The Pre-Flight Checklist (A Step Beyond Proofreading)

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When you finish writing a paper, what are the last things you do with it before turning it in? Say it’s late in the library, and you’ve been working on the same long paper for several days, maybe weeks. Perhaps the paper has been through several drafts and you’re already sick of revising your thesis, refining your main points and re-wording the same sentences over and over again. Maybe at this point all you want to do is check for typos, hit print and be done with the paper forever.

Proofreading, spellcheck and the like are certainly common (and necessary) parts of the “pre-flight checklist” most writers run through before releasing their paper into the wilds of publication (or a professor’s inbox). But if you only focus on checking off these “lower-order” concerns as you prepare to turn in your completed paper, you risk overlooking deeper flaws that may have escaped notice during the writing and editing process.

The longer the time spent with a single piece, the more difficult it is to identify and correct flaws in the writing and argumentation. This fatigue might make it difficult to take a fresh approach to your paper and locate “gaps” or holes in logic that may have already evaded notice through multiple revisions. Luckily there are strategies you can employ to help gain some new perspective on your final draft and catch those persistent errors before they catch you.

  • Read your paper out loud in its entirety. If a friend or tutor is available, read it to them, or have them read it to you. This is also a common strategy while drafting a paper, but it can be especially helpful for catching errors and inconsistencies when the paper is in its final state. Hearing your writing read aloud, especially in another’s voice, may help you spot weaknesses in your argument or prose that weren’t apparent to you while writing.

What can I learn from hearing my paper spoken aloud?

  • Explain your basic argument without referencing your paper. Again, this works well if you have another person to explain to, but even summarizing your main points to yourself verbally can help you get a better sense of your paper’s coherence at this stage. See if your blind explanation matches the structure and content of your argument as it appears in the paper. If points or details emerge in your explanation that aren’t made clear enough in the paper, you may want to check those out before turning it in.

Have I convinced myself of my argument?

  • Map your paper out conceptually on a blank sheet of paper. Creating a visual representation of your paper can help you see any gaps that might still be present. Notice how long it takes you to map out your ideas and how you feel when doing so. If it’s easy for you and your map is clear and logical, you are probably just about ready to submit your paper.

Does my map point to any conceptual hole that needs “filling”?

  • Circle each use of a special term, if using any. Check to see that the term is used consistently and clearly every time. Depending on the subject, you may or may not have to define certain academic terms in your paper. You might find yourself defining your own term and subsequently using it throughout your paper. In either case, you’ll want to be sure that your use of a term indicates a clear understanding of its meaning.

Is it clear that I understand the terms I’m using? Are they used correctly each time?

  • Summarize each paragraph in a short sentence. Piece together those sentences in order.
    • Compare each summary sentence with your thesis.

Is my “flow” of ideas clear? Does each summary sentence directly support the thesis? Does anything not belong in the paper or need to be placed elsewhere?

    • Check your conclusion against the summary.

Does my conclusion reflect the content, organization, and structure of the paper as a whole? Have I convinced myself of my argument?

Writing a paper can be a trying experience, and ideally your grade should reflect the time and effort you have put into it. It sometimes comes as a surprise when you receive a grade that is a few notches lower than what you expected. You have a solid foundation, your professor says, but your execution is a bit choppy. Perhaps his or her comments point to unclear sentences, problems with structure, and confusion about your flow of ideas. You’re frustrated because you thought you had submitted a polished paper and you don’t know how you could have caught these errors on your own.

We hope that using our strategies above will prevent this situation. We encourage you to try them out and see what works for you next time you are close to submitting a paper. Leave a day or two before its due date and experiment. You might find that this is exactly the final touch you’ve been looking for.

by Emily Lin-Jones and Kuba Jeffers

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One thought on “The Pre-Flight Checklist (A Step Beyond Proofreading)

  1. I’d like to recommend a slight variation to one of the above methods. Instead of summarizing each of your paragraphs with a sentence, look for a sentence (or pair of sentences) in each paragraph that already summarizes that paragraph. This sentence should be your topic sentence. If there isn’t one already, you should add one. Then you can do the second part of the exercise and use all your topic sentences to examine the structure of your paper. This variation just adds the additional step of checking that each paragraph has a clear topic sentence (or pair of sentences that serves as a topic sentence).

    A great checklist though! I really like the exercise on checking your usage of key terms because it is very applicable to philosophy papers.

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