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Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s: Edit and proofread your reports like an expert

Congratulations! You have nearly finished all your reports. There are just two more steps. First you need to edit your reports, and then you need to proofread them.

Some people confuse editing and proofreading, but they are actually two quite different processes. Editing is making sure that each report says exactly what you want it to say in a clear, simple and unambiguous manner. Whereas proofreading involves casting a critical eye over your finished work in search of errors.

Expert editing tips!

So, to editing your own work. The aim is to make sure your vocabulary is simple and free of jargon. Keep in mind who will be reading the report. The student (as well as their parent or guardian) reading the report is after some idea of their progress, not an update on the breathtaking range of your vocabulary.

Ditch the jargon

If you have used any jargon, see if you can get the same meaning across in simpler words, e.g. ‘Fid needs to pay attention’, rather than ‘Fid would benefit greatly from maximising use of his attention span.’ Short, simple sentences are more immediate and easier to read.

Check word usage

If you’ve used a word but you don’t quite know what it means or how to spell it, look it up in a dictionary. It’s too easy to write something that sounds like a word but is based on spoken English that will just leave students and parents baffled. For example, as a kid I looked up ‘ordapends’ in the dictionary because I kept hearing adults say, ‘It ordapends.’ I couldn’t find it. And that’s because ‘ordapends’ is a spoken version of ‘It all depends’. So if you are not 100 per cent sure what a word means, look it up. Writing something like ‘Tanya’s success next semester ordapends on how well she applies herself’ will not look good.

Double-check students’ names

Double-check the spelling of each student’s name and make sure any pronouns match that student’s gender: he, his (male); she, hers (female). It’s too easy to copy and paste from one report to the next and leave the pronouns unchanged, which can cause red faces all round. Be especially sensitive to the pronouns you use when referring to any LGBQTI students—the pronoun you use should match the student’s gender preference.

Double-check tenses

Double-check the tenses. If you are writing about something a student has done, you will be using past tense: achieved, reached, consolidated, showed. For example, ‘Sammi’s work this semester showed new levels of maturity’.

If you are commenting about something that is still current, you will be using present tense: achieve, reach, consolidate, show. For example, ‘It’s great to see Isaac achieve what he is capable of’.

If you are commenting about future classroom work or projects, use future tense: achieving, reaching, consolidating, showing. For example, ‘I’d like to see Cynthia extending herself next semester rather than being content to be a C+ student’.

Use active voice

Check you have used active voice in your sentences. This is a bit tricky to explain briefly, but a command of active voice is something to aim for in your writing even if you don’t grasp it fully in time to apply in your reports. A sentence in active voice goes subject + verb + object, e.g. Dara (subject) achieved (verb) great results (object). It means that the subject (Dara) performed the action. The opposite of active voice is passive voice, where the object performs the action. A sentence in passive voice goes in the opposite order: object + verb + subject, e.g. Great results (object) were achieved (verb) by Dara (subject). Active voice is easier to read and understand. Passive voice makes everything remote and distant and, if you read too much of it, will put you to sleep. (Trust me—I proofread Annual Reports!)

Double-check the mark

Double-check the mark you intended to give the student and that all required boxes have been ticked.

Check use of Australian English

Two final tweaks before proofreading. First, make sure your report is in Australian English. Whole books have been written on this subject, but the two most important things to remember about Australian spelling are that we use:

• ‘-ise’ not ‘-ize’ endings: criticise, realise not criticize, realize

• ‘-our’ not ‘-or’ endings: colour, favour not color, favor.

Use a spellchecker

It’s time to run each report through a spellchecker. Spellcheckers are not 100 per cent accurate, but they can be relied upon to pick up at least one howler that you have completely missed, such as two words stuck together without a space between them.

Now that the editing is all done and your reports are as clear as you can make them, it’s time for proofreading.

Expert proofreading tips!

It can be tricky to proofread your own writing. The tendency is to read what you think you wrote, rather than what you actually wrote. However, there are a few tricks to get around this.

Proofread on paper

First, print out each report so that you can proofread it on paper. You can proofread onscreen, but be aware that proofreading onscreen takes 20 per cent longer, is harder on your eyes (which tend to jump up and down between lines) and is less accurate. Spaces between words that look fine on screen can sometimes be double spaces or non-existent on paper.

Do a paper and pencil check

Now, using a pencil, deliberately look for capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and tick them. Do the same for full stops at the end of sentences and commas inside sentences. You will find that looking at specific components of each report allows your eyes to relax and you will pick up other errors without actively looking for them.

Proofread one line at a time

Next, place a ruler (or a sheet of white paper folded in half) below the first line. Read that line, then move the ruler down to below the next line. Repeat this process for each line. Reading one line at a time allows you to focus completely on that line without your eyes jumping to the next line or your brain trying to anticipate what comes next.

Check the small words

As you proofread, think about what you are reading and allow the sound of the words to run through your head. There are many small errors that will not be picked up by a spellchecker because, although they may be spelt correctly, they are in the wrong context.

Look for errors such as:

—additional letters that form a new word, such as ‘and’ instead of ‘an’, ’off’ instead of ‘of’, or ‘thought’ instead of ‘though’.

—words that sound the same but have different meanings, such as ‘principal’ and ‘principle’, and ‘discrete’ and ‘discreet’.

—small words that we usually jump over when reading because we assume they are spelt correctly, such as ‘that’ and ‘than’, ‘to’ and ‘too’, and ‘form’ and ‘from’.

Start at the end and read backwards

A proofreading alternative, if you have the time (and if you are completely paranoid about making errors), is to read each report backwards, starting with the last word and reading one word at a time until you get back to the beginning. This is the absolute best way to make sure there are no spelling errors—but because you are reading backwards you can miss words that are out of context. So if you do decide to proofread each word working backwards, you will still need to read each report forwards to check for context. (And if you check the first line in this paragraph, you will see the phrase ‘if you have the time’!)

I hope this information about editing and proofreading your reports helps. If you have any feedback or tips you’d like to share, please email.

Philip Bryan initially trained as a secondary teacher. He taught for ten years, then retrained as an editor. And, yes, as a kid he really did try to look up ‘ordapends’ in the dictionary.

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