Students stand out as mature writers among their peers when they demonstrate the ability to go beyond simply regurgitating classroom notes, textbook quotations, and stock phrases, and instead develop and refine their own original writing voices in grammatically-correct papers.
The following are five cardinal sins (as in, unforgivable) of essay writing at the high school and college levels. Avoid these to impress your professor, win over your T.A., and make me shed tears of joy:
1. The One Page "Essay"
Narrative: Applications, especially college applications, ask for this format. The Narrative Essay is usually first-person, autobiographical, and describes a story or process from which you have extrapolated some greater meaning or understanding.
Example: Describe a time you overcame a challenge and what you learned from it.
Expository: Expository essays explain a topic. Some research and analysis are required, and you are to make an argument. These are commonly compare-and-contrast or cause-and-effect papers.
Example: Consider the effects of video games on young people and explain whether this pastime is a positive or negative influence.
Persuasive: This is probably the essay you will be asked to write the most. As the name suggests, you are expected to take a position on a controversial (or at least debatable) topic and detail your argument, refute the counterargument, and offer evidence.
Example: Some people want the the driving age raised from sixteen to eighteen on the grounds that teenagers are not mature enough to handle a vehicle. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
If I have no idea what your thesis is, your introduction needs to be reorganized.
If you say you are going to discuss A,B, and C and then you never get to it, your content needs to be reorganized. Same goes for discussing A, then C, then back to A, then a brief mention of B in the conclusion.
If you close your paper with the last paragraph, rather than a conclusion, your ending needs to be reorganized.
3. Clichéd Phrasing
Throughout all time and space...
But at the end of the day
All in all
Bright and early
Wasn't that boring? I'm sorry I did that to you. Now stop doing it to the people grading your papers.
I also warn students about poetics - if you've just written half a page about the meaning of life and the essay topic is World War II, go back and delete all of it. Then start over, this time addressing the actual assignment.
Avoid using filler by filling out a paper with textual evidence, which you can use as evidence to support the point you are making. Just make sure to explain the quote and connect it back to your overarching point. If you are just sticking random quotes in the paper, that's filler.
5. Lazy Punctuation and Grammar
- Write out numbers 1-10. Do not write out years.
- Capitalize proper nouns. Do not capitalize random words.
- Do not use contractions – i.e. write out “don't” as “do not”
- Do not use "very" or "really." The sentence sounds better without it.
- If it is a possessive, use an apostrophe.
- Avoid fragments and run-on sentences
I can't tell you how many times I've seen students write something like, "In the year of nineteen hundred and forty one, the united states entered world war II very ready to fight in the War."
Try: "In 1941 the United States entered World War II."
Shorter? Yes. But it conveys the same information without the grammatical errors, correct punctuation, and omits the filler.
Proofreading Will Be Your Saving Grace
If nothing else, you will catch the little typos, punctuation mistakes, and grammatical errors that signal to the grader you did not take the time to review the paper before turning it in.
In most cases, an error-free paper with a clearly defined argument and coherent points will receive a good grade, even if there are some gaps in the content. So please - proofread!