If you’re starting an undergraduate, Master’s or PhD course and you think your writing in English might need some help, it’s a good idea to look for a reputable proofreader to help you. You might be using English as a second or other language, or have a different issue to deal with such as dyslexia or needing to use voice-recognition software. Your tutor or personal tutor might have recommended that you find someone to help you, or you might choose to try to improve things yourself. But how do you choose a reputable, genuine proofreader when there are so many companies and people out there? Here are some tips.
The first thing I will say here is be careful. Obviously, all proofreading companies want to make money. But some of them do profit from students, in particular, not knowing what to look out for. I have heard a lot of horror stories in my time: students having their work “checked” when it’s just been run through a spell-checker, companies that don’t care about plagiarism, companies that will sell you an essay to use. Just like any other service or product, there are good and bad companies out there. Be just as careful as if you were buying a designer handbag or a car. After all, your academic mark and reputation might be at risk here.
Check with your tutor / university
Some tutors ask their students to get their work proofread, sometimes before they see it, sometimes afterwards. Universities often have policies on proofreading. For example, one university I work with has a form I must complete and sign each time I work with a PhD where I promise that I have only suggested changes in spelling, grammar, etc., and have not rewritten or otherwise changed the content of the work.
If a student comes to me and says their tutor has asked for their work to be substantially rewritten, I will ask for a scanned, signed letter on headed paper from the tutor to confirm that. So, if your tutor wants more than usual to be changed, get something in writing from them first.
Check the proofreader’s credentials
Any company or individual should state what their training and background is. A company should have a page about the kind of proofreaders that they use. An individual proofreader should have a page detailing their experience, qualifications and background.
It’s good for your proofreader to …
- Have a degree
- Have experience in your subject area
- If you have a particular aspect of your language which needs to be addressed, e.g. working with voice-activated software or dyslexia, to have experience with similar requirements
- Be a native speaker of the language in which you are writing
- Have a qualification from an official body (the Society for Editors and Proofreaders or the Publishing Training Centre in the UK) OR have extensive and documented experience
Check what service the proofreader offers
Check what the proofreader says that they will do – exactly.
Good things to look for:
- Do they mention using Track Changes to mark up your work?
- Do they mention making a note of any unclear areas?
- Do they mention coaching students through a degree or Master’s?
Bad things to look out for:
- Do they mention helping you to avoid getting caught for plagiarism (see section below)?
- Do they say that they will rewrite your essay for you?
- Do they say that you can buy an essay that someone else has written from them?
- Do they mention compiling your bibliography for you?
These are all red flags: red for danger. If a company is offering to help you to plagiarise, avoid them. This will contravene your university’s regulations.
Ask for references and testimonials
A good proofreader / company will offer references and testimonials on their website.
Things to look out for:
- References from people who are doing the same sort of thing as you (Master’s Dissertation, PhD, etc.)
- References including full names rather than Mr D and Ms Y (note that not all of them will have the full name, but at least some should)
- References should not all be identical. They should look like they were written by real people.
Check your proofreader’s policy on plagiarism
Plagiarism is a serious offence. If you plagiarise and get caught, you could get kicked off your course. At the very least, if you get caught, you will lose marks. Even if you don’t get caught, plagiarism – passing off someone else’s work as your own – is unethical and wrong. If you plagiarise, you are also not learning what you should be learning from your course.
I found a student proofreading company the other day that boasted of rewriting students’ work so that they will not get caught by plagiarism software. This is a bad thing to do. I would advise you never to go near a company that offers such services.
Another student proofreading company, and the only one I work with myself, has FAQs on their website. These strictly state that you cannot expect them to write your essay for you or to paraphrase sections of your work that you have taken from other books or essays. This is a good thing to do and I would advise you to look for this kind of statement.
I have a statement on plagiarism in my Terms and Conditions. Other places you might find it are in the FAQs or Services or Notes. If you can’t find something on a proofreader’s website, ask them. If they don’t have a plagiarism policy, or they can’t tell you what their policy is, avoid using them.
Regarding bibliographies – your proofreader should not compile your bibliography for you. Putting together a bibliography is one of the central academic skills that you are being tested on when writing your dissertation or thesis. A proofreader will check that all of the relevant entries are there (if you ask them to) and will certainly check for commas out of place and the odd mistake, but they should not write or format it for you from scratch (see more on bibliographies here).
Check that the proofreader is asking a fair price
Many proofreading companies seem to ask for a very high price for their work. I’ve checked and this year prices from proofreading companies for working on a standard student essay, dissertation or thesis in the UK is around £6-£10 per 1,000 words. This increases if the work is urgent.
Individuals often charge a little less – say about £5-£10 per 1,000 words. They may charge by the hour instead.
This is a rough estimate based on searching across websites and should not be taken as anything except a loose guideline. Fees vary according to the location of the proofreader.
If someone is charging a lot less than this, do check their credentials very carefully. It is likely that the work is being outsourced to people who might not be skilled or have English as their first language.
If someone is charging a lot more than this, check what extras they are offering and whether this is worth the extra money.
Check who will be doing your work
This is very important if you’re planning on submitting more than one piece of work to the proofreader. Although the English language does have rules, personal preferences do also come in, and one proofreader may work on a text slightly differently from the next. Therefore, if you’re going to be submitting all of your Master’s coursework or your whole PhD but in separate chapters, it makes sense for the same person to deal with all of your documents.
This is more common with individual proofreaders. But a company will work with many proofreaders and may be able to offer this for you.
It can be very useful and rewarding to work with one proofreader throughout your course. They might be able to pick out certain mistakes you make and help you to work on those for the next essay. This may help you to write well and clearly in English independently of your proofreader in the end.
Book in good time
You should know at the beginning of an undergraduate or Master’s academic year when your main deadlines for the year are. If you’re doing a PhD, you should know soon when you will need to submit reports and updates, and you should schedule time for writing up.
Especially if you’ve been working with someone all year on your Master’s course, book in to have them proofread your dissertation as soon as you know the date. No proofreader minds being booked in advance – and most of us don’t mind if things slip a bit, as long as you keep us informed. But we’re all humans, and sometimes, if you leave it too late to book, we won’t be able to fit you in. That’s when panic sets in, and you might make a bad choice.
Note: If your favourite proofreader can’t book you in, they should be able to recommend other people to try. I always offer a list of alternatives out of courtesy if I can’t fit an enquirer in.
Individual proofreader or proofreading company?
You can use an individual proofreader or a proofreading company. They both have pros and cons:
An individual proofreader:
- You can talk to them direct
- They can guarantee to work on more than one document for you
- They might get busy or ill and not be able to do your work or book you in
- Should have enough proofreaders to ensure availability even at busy times
- Might not be able to guarantee the same person to do every job for you
- You are unlikely to be able to talk to the proofreader direct
I think you are more likely to find an ethical person among the individuals, but it’s always worth checking all of the points above.
As I’m fully booked at the time of writing this post (and heavily booked most of the time), you can see that I’ve written this post for you, the students, and not to get more work for myself!
I do offer a small list of personal recommendations. I cannot guarantee their availability, price or service, of course. You enter into a discussion with them at your own risk, and you can find them on my Links page. You can also use the SfEP directory to find someone to help you.
In this article I have shared some tips on how students can choose a good and reputable proofreader.
If you’re a student, you might be interested in more posts for students on this website. Do click through and have a look. And best of luck with your studies!
Louise Harnby | Proofreader
September 18, 2013 at 10:48 am
I’m glad you offered a range of pricing in this post, Liz. The proofreader should charge a price that is fair to the student, but the student should expect to pay a price that is fair to the proofreader, too. Both the SfEP and the NUJ websites have some useful information about suggested minima for proofreading and I think it’s reasonable for both parties to use these as a basis for thinking about what is ‘fair’.
Liz at Libro
September 18, 2013 at 11:03 am
Thanks for your comment, Louise. While my main effort in this post is to save students from being ripped off, this is a valid point, too, about the value that the proofreader gives to the transaction and being fair to them, too. I’m not sure that students will have time to go and look at the websites, so felt it important to include some kind of range here, and I’m glad you think that’s a good idea!
November 6, 2013 at 8:38 pm
Indeed, be careful of proofreading companies that plagiarise. There are many online. It’s vital to find an honest and efficient service that is able to proofread your documents on time. Also, there is no point paying for a service that delivers your proofread document on time, but to a low standard.
It’s great to know there are proofreaders who understand the perspectives of those seeking proofreading help. Thanks for posting this article, Liz!
Liz at Libro
November 6, 2013 at 8:57 pm
Yes, indeed, it worries me how companies take advantage of students.