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The following list of the 10 most common errors that students make helps to put into context the advice about writing style and English grammar that follow. In their writing at university, students are often guilty of:

Structuring poorly

Structure is crucial to arguing your case. You now know that you need to structure using the introduction–body–conclusion sub-sections. You must have a clear and strong opening paragraph, so that as you write you keep thinking about how the current paragraph is doing the job you set out to do.

Assuming the reader knows what you mean without explanation

You can’t assume that readers share your knowledge when you write. When you make a point, ask yourself how you would respond to their question: “How do you know that”.

Providing summaries of other authors’ ideas without explanation

It is inappropriate simply to summarise what another author says without some elaboration.

Student example

Morley explores the differences between postmodernism as a cultural style, and post-modernity as a period. In doing this, the article also highlights similarities between the characteristics of postmodernism and Marxism.

Problem

In the second sentence of the example, we learn nothing substantive about the similarities or differences provided by Morley.

Making sweeping statements

Avoid making sweeping statements that are not qualified. Because the world is not a simple place, it is likely that unqualified statements, that is, those that do not explain their conclusions, will be inaccurate.

Student example

Political manipulation of symbols creates cultural perceptions that change society.

Should read

Political manipulation of symbols help to shape our cultural perceptions and so can change society.

‘Announcing’ quotations

Avoid presenting quotations that announce themselves. Instead, let them merge into your own text. A really bad example is:

Student example

An article by P. Smith and N. Kwan in The Journal of Advertising was interesting because it goes on to explain...

Problem

The crucial information has still not been put after 19 introductory words. Bibliographic information properly belongs in the reference list, not in the body of your essay.

In most cases, it is better to open your sentence with the idea not the author, as in the following example sentence where the author leads the sentence:

Student example

Cao and Wei (2009) argue that vesting requirements and bankruptcy risk can lead to significant value discounts.

Should read

Vesting requirements and bankruptcy risk can lead to significant value discounts (Cao and Wei, 2009).

Using the word ‘quote’ or ‘quotation’ anywhere in your essay

Do not say, for example, “This quotation shows …”, simply because any quotation does not show. Instead, say that the author (by name) argues, proposes, surmises, suggests, and so on. As the writer, you need to do the work of explaining or interpreting a quotation. Simply compiling a series of quotations will not write the essay.

Using large or too many quotations

As far as possible, avoid large or many quotations. Instances of quotations taking up whole paragraphs are becoming more common because many students do not understand the art of paragraph writing. Therefore, remember these guidelines:

  • Never quote another author’s words by themselves without any of your own.
  • When using another author’s view, the best thing to do is paraphrase (i.e., rephrase) them, rather than quote them verbatim (i.e., word for word).
  • Whether you paraphrase or quote words directly, you must always attribute another author’s words by conventional referencing.
  • If a long quotation is important enough to use in fill, remember the ‘three-line new-line’ rule: that anything of more than three lines should begin on a new line.

Writing waffle sentences

The section below on Style gives advice about keeping your sentences easy to read. However, you should remember that busy lecturers dislike padding (i.e., words that say nothing) and have a laser-like capacity to detect it. If your sentence is not advancing the proposition of your essay, leave it out.

Student example

Kumar uses the chapter to represent many different thoughts on the usage of the term and the meaning with regard to our society. Many researchers over the years have analysed gender and language…

Problem

The sentences in the example are purely and simply waffle and add little to the essay’s case. Leave them out.

Using the wrong tense when referring to research

Use the historic present tense when referring to an author saying something, or when referring to your sources, because anything previously written continues as the living word. You should write: Barbour asserts that …; Glaser and Strauss hold that grounded theory is undeniable; The unions maintain that …; or Henry Mintzberg talks about … .

This is so, except if you are identifying historical aspects of particular authors. In the following sentences, the past tense of the writing is pertinent to the sense of the sentence:

  • When Freud described the world of dreams as having their origin in real spiritual excitation, he was talking about what was believed in pre-scientific days.
  • Taylor wrote in response to the growth of major industrial work systems.
  • Einstein conceived of Relativity while working as a Patents Officer in Bern.

Including your personal capabilities in your essay analysis

Lecturers and tutors are aware that some of the material studied and researched by students at university will challenge and test them. Nevertheless, do not include comments about your intellectual struggles in your essay, as these students did:

Student example 1

I found this article … hard to understand as there are many theorists and ideas involved.

Students example 2

The article is fairly easy to read and the reader is not bogged down with long-winded explanations and confusing economic references.