Over the course of their careers, English instructors read enough student research papers to circle the circumference of the globe three times over. I just made that figure up, but I’ll bet it’s not far off. In the course of reading this many research papers, it’s typical to find the same weaknesses repeated in essay after essay. After a while, instructors have their own pet peeve list. So below we’ve compiled our own top ten list of the most common writing problems with research papers.
1. Apologizing for your opinions. Prefacing a statement with the phases, “I believe,” or “I think,” only serves to weaken your position. It’s akin to an apology for your opinion. Unless you are quoting or paraphrasing, it’s a given you “believe” or “think” something. Simply taking out those phrases will immediately give your writing more power.
2. Inflated phrases. When writing a research paper, students often think they have to take on a voice of authority, and they believe they need to use wordy constructions to sound “academic,” when all it does is sound pretentious. Wordy, inflated phrases are also confusing to read. Use your own voice and keep the writing tight.
3. Failure to attribute ideas to sources. Often in research papers, it’s obvious that ideas or opinions are not the author’s, but are not cited to an outside source. Students paraphrase others’ ideas into their own words, but often fail to cite. This creates the impression that the information is coming from the writer, when in fact, it’s a source’s idea or opinion. Give them credit.
4. Signposting. Signposting is putting up directional signs in your writing to tell the audience what you just said or what you will say. This might be required in speech class, but it’s not necessary in written papers. Don’t tell your audience what you previously said or what you will say; just say it.
5. Stuck in quotes. When incorporating sources, research must be integrated into your own writing smoothly, introduced completely, and synthesized fully. Taking outside research and sticking a quote in where you think it sounds good is a sure sign you either don’t understand the research, are a lazy writer, or both.
6. Not taking citation style seriously. Many students who have never written a research paper and are unfamiliar with MLA or APA citation requirements often believe the rules concerning in-text citation, works cited, or reference pages are a low priority and skimp on this time-consuming task. However, most instructors who assign research papers expect students to follow these rules and will often deduct a large number of points for failure to follow the guidelines. Some instructors will fail an otherwise strong paper for failure to master this important task. Take it seriously.
7. Lack of organization and focus. Don’t put socks in your underwear drawer. If your topic is rail transportation, and your argument is the US should fund public rails, don’t go into the fun you had riding the Euro-rail on your vacation. It’s irrelevant to your argument. Keep the points you want to make together; avoid jumping back and forth between reasons. Organize your argument like a chest of drawers – or a rail car – one drawer, or railcar, after another.
8. Lack of conclusion. One of the most common responses I have given to student papers is, “Ends abruptly.” Often students concentrate so intensely on the body of a research paper that they overlook the importance of a strong conclusion.
9. Failure to follow assignment guidelines. The lowest grades I have ever given a student research paper are to those who obviously have not even read the assignment directions. If you are asked to include eight sources, and you give two, that’s not meeting the requirements. If you write an informational essay when you are assigned an argument paper, that’s not following the guidelines. If in doubt, ask your instructor.
10. Lack of careful proofreading. Relying on spell-check is not going to help you find word usage errors, one of the most common errors in academic papers. It’s also difficult to find everything in one read-through. After you have read your essay through at least once to check for good paragraph structure, focus and flow, do a final edit for punctuation and grammar only.
Teachers: What have I left out? Share your top ten list.
Students: What are your pet peeves? Lack of clear assignment guidelines? Lack of written assignment? Lack of clear feedback?