Academic writing is more than proofreading

A student came to a Language Advisory session (LAS) last week with a three-page single-spaced assignment and asked me to proofread it. I pointed out that our job is not to proofread, but to help with academic writing. The student was surprised, but we ended up having a useful session looking at the way he had used paraphrasing. However, this experience did raise a few issues. One is that it may not always be clear to students and lecturers what academic writing involves. Secondly, it made me wonder if all lecturers are aware of the challenges that students, both home and international, face in academic writing at university, and how we (collective we) can support them. Good academic writing is often seen as a feature of “graduateness” (Catt & Gregory, 2006, p.17) and therefore is a responsibility of all who work with students.

So what is academic writing? In their introduction to How to write for university: Academic writing for success. Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers state that academic writing is “an expression of logic that is the product of thinking. This means that the writing that you produce is a reflection of your intellectual abilities. It puts into words your knowledge and your conceptual understanding and shows evidence of your ability to think critically” (2014, p.4). Home students (NS students) are not automatically successful in these skills merely because English is their native language. Students, regardless of native language, can have problems at text level, sentence level, and word level (Catt & Gregory, 2006).

Lecturers from all disciplines need to have an understanding of the challenges that both home and international students face in academic writing. It is a myth that students whose native language is English face no difficulties in writing academic papers. One result of this lack of awareness is that lecturers may have higher expectations of home students. In fact, both home and international students have difficulties in the writing process (brainstorming, organizing, structuring, drafting, editing). A handbook for native speakers of English (NS) students on study skills covers topics such as understanding the question, the writing process (brainstorming, organizing, drafting), and editing (Cottrell, 2013). Bailey’s (2014) handbook of academic writing for international students includes topics such as the writing process (e.g. paraphrasing, summarizing, how to avoid plagiarism, how to write introductions and conclusions) and the elements of writing (e.g. using the passive, using prepositions). It could be argued that both handbooks cover similar topics, with perhaps more emphasis on language for non-native speakers of English (NNS) students. Ultimately this is an area that international students do face more challenges. “Students in general have problems writing, but surface language problems distinguish NSs from NNSs and persist for ESL* writers even at very advanced proficiency levels” (Casanave & Hubbard, 1992, p.34).

How can lecturers support their students with their academic writing skills? A first step is to ensure that instructions and grading criteria are clear, concise, and explicit. As Cottrell (2013) notes, the biggest challenge for new undergraduates is understanding the task. Secondly, lecturers can encourage students to be more reflective writers, and understand the need for good academic writing beyond university. Fernsten and Reda (2011) suggest that students are encouraged to be more critical writers by reflecting on the choices they make in their writing, such as their choice of topic, the challenges they faced in writing, the effect of their introduction. Such an approach does not require specialist knowledge of teaching writing, but does result in more confident writers. International students can be encouraged to proofread their work carefully. They can use the services that the library offers, as well as the Language Advisory Service (LAS) to get support on organisation and structure. The LAS offers half-hour one-to-one tutorials to non-native speakers of English who usually use the service when they are preparing and writing their assignment. The LAS falls under the University English Scheme remit to support and develop students’ academic language skills.

Finally, on the point of proofreading. According to Bailey (2014, 81), proofreading is “checking your work for small errors” and he encourages students to check their work themselves. There is often confusion about the difference between proofreading and editing. The latter is a deeper checking of the writing, and can involve major organizational changes and changes both intra-sentential and inter-sentential (across longer stretches of discourse). Proofreading is a surface checking, the last stage before submitting, printing, or publishing. Proofreading is an essential part of the writing process, but is the responsibility of the writer, not the supervisor, tutor, and most definitely not the aim of a LAS session.

Dr Marion Engin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion.

* English as a second language

Bailey, S. (2014). Academic writing: a handbook for international students. Routledge.

Casanave, C. P., & Hubbard, P. (1992). The writing assignments and writing problems of doctoral students: Faculty perceptions, pedagogical issues, and needed research. English for Specific Purposes11(1), 33-49.

Catt, R. and Gregory, G, (2006). The point of writing: Is student writing in higher education developed or merely assessed? pp. 16-29 in: Ganobcsik-Williams, L. (Ed.). Teaching academic writing in UK higher education: Theories, practices and models. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cottrell, S. (2013). The study skills handbook. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fernsten, L. A., & Reda, M. (2011). Helping students meet the challenges of academic writing. Teaching in Higher Education16(2), 171-182.

McMillan, K., Weyers, J. (2014). How to write for university: Academic writing for success (Always learning).






One response to “Academic writing is more than proofreading”

  1. Wan Smith Avatar

    Great initiative to write about the difference between the writing and proofreading element, ofcourse proofreading has its own benefits as it covers up the flaws and errors that might distort the reputation of your writing, whereas academic writing is pretty tough to understand the topic and not to go off-track. With the emergence of university essay writing service many professional writers are now sending away the information regarding the same.

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