It’s that time of year (looking at you, first years) where teachers decide that the “fun” they inflicted on you with midterms isn’t enough and it’s time to tackle (*dun dun dun*) the essay. Whether your paper is one page or 12 pages, here are some easy reminders of what NOT to do that will easily raise your paper a grade point.
Hyperbolic opening lines
Since the dawn of time, it has been decreed that no one should begin a paper with useless, grandiose statements. If your paper begins with “since the dawn of time” or some other over generalized statement, print that sucker out, crumple it in a ball and try to sink a three-pointer in your trash can because that is all your paper will be good for. Irrelevant, incorrect, and hyperbolic opening statements ruin your credibility and your teachers will tune out. Immediately. Unless you’re Jane Austen, you teacher doesn’t need to know what truth you think is universally acknowledged.
Better idea? Hook ‘em fast and quick. Connect your thesis to their world, make it memorable, make it count. You only get one shot at a first impression.
A thesis they didn’t ask for
The best way to begin a paper is to go over the guideline you’ve been given and break down the important parts: what do they expect you to cover, what should the word count be, are there any sub-questions they want you to answer? If you think it’s just a paper on whether or not Romeo and Juliet were romantic saps but your teacher wanted you to compare and contrast it with three other Shakespearean romances, odds are, you’re not going to rock this paper.
Better idea? Make a checklist out of “action items” within the guideline. Then, when you’re proofreading you can double-check your work to see that you included everything you needed! If you don’t include what they asked for, your paper is not going to get the marks it deserves (no matter how genius your analysis is).
Similar to not reading the guideline, if you don’t make an outline of your paper, you won’t have a solid structure. Think about the arguments you want to make, how they connect to one another, and how to properly support them. Does one of your points have no evidence? Should two of your points go back to back? Think about the flow of your paper so it doesn’t read like the stream of consciousness, 3 a.m. coffee explosion that it may be.
Better idea? Make an outline with all your arguments and how they specifically support your thesis before beginning. Having a direction will help you know where to take the paper and will be evident to the reader, making you seem super duper smart.
Listen, we all go on Wikipedia. There is no shame in that. Citing Wikipedia on your paper? That’s a little more likely to get you into trouble. Stick to your library’s resources and other academic journals to source your knowledge.
Better idea? Use Wikipedia as a jumping board and look at the points of the article. Then you can use scholarly sources to back up and prove your thesis!
Pro-tip: When you’re citing something in a text – quote and cite it properly! It shows exactly where your idea stemmed from (plus it proves you did the readings).
An excellent summary of events
Papers (for the most part) aren’t about summary – they’re about analysis. Instead of just listing off all the textual examples that prove you’re right, elaborate on them, connect the dots, and answer the question your prof is banging their head against the desk asking: why is this important and why does this matter?
Better idea? Budget your word count into your guideline to make connections – real world and other sources. The more you show you’ve been thinking about this paper, the more they will too.
A thesis that got lost somewhere after paragraph two
Instead of focusing on tricks that make your paper seem longer than it is, look at tricks that make the word count matter and work for you. Each argument should be connected back to your thesis – never let your teacher wonder what your thesis is, or think you’ve gotten derailed. Worried you’re connecting it too much? Connect it again! A paper is an argument, use it to prove your prowess.
Better idea? Write your thesis on coloured paper and tape it somewhere in your eye line to keep it top of mind.
Simple grammar mistakes, typos, and run on sentences will turn off a teacher immediately. If they’re so busy circling comma splices and fragments that they lose sight of your argument you’ve lost the battle and the war. Proofreading seems like a chore (especially after an all-nighter) but it’s worth every ounce of energy you can put into it.
Better idea? Have a friend on standby to edit your paper! Not only will a neutral pair of eyes work wonders to point out the weak points of your paper, but also it will give you 20 minutes to get that second (or third) coffee. You can also proofread the paper backwords which will keep your brain active and remove any bias you may have about a particular phrase.
An essay written by you and Thesaurus.com
No matter how strong the paper is, if you are desperately trying to seem smarter with big words, chances are you’re going to lose your unique voice and the persuasiveness of your paper. Word choice and diction are imperative to a paper’s argument (the same applies to veering the other way – definitely avoid slang at all costs, there’s a happy medium in between the two worlds).
Better idea? Use thesaurus.com or similar tools to change up words you use too often. Adding new words into your rotation is great, as long as you stop before you sign your paper “Baby Kangaroo Tribiani”
Passive voice is when the noun being acted upon is made the subject of the sentence. (Active voice is when the noun doing the action is the subject.) Passive voice makes papers weaker and less focussed – it’s important to keep the argument moving!
Better idea? Remove passive voice with a fun exercise! According to Professor Rebecca Johnson, if you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb, your sentence has passive voice.
Don’t do it. With technology these days it is insanely easy to identify plagiarism and it’s just downright not worth it.
Better idea? Write your own paper! And use these tips to make it just as good (or even better) than that one you were going to steal.