Common Paper Writing Mistakes, Part Zero: Basic Errors

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I’ve mentioned some of these in passing in previous posts and in videos on my YouTube Channel, and I’ve actually gotten some messages asking about some of the basic errors people make on papers. Rather than respond to them individually, I figured I’d just make a master post compiling the most common ones that are easy to avoid. 

These are really simple, and to some of you they probably seem like they’re just common sense. But, because this is a Judgment Free Zone, I won’t make any assumptions about you as a person if you don’t already know these. Maybe you weren’t taught properly! Maybe you just weren’t paying attention in school. Maybe you already know this stuff, and you can skip this article completely! Whatever the case might be, here is some information. Do with it what you will.

1. Using personal pronouns in your paper.

This was something that was drilled into my head from middle school, but still seems to sneak its way into some of my students’ and classmates’ work. Unless you are writing a personal reflection, you should never use the words “I,” “Me,” “Myself” or “My” in your papers. Even if you are referring to research you have conducted independently– for example, a classmate of mine worked as an aide for people with disabilities, and implemented a scientific study on a process to alter behavior, and used the findings as a source for her student thesis (which was mightily impressive, I might add)– you should only refer to the study or subjects of the study in professional or academic terminology. Don’t say, “I gave the subject a verbal warning after the subject hit another student.” Instead write, “The subject received a verbal warning after…” Remember, you aren’t trying to tell a story to a friend, you’re trying to report your findings in a convincing way to an impartial expert.

2. Using the phrase “in this paper,” or “this paper will.”

This is more of a pet peeve, but it happens to be one that is shared by every professor I’ve ever had. It’s just bad writing. Usually found in your introduction paragraph, it’s obviously designed to set up your thesis. Sometimes it’s even incorporated into your thesis! But, as I outlined in this video, your thesis shouldn’t be constructed that way. Aside from the fact that the phrases are bad writing, they’re also unnecessary. You don’t need to set up your thesis; just, you know, write your thesis statement. Rather than writing, “This paper will prove that Richard Nixon was the worst president the United States ever had,” or “In this paper, the evidence provided will demonstrate that Richard Nixon was the worst president the United States ever had,” just write “Richard Nixon was the worst president the United States ever had.” These all have the same effect, but only one of them is written in a way that won’t annoy the crap out of your professor. Guess which one it is!

3. Overusing quotes

This one might seem wrong to some of you, but too many quotes can be severely detrimental to your paper. A lot of my students overload their papers with quote after quote, thinking that there can’t be anything wrong with more supporting material, right? Wrong! They forget that the purpose of quotes is twofold: first, they should support your argument. Maybe the quotes you’re using accomplish that, which is good! But they forget the second part: quotes are supposed to demonstrate mastery or expertise on a subject. They’re supposed to indicate that you’ve done your research, and you’ve learned from the material you’ve uncovered.

So what does an enormous, seven-line block quote in the middle of your third body paragraph demonstrate? Nothing. It demonstrates that you’re good at figuring out ways to artificially lengthen your paper, not that you’ve read and understand the material, and definitely not that you’ve learned how to apply that material to your thesis.

I’m going to record a video on how to properly utilize quotes in ways that will convince your professor you know what you’re talking about (and I’ll probably write a lengthy post to accompany that video, because it’s kind of a complicated topic to get into without clear examples), but the basic concept is this: you need to show that you’ve not only read the material, but that you’ve synthesized it, and can apply it to your case.

The point is this: sometimes, one really good quote is worth a dozen crappy ones.

4. Failing to explain the relevance of quotes

This goes hand in hand with the previous point. A lot of students fall prey to this: they dump in a quote without any context, and move on to their next point. This is terrible. Imagine your friend is telling you a story about how epic their weekend was, and in the middle of it they explain their cat’s eating habits. Then they just go back and pick up the thread of their original story, without telling you why they brought up their pet’s preference for Fancy Feast.

This is the kind of thing that drives me and professors nuts. I get it; you’re tired of writing this paper. You don’t want to do this anymore, and your professor told you that you need five sources. So you just stick a quote from your last source at the end of your final body paragraph and move on to the conclusion. This lazy attitude is going to cost you points.

It isn’t enough to add in a quote. You need to explain why that quote is important, or why it’s an incorrect assumption, or something. There needs to be a demonstrable reason for that quote to be there, and the only way to do that is explain its relevance, usually with a lead-in sentence and another commenting on it. Don’t just have a hanging source, because that’s not going to convince anyone of anything.

5. Contradicting the original argument

This last one seems like it’s probably the most basic, but it’s also almost frighteningly prevalent. I’m not sure whether this is a case of poor planning, a shifting thesis or a lack of editing, but it’s something I see time and time and again. In a thesis-driven paper, all of your body paragraphs should be supporting that thesis. Yet, halfway through, students seem to want to mention counter-arguments.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! In fact, as I’ll outline in another post, it can be a good way to increase the length of a paper that’s too short to meet your professor’s requirements. Challenging your thesis can be effective in supporting it– providing that you actually take the time to explain why that argument is incorrect, invalid, or generally a poor alternative to yours.

But students frequently don’t do that. Maybe they forget that they’re not writing an informative paper, or they mention the opposing side out of some weird sense of fairness. Or maybe they really are just trying to boost their page count and can’t think of a way to rebut that argument. Whatever the case might be, I frequently see papers with a thesis like “Most cats are brown,” contain a body paragraph that states something like “That said, the Montana study demonstrates that most cats are actually black.” And then they move on to other points.

Don’t do this. If you feel like you must point out arguments against your thesis, you need to also take the time to highlight the reasons why those arguments are inferior to your own. If you don’t do that, your professor is going to take off points. If you can’t come up with an argument against it, well… maybe that should be your thesis instead, and you should consider a rewrite.

Well, those are my top five for now. There are a lot more, so I’ll probably end up doing another post like this one eventually.

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