Academic writing can take some time to learn. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Of course, we want to avoid mistakes where we can though.
To help in that area, here is a run-down of some common mistakes made when writing academic essays.
Mistakes of Argument & Purpose
Essay writing in the academic realm is all about argument. When we write an essay, we should be aiming to prove a specific point on a clearly defined topic.
It’s critically important to establish both the topic and the point you want to make on that topic early in the essay.
As you move on through the paper, it is your job as the writer to explain how each supporting idea is connected to the essay’s main point.
Here are some mistakes commonly made in this area of essay writing.
Not Defining the Topic
Sometimes writers will be too broad in the description of a topic in the essay introduction.
A writer composes an essay on the government’s role in combating climate change, but the essay introduction fails to mention the government. Instead, the introduction only presents climate change as topic of the essay.
While climate change is clearly part of the topic of the essay, we need to be more specific as to what the essay is really about. And we need to do this in the introduction.
Not Taking a Clear Position
Sometimes writers will present a specific topic but fail to take a clear position on that topic.
A writer composes an essay on the government’s role in combating climate change. In the introduction the writer presents the topic in the form of a question: “Does the government have a greater role than individuals do when it comes to fighting climate change?” The paper then explores both sides of the question, but never provides a definitive or clear answer.
While it is always a good idea to explore the complexities of an issue by looking at multiple sides of an argument, we need to take a clear position in our academic writing.
Even if our position is nuanced or middle-ground, we have to explicitly provide an answer to the central question the essay is exploring. And we want to provide that answer in the introduction.
Taking too many positions
Sometimes writers will use an essay to examine multiple sides of an argument and provide reasons that support each side without ever stating which side they are taking. You can’t win an argument by taking every side. You have to pick one.
A writer composes an essay on the question of who should be seen as more responsible for combating climate change – individuals or governments. The writer explores reasons why both parties hold certain responsibilities and provides good evidence, but the essay does not clearly state which side the writer is taking.
If you feel that one side even is slightly stronger than the other, take that side. It is fine to say that both sides can be supported, yet one side is your preferred side. It’s even fine to say that you might change your mind later. But in the essay, tell the reader which side your paper is taking right now.
If you want to say that the middle-ground is the best position to take, be clear and say exactly that. That should be your thesis statement. The essay then becomes an argument as to how the available evidence supports the idea that the best conclusion is not one side or the other, but is instead a position in between.
If you want to argue that a topic is too complex to allow for a reasonable final conclusion, that’s fine. You just have to make that argument into the point of the paper. That point would be your thesis.
Describing a debate without taking a position on the issue
Sometimes writers will present a clear definition of a topic but take this element of the essay too far, developing an entire paper that explains the debate or turning the whole essay into a examination of the question the essay should really be answering.
A writer composes an essay on the question of who is more responsible for combating climate change – individuals or governments. Half of the essay explains why climate change is an important issue. The other half explains why people disagree about which party is most responsible for fighting climate change. And the essay ends before any position is stated or advocated.
Essays that examine and explore a question need to answer that question.
Again, it is well and good to explore the complexities within an argument. The issue here is that academic writing demands that every essay has a clear point and purpose. That purpose is to present a distinct argument.
At some point in the body of the essay, material needs to be presented that explains, illustrates, defends, or amplifies one specific position on the topic in preference to any others. Importantly, the introduction should inform the reader of that position.
Not Explaining Evidence
Sometimes writers fall into the trap of believing that the evidence they present is so obvious it doesn’t need to be explained. That is a problem because, often, evidence can be understood in multiple different ways.
A writer composes an essay on the government’s responsibility to enact policy to combat climate change. The essay includes statistics drawn from research on the impact of industrial pollution (carbon emissions) on climate change, but doesn’t explain the relationship between government policy and industrial behavior.
Always connect the dots. Don’t leave things implied. Part of the challenge of academic writing is to craft a fully illustrated and clearly explicated argument.
In this example, the writer is presenting a point of evidence that allows for at least two interpretations: (1) industrial actors are responsible for climate change emissions and should thus be held accountable for changing their behavior on their own or (2) government policy is the most likely means of shaping industrial behavior because regulation is what governments are for, in part, and industries are interested in profit above other considerations. If the writer wants the reader to adopt the second interpretation, that needs to be stated directly.
It’s the writer’s job to explain how each fact and figure connects to the essay’s main argument. Additionally, it is the writer’s job to explain how the point of each body paragraph relates to the thesis argument.
Mistakes of Format
There are other mistakes that come from rushing through things.
These mistakes tend to take the form of formatting errors either in terms of missing essay sections or in terms of the format of the paper on the page.
Skipping the Introduction
Sometimes writers start presenting evidence too soon. Let the introduction do its job.
Present a clear description of the topic of the essay and take a distinct position in the opening paragraph.
Wait until the body paragraphs to start presenting evidence in support of your thesis.
Oversized Body Paragraphs
Sometimes writers get rolling and write a four page essay with just one or two body paragraphs.
This can quickly become a disorganized jumble of ideas. We don’t want that.
Think smaller. The best body paragraphs will focus on making a single, narrowly defined point illustrated with evidence.
State a point. Provide evidence in support of that point. Explain how the reader should understand that evidence. Then move on.
We have a whole page of advice on body paragraphs. Take a look there for more detailed advice on this important (and sometimes overlooked) area of academic writing.
Forgetting the Conclusion
Sometimes writers will reach the end of an argument and stop the paper there. That leaves an essay feeling incomplete.
Even if the argument is complete, when an essay lacks a distinct conclusion the reader is left with questions.
It’s like getting to the end of an action movie where there is a final explosion then the screen immediately goes black. No credits. Just black. We wonder if something went wrong. “Was that the end or is part of the movie missing?” Don’t leave your reader wondering.
An essay is not complete without a conclusion. This should take the form of a paragraph (or two) where no new evidence is being presented.
Avoid presenting a paragraph that looks like a body paragraph as the final content of the essay. Make your conclusion distinct from the body of the essay.
MLA Formatting Mistakes
MLA has several specific requirements. This is perhaps the most common area of mistakes in an essay.
This is also the area that requires the least thought or consideration. For this reason, instructors often “ding” students for formatting mistakes. The expectation is that you will get the easy things right.
Our advice is to try to think this way too.
Recognize that MLA formatting requires a little effort up front to learn the basics. After that, small mistakes may crop up but major formatting mistakes will be an area you won’t have to worry about at all.
Then you can focus on other areas of your writing.