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The Ten Most Common Essay Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

written by: Brian D. Taylor • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 8/2/2012

These essay writing tips are advice for avoiding common writing mistakes.

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    10. Failure to Be Specific

    This essay writing tip involves being specific and clear.

    Example: Two boys were talking. He said he was his best friend.

    Huh? Who said what to whom? Is he proclaiming himself to be the best friend or is he complimenting his friend on the closeness of their friendship?

    Being specific is very important in your writing. Your sentences may make sense in your own head, but if you aren't clear and specific for your readers, they will be completely lost.

    Solution: Use specific names rather than pronouns whenever possible. This is also an important rule to remember for titles and place names. Be specific whenever you can.

    Example: Bill and Jack were talking. Bill said that Jack was his best friend.

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    9. Fragment and run-on sentences

    This essay writing tip involves sentence structure.

    Example: (Fragment) Because Richard III was evil. (Run-on) Richard III was an evil man he murdered two little boys.

    Say the first one out loud. Does it sound incomplete? It should, because it is. You have both a subject and a verb, but the sentence is still incomplete because you've begun with the word 'because' which makes the sentence a dependent clause (AKA a fragment).

    Say the second one out loud as well. If you did not pause between the words 'man' and 'he' you read it correctly. Did it sound like two sentences mashed together? It should have, because it is.

    Solution: For fragments, make sure you have a subject and a predicate. Dependent clauses must connect to an independent clause (AKA a complete sentence). For run-ons, it's usually best to separate into two sentences. For some run-ons, you can add a conjunction.

    Example: (Fragment) Because Richard III was evil, he murdered two little boys. (Run-on) Richard III was an evil man. He murdered two little boys.

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    8. Straying Off Topic

    This essay writing tip involves focus.

    Example: I love hamburgers because they have most of the major food groups. The patties and the buns have your bread and meats covered. Hamburgers are also great with vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and pickles. If you're having a cheeseburger, you also have dairy. I also like to eat hot dogs.

    Is the fact that you like hot dogs relevant to your essay about hamburgers? Probably not. This one is tricky because it sounds like it's related, but it isn't. If the majority of your paragraph is focused on one topic and you have added a comment about another topic, you will always be off topic.

    Solution: Stay focused on your topic. Eliminate random thoughts.

    Example: I love hamburgers because they have most of the major food groups. The patties and the buns have your bread and meats covered. Hamburgers are also great with vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and pickles. If you're having a cheeseburger, you also have dairy.

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    7. Repetition Repetition Repetition Repetition Repetition Repetition...

    This essay writing tip involves not being annoying.

    Example: The dog lived with Mr. Johnson, but the dog would not listen to his commands. The dog would only come when Mr. Johnson gave the dog a treat. The dog was otherwise very hyper and inattentive.

    Five times. That's how many times you just had to read 'the dog' within the last three sentences. After a awhile, it becomes annoying and a sign of lazy writing.

    Solution: Avoid repetition and add variety to your language by saying the same thing in another way.

    Example: Buddy the dog lived with Mr. Johnson, but would not listen to his commands. The easily excited pooch would only come when Mr. Johnson gave him a treat. Buddy was otherwise very hyper and inattentive.

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    6. Lazy Introductions and Conclusions

    This essay writing tip involves the two most important parts of the essay--the beginning and the end. This essay writing tip is ignored by students overly eager to finish the assignment, regardless of content.

    Example: In conclusion, bears are very important animals. Next time you're at the zoo, make a special visit to the bear pavilion.

    Introductory and concluding paragraphs each have a purpose. Introductions are intended to lead the reader into the main topic of an essay. Many students begin introductions with the thesis and a quick highlight of their main points, but this is sloppy and you will almost always lose points. Try to begin with an interesting statement to pull the reader in, then tie in some introductory knowledge of your subject, and end with a strong, but simple thesis.

    The purpose of a conclusion is to summarize your main points into a single thought that gives a sense of completion. It is the "falling action" of the essay, similar to that of a story. Lord of the Rings doesn't just end when the ring is cast into the fires of Mt. Doom. The hobbits must travel back to the Shire, say goodbyes to friends, and face some small remaining evils before the story is complete. Your conclusion must also wrap up any unfinished business.

    Typically, conclusions are rushed or overlooked. Many students spend hours grueling over the writing of the essay and get to the conclusion and wish to get it over with as soon as possible. Don't do this. Give the conclusion its due. What have you been writing about for the last five hours? What have you proven in your essay? Give the reader a quality final thought.

    Often, students will repeat themselves in the conclusion. Strive to say things in a new way. Sentence variety matters!

    Solution: Remember the purpose of introductions and conclusions. Take your time to make them thorough and meaningful. Lead up to your thesis in the intro. Deal with unfinished business and try not to simply repeat yourself in the conclusion.

    Example: After only a brief foray into ursology it becomes clear that bears are fascinating creatures. The bear's conflicting natures of fuzzy and fierce, playful and powerful, and cute and deadly make it one of mankind's most revered and feared creatures. Sadly, bears usually get a bad rap. If the public learns the proper ways to respect the bear, the relationship between man and bruin would be greatly improved. To find out more about bears and their habits, or to make a donation to a local bear awareness council, please visit www.bearinfo.com.

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    5. Copycats vs. Copyright

    This essay writing tip involves honesty and integrity.

    Example: Plagiarism of any kind such as intentional copying, quoting without giving credit to the author, or paraphrasing.

    There are many kinds of plagiarism. Some forms are intentional. Others happen by mistake.

    Intentional copying and using quotes without naming the author fall into the intentional category. In the internet era, with seemingly endless amounts of information at your hands, it is incredibly tempting to copy and paste web articles into your essay. Not only is this the most blatant form of plagiarism, but it is also the easiest kind to catch. Never use someone else's words as if they were your own.

    Another form of plagiarism that often happens by mistake is paraphrasing. This is also known as "putting it in your owns words." Many students fail here because teachers are always telling students to put it in their own words. This is clearly confusing. While teachers do want you to share information in your own, unique way, they do not want you to rewrite the encyclopedia entry. This is how paraphrasing becomes plagiarism. Students simply work their way through an article and change the wording, sentence by sentence. This is plagiarism, because you are not using your own ideas and you are not organizing the information in your own way.

    A good way to avoid plagiaristic paraphrasing is to take notes in your own words. Put the notes on a separate sheet of paper. Only take notes on the most important information, you probably won't need information from every sentence. When you are writing your essay, use your notes only. Do not go back to the original article, just work from your notes. While writing, take the information from your notes and put them into your own words again. In other words, say it in a new way. If you follow this method, you are much less likely to paraphrase in a way that becomes plagiarism.

    Solution: Never directly copy someone else's words unless you have given the author credit. Avoid paraphrasing by taking good notes. Do not go through articles and change each sentence.

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    4. Broad Topic

    This essay writing tip involves choosing a topic.

    Example: Baseball is a great sport.

    While you could write an essay about baseball, it will probably be very difficult and could end up sloppy and disorganized if you are not very careful. This topic may be too broad. There are far too many points that could be discussed for this topic: positions, players, history of baseball, rules, fans, stadiums, equipment, tips, officiating, professional leagues, amateur leagues, etc. With all that information, how do you choose what should be included in the essay? A broad topic also leads to weak links betweens your main points. While these have a common theme of being related to baseball, an essay about officiating, stadiums, and amateur leagues would seem very disorganized and unfocused.

    Topics that are narrow and focused usually assist the writer. A narrow topic narrows the amount of information that can be discussed. You might think this would be bad, but it will really help. Many times narrowing the topic will create three to five obvious main points that you can discuss in each paragraph of your essay. All of your points will be more closely related to one another too.

    A focused topic will also help you stay on topic. You'll feel less tempted to bring up unnecessary information about first basemen if your essay is focused on the topic of catchers.

    Solution: Narrow your topic to keep it focused. This also helps with writing because you don't have too much information to sort through.

    Example: Styles of baseball pitches. (which leads to some obvious main points: fastballs, breaking balls, changeups, trick pitches)

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    3. Poor Formatting

    This essay writing tip involves publishing and readability.

    Example: Poor choice of font, improper alignment or indentation, and spacing issues.

    When writing an essay, it is always important to keep the audience or reader in mind. When you have completed the writing, you must think about formatting. Why is formatting properly so important? Because someone is going to have to read your essay at some point and a poorly formatted essay is going to make that a more difficult job.

    First, select a font that can be read easily. Serif fonts are the best choice for large amounts of text. Serif fonts have little lines at the ends of each character that help the eye move from letter to letter. Sans serif fonts do not have these lines. Try using Sans Serif fonts for your titles and headings, but a serif font for the text of the essay.

    Alignment and indentation are also important. Typically, the text of an essay should be left aligned. Each paragraph should have a .5" first line indent. Headings typically get right alignment and titles are almost always centered. Indentation can be controlled with the format paragraph window in many word processors.

    Finally, check the spacing of your essay. Many teachers require double spacing. This gives them extra space to write comments between the lines. Yes, you do want comments. They are meant to help you become a better writer. Spacing is also controlled in the format paragraph window.

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    2. Rogue Thesis Statements

    This essay writing tip involves thesis statements.

    Example: This is my essay about fossils. (or) This essay will teach you everything you need to know about bones (and appearing at the beginning of the introductory paragraph).

    Typically, you should not write in first person point of view when writing essays. This means you should not speak about yourself, the reader, or the essay itself. Usually, students do a good job of this until the thesis statement. Resist the urge to use words and phrases like 'my essay,' you will learn,' or 'This is why I believe...'

    The thesis statement is the main topic sentence for your entire essay. Many students want to jump right in with their thesis statement. It often appears as the first sentence, probably because everyone has been taught to begin every paragraph with a topic sentence. Don't make this mistake. The introduction is a paragraph that is intended to lead up to the topic. If you start with the thesis, then there's no point for an entire introduction paragraph.

    Solution: Avoid first person perspective (my, I, you, essay, etc.). Keep the thesis statement at the end or very near the end of the introduction.

    Example: Studying fossils is a very interesting way to learn about the past.

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    1. Spell Check Fail

    This essay writing tip involves proofreading.

    Example: The cold man wore a brown cat upon his head.

    No, he's not wearing a cat instead of a hat because he's so cold. He's wearing the cat on his head because someone has forgotten the limitations of automated spell check. Now, automated spell checks are great. By all means, use them; however, they do not catch everything, including the examples above. Let's say the intended sentence was, "The old man wore a brown hat upon his head." An automated spell check would not catch the two mistakes because those typos actually created real words: 'cold' and 'cat.'

    Solution: Do an automated spell check to begin. Then, go back and do a secondary check yourself.

    Example: The old man wore a brown hat upon his head.

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