Let’s face it: writing papers in college is unavoidable. Nearly any class you enrol in will require you to submit some form of written work. It’s tedious and tiring – but can be rewarding if you take the right steps.
Whether you’re a seasoned English student, or a freshman, you probably had the experience of sitting in front of your laptop for hours and working on a paper you thought was A+ material… only to have it returned with a glaring red C on the cover page. I know I have.
You put in all that time and hard work, so why didn’t you get the grade you wanted? There are so many common mistakes students make that are damaging to our writing (and our grade).
What can you do about it? Avoid the following at all costs, and watch your C turn into an A.
1. Not Proofreading
I know many of us are pressed for time; and once we finish the paper we poured so much effort into, we just want to submit it, and be done with it. However, not proofreading, or only doing one quick read-through, is not enough to ensure your work is error free.
Keep in mind that when you type your papers in Word processors, they catch spelling mistakes, but don’t account for misused words, and awkwardly worded sentences. Reading over your paper several times and editing it for conciseness, clarity, and grammar goes a long way.
It’s also a great idea to have a classmate or friend read over your work, as they will catch mistakes you missed!
2. Not Having a Clear Thesis
Don’t just assume you can sit down and write a paper without first laying some groundwork. Crafting a thesis that is specific, argumentative, and outlines the points for the rest of your paper, is debatably the most vital part of creating good work.
According to purdueowl.com an example of a strong thesis is:
“At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on helping upgrade businesses to clean technologies, researching renewable energy sources, and planting more trees in order to control or eliminate pollution.”
This thesis statement is the paper’s primary claim or argument, and provides structure for the rest of the paper.
The problem with crafting a paper with an unclear thesis is that it doesn’t clearly identify what the paper is about. Leaving your thesis up in the air also makes it harder for you as a writer, as you have no outline or points to follow.
3. Using Websites Like Dictionary.com for Sources
When your instructor asks you to use sources in your paper, it’s not in an effort to increase your page count. Instead, professors expect students to look for material that supports their claim and enhances their argument.
By citing a definition of a term from dictionary.com or Wikipedia, you’re not proving any vital point associated with your thesis; and more importantly, these are not the type of sources you should ever use in academia.
Instead, instructors expect sources from reliable places. Don’t know where to start? Begin by visiting your institution’s library website and searching the databases made available to students. Some of these may include Jstor or Project MUSE.
In short, the point is not to treat the opportunity to use sources as a way to copy and paste information from Google, or “pad” your paper with a higher word count; but to use them as a way to increase the credibility of your argument.
4. Using an Informal Tone
Just as using sources from professional databases and journals boosts the credibility of your work, writing in a formal and academic tone serves the same purpose.
Notice how this article is written? I include a lot of “you” and “I”. This is a casual tone, written in first and second person. When writing an essay, toss out all the “you and I”, and write in the third person.
This means your sentences should not look like:
I really like Frederick Douglass because he advocates for literacy.
They should look more like:
Frederick Douglass is renowned for his efforts to promote literacy.
Note that the second sentence is more formal and objective.
In addition to writing in the third person, and never using “I” or “I think..”, you should also avoid using contractions such as “couldn’t” or “wouldn’t”. Replace them with “could not” or “would not”, when possible. These small changes can make all the difference in the tone and formality of your paper.
5. Making Unsupported Generalizations
Early in my academic career, I found this common writing mistake popping up in many of my papers. In the margins would be circles and asterisks accompanied by comments such as “how?” or “why is this the case?”
The simple fact is that I was making a lot of claims – such as “Pride and Prejudice is a novel that centers around marriage” – and just leaving it at that. What professors often want from you is to explain how a work, such as Pride and Prejudice, is centered on a certain theme.
How do you do this? Start by making your claim and then look for support from the text. You can use quotes, but don’t forget to analyze and explain exactly what it means, as well as how it contributes to your claim.
Additionally, you can use outside support, such as those nifty scholarly sources we talked about before. By adding a quote from a credible source or expert that agrees with your thesis, you are significantly improving the quality of your work.
Instructors don’t want to read a bunch of claims with no proof. They want you to ground your argument, and prove that you know what you’re talking about. This will get you a lot further than just putting a bunch of fancy words on paper.
Writing papers can be overwhelming, especially when you put in the hard work, but don’t receive the grade you expected. Sometimes you may feel like it’s impossible, from the vague comments instructors leave in your margins to the challenge of finding an appropriate source.
Thankfully, mistakes like the 5 above are common and easily improved upon. If you evaluate your work and find that you have made some of these errors, don’t fret! If you follow my recommendations, you should see an improvement in your grades in no time.
About the Author: Kourtney Salyer
Kourtney currently resides in Eastern Kentucky and attends Morehead State University, where she is a senior, pursuing a B.A. in English. She is passionate about reading, dogs, and organization. You can find more on her blog at kourtneysalyerhoward.wordpress.com