As a writing teacher, there are certain mistakes I see again and again that make me want to tear my hair out.
If you want your professor to be impressed with your next paper, start by steering clear of the following ten common mistakes. Better yet, read on to learn how to fix these errors in all your upcoming assignments:
1. Not Following Formatting Instructions
Most professors specify formatting instructions — spacing, fonts, citation style, margins, length, and so on — in the assignment or in the syllabus. There are some general rules that almost always apply (yes, you should probably double space your paper and include page numbers), but professors make their own preferences known. Following these instructions is so easy that professors may interpret not following them as an indication of indifference or lack of diligence, which you don’t want to convey as a student.
2. Forgetting the Title (or Using a Generic One)
Every year, I receive at least a dozen papers called “essay #1” and a bunch more that have no titles. Would you ever read a book or article without a title? Or would you want to read a paper with the title “analytical essay 1”? Of course not — and neither do your professors. Just as a catchy book or movie title piques interest, a relevant and interesting paper title makes an essay stand out.
3. Using Clichéd and Obvious Hooks
- “Since the dawn of time, man has been at war.”
- “War is something that can ruin lives and kill millions.”
- “War is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as…”
If the first sentence of a paper could be the beginning of any other paper, delete it. The funnel approach to introductions — starting off vague and then getting more specific — may be OK in middle school, but not in college. Begin with specific and interesting writing that grabs the reader’s attention.
4. Not Including a Thesis or Writing One that Lacks a “So What?”
Unless the assignment is a summary, annotated bibliography, or something other than an actual essay, there should be an argument. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it? Avoid writing a paper that attempts to establish what is already accepted as fact.
One way to craft a compelling argument is by asking the dreaded “so what?” question. It’s hard to do — but that’s the point. If you can’t articulate the significance of a topic, you can’t really expect anyone to care about it. For example, a paper that argues in favor of colonizing Mars should explore what’s at stake. Beyond the scientific and technical requirements necessary to colonize Mars, how might doing so — or not doing so — ultimately affect the human race? Answering that question makes the stakes clear in a way that applies to all readers.
5. Not Using Enough Evidence
Just as a lawyer wouldn’t come to court with an empty briefcase, a writer can’t prove an argument without evidence. Otherwise, the paper is just a bunch of unsubstantiated assertions, which aren’t proof. Quotes from sources are always necessary — just be sure to pick them carefully, and be sure they actually demonstrate what they need to prove.
6. Plagiarizing or Citing Incorrectly
Every year, I tell my students they could be expelled for not citing, and that if they’re unsure, they should cite — they’ll never get into trouble for doing it. I hand out a bunch of examples of paraphrases that are too close to the original and phrases that have been lifted from the Internet. I also provide examples of how to properly cite articles, books, websites, Youtube videos, and other possible sources. But, no matter how much time we spend reviewing citations, every semester there’s at least one student I have to write up for plagiarism. Most of the time, that student doesn’t intend to deceive, but that’s no excuse.
One of the most frequent mistakes I see is a paper that uses paraphrased information without providing a citation. Any information, whether quoted or paraphrased, has to be cited. And every source cited in the paper has to show up in the works cited or bibliography. If you decide to paraphrase, put the original away when writing, and if it’s too hard to think of a new way of saying it, just quote and cite it instead!
You should include citation information the first time you find or use a source in a draft instead of relying on your memory and trying to do so later. Citing information early on also has the benefit of being reviewed by the professor or a peer in the draft stage, which allows the chance to correct errors before the final submission.
Professors will make clear which citation style they want you to use. Any writing handbook will give examples, and simply Googling “how to cite a book in MLA format” will bring up a bunch of useful websites, such as the OWL at Purdue. No matter which style you use, a URL is not a citation! And remember: if an author’s name is in the sentence, you don’t need the name in a citation, but if it’s not, you do.
7. Using Quotations as Their Own Sentences
Quotes should not be used as stand-alone sentences. For example, this use of a quotation is incorrect: Hanson Robots spoke about its goals. “We intend to push the android until it evolves super-human creativity and wisdom.”
The quote shouldn’t be its own sentence. Inserting a “he said” or “they stated” before the quote doesn’t really fix the problem, either. Quotes should be introduced and connected to context. There are a couple of easy ways to do this. The first is the colon, which functions as a way of saying “and here is what the person said…” For example, one could format the above as
Hanson Robots spoke about its goals: “We intend to…”
The sentence could also be rewritten — David Hanson of Hanson Robots said that the company plans to “push the android until…”
8. Making Grammatical Mistakes
No matter how brilliant the content, grammatical problems will sink any paper. I could write an entire article on grammar, but there are certain grammatical mistakes I see over and over. One is the misuse of the semicolon; everyone wants to use one, but few know how. If you can’t replace a semicolon with a period, then you are using it incorrectly (a semicolon joins together two independent clauses/complete sentences). Likewise, if you can replace a comma with a period, then you’ve got a comma splice problem (comma splices are similar to run-on sentences).
Another common mistake involves the incorrect use of possessive apostrophes, especially when used with plurals. You can avoid this by rereading the context and figuring out whether someone owns something, and how many people own it:
“Parent’s of children with special needs…” This use of the possessive apostrophe is incorrect because the sentence is not about one parent owning an object. It should read: “Parents of children with special needs…”
“The doctors bedside manner was off-putting.” This sentence is incorrect because the doctor possesses the bedside manners, so there should be an apostrophe before the s: “The doctor’s bedside manner…”
“Dog’s ability to sniff out bombs has made them invaluable to investigations.” The apostrophe should be after the s because the sentence is referring to more than one dog: “Dogs’ ability to sniff out bombs…”
Some students confuse words that sounds the same but are spelled differently, such as their and they’re or where and were.
I get it — we all have our grammatical weak spots. But by now, you should know what yours are and proofread for them. One easy tip is to do a search for every instance of “its” or “it’s” (or whichever words trip you up) and check each one carefully.
9. Relying on the Passive Voice and “To Be” Verbs
Two common stylistic shortcomings are writing in the passive voice and overusing “to be” verbs.
Passive voice occurs when the subject and object are reversed or the sentence doesn’t make it clear who’s performing an action. For example:
“The house was built.” This is the passive voice because the reader doesn’t know who built the house.
“The house was built by Peter.” This is also the passive voice because Peter should be the subject of the sentence (since he performs the action of the sentence, building), and he should come first — “Peter built the house.”
While it may not seem like a problem, in addition to being clunky, the passive voice can cause confusion. “Mistakes were made,” a student may claim. But isn’t it important to know who made those mistakes?
Passive voice also lends itself to overuse of “to be” verbs (am, is, was, are, were, been, being). The passive sentences in the examples above contain examples of these verbs, while the active sentences eliminate them. That’s part of why active sentences work better than passive ones. I see a lot of sentences like “My paper is an examination of President Obama’s speech.” That construction, “is an examination,” could be replaced with “examines”: “My paper examines President Obama’s speech.” If you think about it, a “to be” verb asserts only one thing about the subject — that it exists. That’s not very much information.
10. Repeating the Introduction in the Conclusion
The last paragraph of a paper isn’t called the restatement paragraph. And yet, many students simply repeat the introduction or thesis in slightly different words and end there. Not only is it boring to end this way, but it also suggests that no real progress has been made throughout the paper. While it may be hard to think of something new to say at the end of the paper, if the essay leaves the reader with an idea or question — in fact, a new conclusion — with which she engages for ten seconds before going on with her day, then that’s a successful ending.
Don’t start a conclusion with “in conclusion….” It’s the last paragraph — what else would it be? Push the paper’s argument in another direction, explore additional implications, raise questions, or end with an image or particularly relevant quote. Basically, do something interesting! If there’s ever a good time in a paper to take a risk or try to inject a little drama, it’s the conclusion.
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