METM18 presentation 

Using metaphors to explore the role of the proofreader of L2 student writing in the UK context

Nigel Harwood, Sheffield, UK

Previous research has established that ‘proofreading’ is a contested term in the higher education context with reference to its boundaries. I follow Harwood et al. (2009) in adopting an intentionally broad definition of proofreading – ‘third-party interventions (entailing written alteration) on assessed work in progress’ (p.166) – rather than a more traditional, narrower definition of proofreading (e.g., by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (2005:4): ‘a process of identifying typographical, linguistic…or positional errors or omissions’), since Harwood et al.’s studies show that some proofreaders of student writing exceed the narrower remit (e.g., by commenting on argumentation). This presentation uncovers proofreaders’ beliefs about proofreading by reporting on how proofreaders of student writing conceptualized their role.
Fourteen proofreaders in a UK university were interviewed about their practices, speaking to a prompt card offering definitions of the proofreader’s role as a cleaner or tidier, a helper or mentor, a leveller, a mediator, and/or a teacher. Some informants were institutional insiders (e.g., lecturers, PhD students); others were freelancers with no connections to the university. Two other data sources were used to triangulate informants’ responses: textual analysis of their proofreading of the same L2 master’s essay; and talk-aloud verbalizations by informants as they were proofreading, speaking about their understandings of the roles they were enacting. Although all of the metaphors were accepted by some informants, understandings of the proofreading role varied, encompassing interventions which were editorial, advisory, pedagogic, and pastoral. Some proofreaders intervened at the level of content, making lengthy suggestions to improve the writer’s essay structure and argumentation, while others were reluctant to do more than focus on the language. Examples of the proofreaders’ interventions will be shared.
The study provides much food for thought: for proofreaders working with student writers, university lecturers whose students may be approaching proofreaders, and university policy-makers responsible for formulating proofreading guidelines and regulations. How can the inconsistencies in what is being offered in the name of ‘proofreading’ uncovered by this research be tackled? The implications of the findings will be discussed and debated with the audience, and I will argue for the need for tighter regulation and dissemination of research-informed proofreading guidelines and policies across universities.

About the presenter

Nigel Harwood is a reader in applied linguistics at the University of Sheffield. He has previously published three co-authored journal articles reporting findings of an interview-based study of the profiles, practices and beliefs of proofreaders who work on student writing in the UK. He has also published research on English for academic purposes and on teachers’ use of EFL and EAP textbooks, and his most recent monograph focuses on students' experiences of dissertation supervision. He is co-editor of the journal English for Specific Purposes (Elsevier).


Harwood, N., Austin, L., & Macaulay, R. (2009). Proofreading in a UK university: proofreaders’ beliefs, practices, and experiences. Journal of Second Language Writing 18: 166-190.
Society for Editors and Proofreaders (2005). Code of Practice.  Accessed 11 December 2017.