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How to Proofread Your Own PhD Thesis

How do you go about doing this, beyond just using the spellcheck feature, investigating any squiggly red lines, and reading it aloud?

I'm not trying to put myself out of a job here, and nothing replaces having an experienced, trained eye go over your VERY hard-won 100,000 word opus. It's much nicer to put it in a professional's hands and take a week's holiday than do it yourself – but sometimes the funds just do not allow (not to mention the week's holiday). So what words of wisdom can I offer, as both a proofreader and academic?

Step 1 – Create a Style Sheet

This is what professional proofreaders do anyway. It's just a list of conventions you are using in your thesis. For example, if you choose to write 20th century, and then you spot 'twentieth century' (or the 'th' with superscript!), you know to change this for consistency. Your thesis will have specialised terms and uncommon scientific vocabulary (possibly including code or equations), so it's useful to note these for reference. The style sheet is also useful for keeping track of words that can vary in spelling due to different Englishes' conventions – do you write analyse or analyze? Center or centre? Archaeology or archeology?

Lots of 'rules' are actually just conventions – and if you stick to one, then it looks neat, tidy, professional and cared for. This goes for things like capitalisation and hyphens between words. If you're not sure which one to use, first Google and see what others do – then be sure to use that throughout the document. Do you put a comma after e.g. and i.e.? Do you use single quotation marks or double?

Read through the text and as soon as you find something that may have some variation, search and check all is consistent (and write this on your style sheet). CTRL + F is your best friend!

Step 2 – Are Your Titles and Headers Consistent?

Assuming you are using a table of contents that auto-generates from your headers in-text, they should match when you update the table. But are you consistent with your use of capitalisation throughout the header hierarchy? For example, your main heading and subheading might use title case* (Every Main Word Is Capitalised). However, any nested subheaders might use sentence case (Only the first word is capitalised). This is completely your own choice (unless you are following a strict university style).

*You might find this website very helpful: Capitalize My Title ( allows you to write your title in, and adjusts it to the style you are following. Just in case you are confused about whether or not to capitalise 'to' or 'Hand-out' (wait, is it 'Hand-Out'?).

Another thing to check – do you follow your headers with a period? Do they begin with a number? Do the numbers end with a period? Check that you do not number 2.1.1. but then write 2.1.2 (and forget its period). Check that you do not start with 2.0, but 3.1 in the next chapter. Looking closely at your table of contents should allow you to spot these inconsistencies.

P.S. you can note all these things in your style sheet so you don't have to keep scrolling to check!

Step 3 – Are Your Figures and Tables in Order and Consistently Presented?

Make sure that your figures and tables appear in the proper order, and that their captioning is consistent. Watch out for some captions ending with a period and others without. Watch that in text you don't refer to Figure 1, but then Fig. 2., Figure Three... etc. Also check the spacing before and after when placing these in the document. My sympathies when adding a line causes Word to have a meltdown.

Step 4 – References

Even if you are using referencing software, there might be some inconsistent entries throughout the text. Search 'et al' and make sure you have consistently italicised (or not) and added a period after (or not), have divided the author and year with a comma (or not), have separated citations with a semicolon (or comma), and page numbers with p. (or pp. or neither). And write it in your style sheet!

Step 5 – Know Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses

If you know you get its/it's, or their/there/they're mixed up, or you learned English not as a child and are therefore are continuously frustrated whether to use 'the', 'a', or nothing (oh my gosh, I am so sorry – I wish I had a solution but English is just evil in this respect), then obviously take some special care in checking this part of your thesis. It might just not be worth your time, however, and getting someone else's eyes really are needed to not distract or confuse the reader. Just do your best – the thesis *should* be marked on its content and research contribution, and not our dyslexia, our English fluency, or rewarded because we're privileged to not have to deal with these added challenges! Reviewers and markers, however, do have unconscious (and sometimes conscious) biases.

The hardest thing about polishing your own work is that we are often blind to our own mistakes and inconsistencies – our brain just fills in what we expect to be there. An untrained proofreader, say a friend who has immaculate language, might think they are being helpful but just might meddle a bit too much with your voice. While it's great if someone is willing to help check over your work, politely ask that they keep their edits to just 'error spotting' instead of highlighting all your split infinitives and adding Oxford commas.

So, in short – get a professional proofreader if you can. It is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and you want your thesis to be its 'best-dressed' self. But if you can't, there are things you can do to still make it shiny. And be proud! You're getting a PhD.

Is there anything I've missed? Let me know in the comments! What are your best tips for self-proofreading?


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