of us have to do more than one draft of a piece of academic writing. In reality, very few of us write the scintillating introduction, the elegant conclusion, the persuasive argument right from the start. It takes several iterations.

A few people do of course produce brilliant prose early, and consistently. Prolific writers and those who just happen to be good with words do seem to be able to just gallop off a chapter…

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How Much Feedback Can You Give? (or Take?)

Feedback is a word associated with very ambivalent feelings.

By and large, students need it and seek it. Faculty are loath to give it.

Admittedly, from the students’ perspective, getting feedback is often one of the best and easiest ways to make adequate changes and improve on performance.

For them, feedback should be prompt, relevant and easy to take on board.

On the contrary, from the academics’ perspective, providing feedback is often an extra burden to an already heavy workload and often translates into a painful and tedious activity.

No wonder so many universities score low on feedback on the National Student Survey. We are no execption.

Yet, providing useful, personal and detailed feedback is – or should be – a core activity of any teacher or supervisor who wishes his/her students to do well. So how does one reconcile two apparently conflicting demands?

I found my answer to this question some time ago, as I stumbled upon a blog post almost accidentally.

As it often happens with any serendipitous event, I have soon lost track of the original post, so I’m unable to give explicit credit to its author. But I’m happy to share its wisdom further.

The post suggested a (at least for me) radically different approach to giving feedback. It was an approach that would allow me to give plenty of valuable feedback to each of my students in a relatively short time and with comparatively little effort.

The students, in turn, would enjoy the novelty but most importantly, they would get the benefit of a very detailed and personal feedback on their written work that did not require them to decipher my handwriting or figure out what I had meant exactly with those funny scribbles of mine on their paper.

So, what was this magic bullet, then?


Video feedback.

And here is a short video-clip of a real case example of feedback I provided to one of my PhD students on her first year report (the clip is published with my student’s permission):

Cool, isn’t it?

I have become a great enthusiast of this approach because it offers lots of advantages compared to more traditional approaches. Some of the most obvious ones are listed here:

  • I can record the video any time it suits me without arranging a meeting with the student (this is especially useful when one of us is away and arranging for a Skype call may prove difficult)
  • I can provide lots of useful verbal feedback that would probably take me ten times longer if I had to write it all down
  • The student can watch the video whenever it suits him/her
  • the student can watch the video as many times and s/he wants to or needs to
  • I still have the option of adding written feedback on the original document (either through annotations on the doc or pdf file as in my example about or through handwritten annotation using a smart pen on tablet)

So, how does it work in practice?

Well… the way I do it is as follows: the student sends me a report, a chapter draft or any written document that I am supposed to read and provide feedback on. I read the document and take quick notes as I go along, often annotating the pdf or doc file directly. I decide what I want to say in my feedback: I typically start with some general points and then move on to some very specific issues. And finally, I hit the record button on my screencast software.

If a 5-min video is enough for your purposes, the easiest thing is to download and install some free software that allows you to take a screen-capture of your computer screen. When I started off, I used Jing ( ): it is very intuitive and easy to use. You launch the program, open the student’s report, select the area on your screen that you want to capture and start recording. Once finished, Jing provides a number of different ways to share your videos, including copying the link to it straight into your clipboard. You can then send the link to the video via email, save the recorded file on your computer or even upload it to to share further.

Jing’s only limitation is time. You cannot record videos longer than 5 minutes (although of course you are free to record as many 5-min videos as you want).

If you feel more adventurous or need longer recording capacity, you may consider more professional packages. The video clip above was taken with Camtasia Studio ( ), a video recording and editing suite. Camtasia is not free, but its capabilities are amazing. (In fact, I have started using Camtasia also for producing high quality videos for purposes other than giving feedback.)

Admittedly, the learning curve with using Camtasia is much steeper at first, but once you grasp the basics you can record, save and export your videos in a matter of minutes.

I’m sure there are plenty of other software out there for you to choose from. These are just a couple of examples that work well for me.

Have I gone away from providing feedback in traditional face-to-face meetings? No. But video feedback has come extremely handy on lots of occasions.

Of course, like everything you do for the first time, providing video feedback may take you a while to get used to, but the time you save in the long run is definitely worthwhile the initial hussle.

So, if you are an academic struggling with finding the time to give your students valuable and detailed feedback, why not give it a try?

And if you are a student who would love to receive video feedback from your supervisors, why not share this post with your them?

I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

PS Oh, and if you happen to be the author of the blog post I mention, please know that I’m hugely grateful to you (you know who you are!).

Do You Recognise Yourself Here?


  1. Making a start;
  2. Sticking to a productive routine;
  3. Lacking confidence;
  4. Getting the right structure;
  5. Using the appropriate academic style;
  6. Managing distractions…

These are just some of the most common struggles amongst PhD students according to the survey (over 100 participants) I carried out while preparing for my webinar ‘My Top 3 Tips to Help You Write Your Thesis or Research Paper’.

To be honest, none of it came as a surprise.

That’s because as a student I faced exactly the same problems. And as a supervisor I see my (and other) students struggling with the same issues all the time.

For most of us, academic writing does not come easily. In fact, writing up a PhD thesis or a research paper can be such a daunting task that almost stops you in your tracks.

The good news, though, is that academic writing is a craft that can be learned. All you need is someone to show you how.

As a student, I have been incredibly lucky to have a supervisor who would spend tons of time reading my drafts, providing feedback and telling me exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

Has it been easy? No.

I struggled and worried and fretted, up to the point I honestly thought I would not make it to submission. But then, little by little, revision after revision, I got there in the end.

And I learned a lot.

This is what I now try to teach my own students and all those who have got in touch asking for help and support.

So, if you see yourself in the figure above, I have good news for you.

I have created an online course for people like you who want to improve their academic writing skills but don’t quite know how.

It’s called Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Yet, you do not need to be a scientist to benefit from lots of powerful strategies and tips that can make a difference in your writing and help you become a more productive, confident and successful writer in your discipline.

Registrations for the course are now open. And if you sign up by January 14th (midnight UK time) you get 50% discount.

Several people have already enrolled. Here is how you can join us.

PS If this is not for you but you know someone who might be interested, please pass this on! They’ll be grateful to you 🙂

holiday question 1: Why are there so few Academic Writing courses?

An interesting question, still awaiting an answer…

A post from Julia Molinari, currently doing a PhD on ‘academic writing’ at the School of Education, The University of Nottingham.


This is a guest post from Julia Molinari from the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Julia is currently doing doctoral research into ‘academic writing’.

A range of motivations, both personal and professional, have triggered the following observations, and the main reason for writing this is to see who else – ‘out there’ – has been wondering why Creative Writing courses abound and Academic Writing ones are much less likely to be found!

I know many undergraduates, postgraduates and fully-established academics – all ‘native’ speakers of English – who find it hard to write ‘academically’ and who rely on copy-editors not just to proofread, but to do the stuff that transforms a text from mere writing, to ‘good’ writing, writing that will draw in and inform an intended reader (writing that is authoritative, has a voice and a clear take-home message, to name just a handful from Pat’s blog)…

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