Writing assignments are an inescapable part of higher education. They’re always a challenge, often fun, but most times a chore. And, besides, so much can go wrong: grammatical errors, citing mistakes, structuring issues, plagiarism.So instead of facing the challenges blindly and alone, here are 10 of the most common mistakes made when writing academic papers – and how to avoid making them.
(Note: The words “essay” and “paper” in this blog are used interchangeably)
1. Not Fully Understanding the Assignment
Different writing assignments have different purposes.
One may require a student to include certain items, certain sources, graphs, statistics, etc.; sometimes they require a specific kind of source or group of sources – and some writing assignments at the college level may have a student write in a particular style, or format, using a specific structure and incorporating certain kinds of content.
The most ubiquitous kind of writing assignment is, however, one where the student is to make an argument and defend it with some sort of evidence. And while not every writing assignment necessitates an argument – there are, of course, ones that are analytical, descriptive and investigative, et al., in nature – most do involve the student making a case for something, much like that of the argumentative or persuasive essay.
Avoiding any confusion on the assignment comes down to listening to instructions and asking the right questions, and knowing which kind of writing style and genre the assignment calls for. Doing the assignment incorrectly could result in a very low grade.
Examples of not following the instructions of an assignment:
A student should not be making an argument in a Chemistry research paper if the assignment doesn’t call for an argument – but only to discuss an aspect of chemistry at length.
A student should not provide a summary of a book if they are to only critique the book.
So the student must make conclusions: What kind of essay do I need to write? Am I to make an argument (as in a persuasive essay)? Do I provide only an overview of a subject or topic (like in a research paper), or do I analyze information (perhaps an investigative report)? What kind of sources do I need to use – and how many do I use? What kind of style is needed in this case – MLA, APA, or others?
If a student is unsure of exactly what their assignment requires them to do, they should first speak with their professor for clarification.
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2. Lacking a (Sufficient) Thesis Statement
A professor, reading just about any college essay, should easily find and thoroughly understand its central theme (its Thesis) – in less than a minute, actually. It should generally be found in the first paragraph of a student’s paper, in just one or two very concise, declarative sentences indicating what the rest of the paper is essentially about. This becomes an essay’s thesis statement.
Without one, the reader is left in the dark, so to speak, unable to follow the general flow of the essay, which then becomes ineffective. An idea cannot be effectively and successfully conveyed to a reader if that idea is put forth in a disorganized, unmethodical way. (This results in lower evaluations on such assignments.)
An effective thesis statement is the result of the student selecting a central theme, it could be a solution to a problem, a defendable argument, a point of view, (depending on the type of assignment and what it calls for), and then putting it in writing, in a confident, assertive tone and stance.
Formulating a thesis statement is not the result of the student’s initial response to a subject or topic, but a product of them taking an attitude toward a subject or topic, then gathering and organizing evidence that supports their stance.
An example of a sloppy, ineffective thesis statement: Self-expression and sexuality were themes in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
An example of a proper, effective, concise thesis statement: The overt themes of self-expression and sexuality in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was a subject of much controversy, thereby illustrating his era’s rigid views on both matters.
3. Failing to Plan
Since well-written essays require a great deal of work, their success is rooted in the student’s ability to plan well the writing of the essay. After the student gets their assignment and considers all that has to be incorporated into it, how they are to write, how it should be written, etc., it works to their advantage if they create and then follow a detailed, five-pointed outline, with each one representing at least one paragraph of the essay. In the case of writing a persuasive/argumentative essay, the student must, before writing their first sentence of their paper, craft a concise, arguable thesis statement (the first point) – which is to be introduced in the paper’s first paragraph, serving as the premise to be maintained or proven throughout the paper.
The outline should also include at least three defending points (body paragraphs, the next three points) that evidence the thesis statement, listing the points, and perhaps sources used, if they are needed or required, to validate the argument.
Lastly, the outline should include a conclusion paragraph (the final, fifth point of the outline).
Without this planning stage, without creating and following an outline to follow, the student runs the risk of turning in a sub-par paper, written with no cohesion, few traces of scholarship, putting forth a very weak argument, and most likely earning them a less-than-stellar grade on the assignment.
4. Lacking an Effective Introduction and Conclusion Paragraphs
Without an effective introduction paragraph, the reader is not eased into the topic, in a strategic manner. Perhaps a real-life example may illustrate the need for this paragraph.
If a student wants to convince their parents that they need a cell phone at college, they shouldn’t simply come right out and say, “I need a cell phone at college.” It is too sudden, coming off too aggressively.
It will serve them better to start off with a few topical sentences instead, maybe about the importance of maintaining communication with one’s parents during the early-adult years, for example.
The same applies to writing a paper. A paper’s introduction paragraph is meant to first get the reader considering a thought, a notion, a platform (which can be accomplished with first a few general, topical sentences). The introduction paragraph then eases into whatever exactly the writer is attempting to convey, whether it be an argument or more analytical or general in nature, in the form of the Thesis, just one sentencing declaring what the rest of the paper will be about. The last part of the introductory paragraph will generally enumerate the evidence that will be examined to support this idea or stance being conveyed.
In case there was any confusion about an essay’s argument or central theme, the conclusion paragraph restates what was said in the introductory paragraph and body paragraphs – in total, the paper’s argument and its evidencing points. The conclusion paragraph indicates to the reader that, also, the essay has come to a close.
5. Inclusion of Weak Sources
When an essay calls for the inclusion of sources, either to prove an assertion or offer a perspective on a subject or topic, these sources should not consist of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia (though these are great places to begin research.)
Rather, academic writing calls for the incorporation of other, more academic sources and scholarly articles, ones that are published in academic journals, newspapers, and reputably published books, and ones that are found on academic search websites like JSTOR.
Looking at the long-term effects of dire poverty in the American South, one may pull statistics from a newspaper article or research organization. They may refer to a geography book for help, to visualize the region; they may read about its history and socio-political influences.
The student-writer should not consider general and common knowledge, the kind found in Geography and History books, as one’s primary sources in a writing assignment.
For an assignment that, on the other hand, requires scholarly sources to discuss this topic at length, perhaps to confirm an assertion, a professor is expecting the student to use something an expert on the subject has written or said about this said topic – and not a simple fact that can be found anywhere on the Internet.