Avoid these six common writing mistakes and your academic papers are guaranteed to turn out great every time.
Using the wrong tone
Tone is the attitude the writer takes toward the material and the audience. Are you being serious? Playful? Ironic? Friendly? Dry? Are you trying to cozy up to the reader or lay out the cold hard facts? It's important for you to establish the tone of your work right off the bat and that you stick to it throughout the paper. It can be jarring for the reader if you change from formal to informal to playful to serious, and it will make your paper seem inconsistent.
The right tone will vary from paper to paper. For example, a scholarly research review will be formal and no-nonsense, while an opinion piece might be more informal and show more of your personality. The most common mistake students make when writing is being too casual in their papers. If you're writing for class, you should avoid informal, conversational language (i.e., don't use phrases like "it was like really crazy" or abbreviations like btw) and try to keep your personality out of the work. It's tempting to want to spice up your essay with jokes ("isn't it funny that..."), asides to the reader ("are you following me here..."), or personal comments ("I totally agree with..."), but those are best left out of academic work.
Not taking a side
Another big mistake students make when writing essays and research papers is being wishy-washy with their argument. Often this means not taking a firm stand in the thesis, or it can just be an overuse of words like possibly
, or sometimes
. If you're a culprit here, more likely than not it's because you're unfamiliar with the topic or working in a discipline outside your own, so it's understandable that you'd be nervous about making a bold claim. But just because you're not an expert doesn't mean you can't take a firm stand in your paper. The whole point of writing an essay
is to show that you understand the material well enough to analyze it and present your findings. Even if you're wrong, it's better to argue boldly than to hedge.
Tips for taking a stand in your paper:
- Look for words like maybe, suggest, or possibly and replace them with terms that convey certainty. For example, the sentence "Walker (2004) suggests that the reason Hamlet is unable to confront his mother is because of his guilt" can be rewritten to make your point more forcefully: "Walker (2004) states that the reason Hamlet is unable to confront his mother is because of his guilt."
- Test if your thesis is choosing a side by trying to argue against what you state in your paper. If your paper has a strong thesis, there will be many sides the argument and you'll have picked just one.
Being dramatic or exaggerating.
On the other hand, if your argument is weak you don't want to try and oversell it. Backing up shaky evidence with claims like "it's obvious that..." or "without a doubt it's true that..." won't make your evidence any stronger. So instead, when your case is fragile, just admit it upfront. Acknowledge to the reader that the study, quote, or statistic you're using doesn't entirely prove your case for you but that you can still use it to argue for your side. For example, you might say something like "As you can see, the study did not indicate an overwhelmingly positive effect from the treatment, but nevertheless the small increase was important." Then go on to explain in detail why this wobbly evidence is proof for your side of the argument.
Another way that students tend to exaggerate in their papers is to rely on grand sweeping statements to make their topic seem important. "The questions addressed in this paper are the most important that anyone, anywhere, for all time, will ever ponder." There's no need to sell your topic as the biggest thing to ever happen to the reader; just explain why it's relevant and move on.
Focusing too much on one side of the issue
An important part of any debate is being able to anticipate any rebuttals the reader might have against the arguments you make, and this is true when writing papers as well. It's all well and good for you to go through your pieces of evidence one by one in your paper, but you also need to take the time to address any conflicting evidence out there. If that evidence is well-known to the reader, your paper will look incomplete or even dishonest. But even if the reader isn't familiar with all the different sides of your topic, you still need to be upfront about challenges to your work. In fact, if you argue against the opposing side well enough, it can actually make your paper stronger.
If you're having trouble looking at the issue from the other side, try making a short outline for a paper in which you argue the opposite of your thesis. For example, if you're writing a paper
on why Hamlet is the reason Ophelia goes insane, try to imagine what the paper would look like if you were writing that Hamlet was not responsible for Ophelia's demise.
Transitions are one of the most important parts of a good paper. They're the words that bring together all the paragraphs and subheadings to create a cohesive whole. A paper without good transitions might still make sense, but it will be harder for the reader to follow your argument. Your paper will also suffer without good transitions because it will look choppy and poorly written.
Tips for writing good transitions:
- Reference material from the previous paragraph at the start of the next one to draw the connection for the reader. For example, if the previous paragraph discussed the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, you could start the next paragraph by saying "In addition to his strained relationship with Ophelia, Hamlet also has a very unhappy bond with his mother."
- Use compare and contrast words like on the other hand, similarly, and conversely to make connections between the information in paragraphs.
- You can use sequential terms like firstly, secondly, and so on to move between paragraphs, but don't rely on them too heavily - they can make your paper look more like a numbered list than a well-written essay.
- Phrases like in this case, for instance, and as has been noted can be used to start sentences that will provide further evidence for your argument.
Grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors
It's a simple truth that a lot of students have trouble with: it won't matter how great your writing is if you turn in a paper with glaring errors in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Despite this fact, students still avoid proofreading their papers
. Maybe you're rushing to finish your paper before a deadline or, after hours of work, maybe you're just tired of looking at all those words on a page. But editing your paper isn't an optional step you can skip: your paper isn't done until you proofread it.
Tips for editing:
- Look for common grammatical mistakes like run-on sentences, subject/verb disagreements, and missing words.
- Use spellcheck, but don't expect it to catch everything. Just because a word is spelled correctly doesn't mean you used it right (for example, spellcheck won't stop you from using they're when you mean there).
- Read your paper out loud to help you find identify patches of awkward writing.
- Have somebody else look over your paper, especially if you've been working on it for a long time. A fresh set of eyes will see things you might miss.