Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

Maybe you are reading this article because you’re almost ready to have the final draft of your thesis or academic book/research paper edited, copyedited or proofread. You have put in the hard yards: read, researched, written, reviewed, revised, rewritten and carefully edited, checking that your arguments and research really get you, logically and clearly, from the aims to the conclusions. Right? You have read through many times to check for clarity, spelling and punctuation errors, or inconsistencies in formatting and the citation style. Now you need to hand it over to an objective professional editor who is experienced in academic editing.

If you pay for the services of an editor or proofreader, be prepared for constructive criticism of your writing. Don’t be defensive, but open-minded. Sloppy writing that is left unchecked (unedited) will undermine the value of your book/article/thesis/paper … and your reputation. It can also end very badly if a review is written where it is apparent that not enough time has been allocated to editing. A recent review of ‘Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback’ copped a stinging comment by reviewer Natalya Lusty: ‘The book is littered with editorial errors, undigested ideas and passages that are perplexing if not comical …’ Ouch!

Unfortunately, I have seen examples of this quite frequently when submission deadlines are looming. Once I mentored (coached) an academic for a long period of time who was writing a book and who raced to the finishing line by leaving out the very important full edit, jumping straight to a copy edit. 

Sometimes PhD candidates send me a few chapters at a time to provide a light edit in accordance with the guidelines for copy-editing theses. “I have worked through most of the first six chapters and am so appreciative of the editing. The feedback is invaluable. This has helped to move forward.” PhD thesis, Karen Felstead, Lecturer in Literacy, School of Education, Federation University.

Whether you have written a minor thesis (Honours), a masters or a doctoral thesis, there comes a time—a moment—when you breathe in deeply and tell yourself: that’s it. However, it is common knowledge that when writers read their own work (over and over) they often become ‘blind’ to content flow, pacing, grammatical and spelling errors. Handing your manuscript or thesis to a proofreader/editor who has never read it will provide a ‘fresh eye’ to pick up any mistakes that you may have missed. This last step is important for your peace of mind. You don’t want examiners to find minor grammar errors and inconsistencies throughout your thesis; this sends a message that insufficient care was taken in the final stages of the thesis presentation.

Full-blown editing of a thesis is unacceptable and unethical. A supervisor or editor may draw the thesis writer’s attention to issues that may need to be addressed, but should not provide solutions. It is expected that the academic supervisors of higher degree research students will offer their students editorial advice relating to matters of substance and structure. The thesis structure organises the material to help create a readable narrative (what you are trying to say): a flow that will make sense to an audience (the reader). This may sound like something that only a writer of fiction would need to know, but it is the most important lesson any writer can learn. If you keep a narrative flow in mind as you write your thesis, you will turn a good thesis into an excellent one (source: ‘How to Write a Better Thesis’, Evans, Gruba, Zobel, 2011).

In the interest of readability, it is also important to decide what nomenclature you intend to use. Recently, I proofread a doctoral thesis in which the author mixed the nomenclature. At times she wrote in the first person: I argue; and other times she used the third person: the researcher argues or this thesis/this study argues . . . Sometimes this leads to ambiguity and I frequently had to read a paragraph multiple times to establish if the researcher was referring to the thesis author or the researcher who wrote the paper being referred to.

I advise discussing whether to use the first or third person with your thesis supervisor, and making a decision as to the point of view or voice that best suits your thesis topic. I have found that, in general, science and mathematics thesis writers tend to use the impersonal passive constructions; e.g. It was observed that, or changes have been seen to be successful. These days, more and more thesis writers are being encouraged to write in the first person, active voice; e.g. I observed, or changes showed that. The jury is still out.

The following is an outline of what I do when I’m asked to copy edit/proofread an academic paper or thesis, which will provide you with a few tips.

I make sure that the writing is free from punctuation, capitalisation and grammatical errors. Punctuation may need to be added to a sentence to improve clarity, or the incorrect punctuation may have been used. Capitalisation is often a contentious issue; basically, if the word isn’t a proper noun then don’t capitalise, but I always advise the scholar to check with her or his publisher/supervisor, who may have other ideas of when to capitalise and when not to (I have written about capitalisation here and here).

I look for spelling errors and malapropisms (using an incorrect word that sounds the same as or is similar to the appropriate word by mistake. For example, ‘complement’ rather than ‘compliment’, or ‘their’/‘there’) that spell-check will not identify. Typical spelling problems that spell-check won’t pick up are incorrectly spelt proper nouns, such as people’s names and places.

If necessary, I make suggestions for improvement of sentence and paragraph construction. Some scholars are naturally skilled writers and write fluent sentences that communicate the intended meaning with ease. However, there are many whose writing styles produce awkward, disjointed sentences, or verbose and impenetrable paragraphs (which perhaps they think will impress peers and examiners!). Simple, direct words and sentences that reflect critical thinking impress more than wordy, obscure, roundabout language.

I check that each paragraph introduces one main idea. Does every sentence in the paragraph help to develop that main idea? I also check for redundancy and repetition.

I always advise that when  an expert scholar is quoted, his or her area of expertise is mentioned (e.g. Feminist geographer, [insert name] …).

I check that there are no style guide inconsistencies, particularly in citations and the bibliography.

I usually copy edit/proofread on screen using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes facility. I will return the document to you showing the track changes and any comments will be located in the right hand margin ‘comments bubbles’ for you to consider. As you read through the tracked changes, you can either accept or reject each suggested change. 

After the copy editing/proofreading has been returned to you, and once you have completed the laborious review process (again!), which may involve minor improvements and corrections, I recommend that you return your paper to me for a final read through. New errors have a habit of creeping in once the messy tracked changes are erased and changes made. Don’t take short cuts when facing the final hurdle—stay committed to submitting the best thesis/academic paper you are humanly capable of. I was delighted to be mentioned in one of my client’s Acknowledgements after she had completed her PhD thesis: “I would also like to thank Denise for her incredible help in the proofreading process during the last leg of this journey.”



Academic Editing and Proofreading


Requesting a Quote

If you would like me to provide you with a quote to edit/copy edit/proofread your academic book, paper or thesis, please contact me using the message form on my Contact page. If you would rather email me directly, my email address is I will require information such as the subject matter, the word count, and an idea of the date required for completion. 

My editing is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM) unless an author has been commissioned to write a book using the publishing house style guide. In particular, editing academic writing requires the editor to adhere to the preferred style and referencing of the university department or publisher.


Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

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