It’s mid-November and just before the Thanksgiving break. What does that mean? Time to seriously think about that term paper you’ve been blowing off until now. When the turkey is settled and you’re back to school, it’s full-on term-paper until you turn that sucker in. To give you a little leg up, we’ve put together a short list of the most common writing mistakes. Get to know them so you can recognize them and avoid them.
Writing Mistake #1: Not Giving Your Paper a (Good) Title
You might complete many of your college papers in the wee hours of the morning with tired eyes and a belly full of coffee, but that’s no excuse not to include a title (and no “Term Paper” doesn’t count). You wrote the paper, so you know what it’s about, and thinking of something catchy will take only a few minutes. Your professors want to be interested in what you’ve written; help them out a little by providing a title that grabs their interest.
Writing Mistake #2: Relying on Cliches & Tired Metaphors
Cliches and metaphors are double-edged swords (yes, we’re busted as that is a cliche and a metaphor). On the plus, they’ve stuck around this long and become so part of our language that there is usually some truth in them. On the negative, they are so tired that they lack any power or punch in terms of real description. If it sounds tired, cutesy, predictable, expected, or repetitive, you need to figure out a way to say it differently.
Writing Mistake #3: Not Following Instructions
This one really should be obvious, shouldn’t it? The directions for your paper will likely be clearly written out, explained by the teacher — perhaps even in your syllabus. This includes not only the directions for the specific assignment but also how to format your paper and how to cite sources. You might even be given a style guide supplying guidance for punctuation use or outlining your teacher’s grammar preferences. But if you don’t follow the rules, it’s all for nothing. Many professors we know will be the first to say that they have received brilliant papers that they had to fail. Why? Because as brilliant as the paper was, the student didn’t follow the assignment.
Writing Mistake #4: Plagiarizing
There’s never any excuse for using others’ work as your own, even if you do it without considering what you’re doing to be plagiarism. You’ll find dozens of great resources out there to help you cite sources properly and give credit where credit is due. While the Internet is your friend on this one, copy-paste is not your friend. Just changing a few words here and there does not mean that you aren’t plagiarizing material. Make sure that the ideas and the words you use are your own. And cite those sources properly!
Writing Mistake #5: Sloppy Grammar/Proofing
There are lots of small, common grammar mistakes that can annoy professors to no end. Take a moment to look up the difference between its and it’s, learn when to use possessive apostrophes, and don’t trust spell-check to do your work for you. Spell-check can’t distinguish between homophones such as their, there, and they’re, so you’ll have to know which is the correct one to use. Buddy up with a friend not in the same course and read his/her paper and have him/her read yours. Each reader will be able to see things that the original writer missed.
Writing Mistake #6: Using Confusing Sentences
Before submitting your paper, read it out loud. You might feel weird reading out loud to yourself, but it’s a great way to catch confusing sentences that are missing words or that have vague pronoun references, such as a sentence that refers to two male subjects and then says “he.” Which one? A great rule of thumb: When you read aloud, if you stumble, that sentence needs rethinking and rewriting.
No matter which college you attend and which field you intend to work in after graduation, writing, grammar, and communication skills are very important. These skills can be learned over time, so don’t feel that you have to learn everything about them now. When writing, just take a moment to look up each grammatical question you encounter. As you do, you’ll learn where the comma goes, when a word should be capitalized, and how to use a possessive apostrophe. Remember that writing is a craft, which means that it requires practice — some of the best practice for becoming a better writer is to become a reader of writers who are known as craftspeople. Reading good writing provides a good model.