How to Write a Paper Without Making Common Mistakes
Want A Better Grade?
Many things have changed in the 22 years I've taught College English, but one thing has not. Students still make the same common errors on their papers. I guarantee that if you follow my instructions to eliminate these errors on your paper, you will get a better grade. Not much time? My suggestions are ordered with the most important ones first.
Spelling and Grammar
The Problem: Students rush to finish their papers and don't take the time to find and fix errors that they could easily correct.
- Spell-check your essay using your word processing program.
- Use Grammarly to help check for errors (Google "Grammarly' to download the free version). After using this myself for a year, I'm finally requiring my students use it too because it really does catch many common word choice errors and comma errors.
- Re-read your essay slowly (out loud is best) from start to finish. That helps you find a lot of mistakes and typos that might be missed by your spellchecker.
- Ask someone else to read your essay to look for errors. Sometimes a friend can see something you can't.
Why Fix? Misspelled words and typos tell your teacher that you don't care. More importantly, these sorts of errors on the job tell your boss that you are a sloppy worker and that can make you get passed over for a promotion (but no one will tell you it is because you don't spell check!). So learn to be a careful proofreader.
Check Word Useage
The Problem: Students write the way they talk, making their writing too informal.
The Solution: Check your essay to see that you are not using these common words and phrases that are either:
- incorrect grammar
- confused words
- poor word choices
- not appropriate for an essay for class.
To Solve this Forever: Keep a list of the word errors that you find in your papers, or that your instructor has marked on graded essays. Try to learn the rules. Double check those words when you use them on an essay, or else when you proofread.
Why Fix? The rules on most of these words are taught in elementary school. Maybe you missed those lessons, didn't understand, or just have a couple of these you don't remember. Since these are lessons taught to young kids, it should be a breeze for you to learn them now. Do yourself a favor and learn your common errors.
Common Word Choices You Can Correct
Why it is wrong
Being as, being that, due to the fact that
Because or Since
alright, a lot
all right, a lot
your=belongs to you, you're=you are
British use or old fashioned
should of, could of, would of
should have, could have, would have
its=belongs to it, it's=it is
lots, lots of
a great many, a large number
OK, O.K., okay
all spellings are correct but only use if recording a conversation
too informal for an essay
previous to, prior to
question of whether, question as to whether
with regard to, relating to, with respect of
But, And, So, at the beginning of a sentence
However, Additionally, Therefore
these are conjunctions to use to join 2 parts of a sentence
supposed to, use to
supposed to, used to
spelling like you hear it
than=compared to, then=what time
there, their, they're
there=place, their=belongs to them, they're=they are
to, two, too
to=preposition, too=also or very, two=2
confused, avoid using "too" if possible
affect=to influence, effect=result
passed=he passed by, past=in the past
cite, site, sight
cite=to quote, site=a place or web site, sight=to see
When You Fix Grammar Errors..
Check for Boring, Short and Repetitive Sentences
Problem: Sentences are wordy, boring, and sound the same.
Original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people. People wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus. People don't trust government sources that assure us the Ebola virus is contained.
- Circle every word that you use to start a sentence.
- Look for sentences that have the same first words, especially if they are in the same paragraph and change them in one of the following ways:
Add a transition word or phrase to start the sentence (However, Even though, Moreover, in addition, Consequently). See my "transition words" chart for more examples.
Use different sentence types, like questions, interjections and commands.
- Which is really the most important way to help stop Ebola?
- We need to act now!
- Don't forget that as our world shrinks, what happens in Africa and elsewhere has great importance for everyone.
Re-arrange the sentence with an Introductory Element. Introductory elements are phrases that come before the subject in the sentence. Often you can take the end of a sentence and move it to the front to make a more interesting sentence. Don't forget a comma after the Introductory Element.
West Africa is the place where the deadly Ebola virus first hit. Wondering if the deadly virus will spread, many people are frightened by Ebola. Not trusting government sources, citizens in hard-hit countries are wondering if they or someone they love will be the next victim.
- Combine short sentences together and eliminate repetitive words.
original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people.
re-write: The deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is frightening to many people.
- Use a semicolon to combine sentences.
The frightening and deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa causes people to wonder who will be the next victim; moreover, many people don't trust the government sources that say the virus is contained.
Why this works: When you have sentences starting with the same word, you are probably using the "subject-verb-object" type of sentence that English speakers use when we talk. When you write, you don't have to always keep the subject as the first word in the sentence. So when you revise the first word, your writing automatically seems more professional and intelligent.
Sample Revisions: Even though government sources assure us the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will be contained, many people are frightened that they may become the next victims of this deadly virus.
Not trusting government sources which assure us that the Ebola virus is contained, many people are frightened and wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus which comes from West Africa.
first, second, third
on the one hand...on the other hand
as well as
as a result
on the contrary
Check Commas, Semicolons and Colons
The Problem: Commas appear when they aren't needed, or are missing when they are required. Your instructor may write "comma splice," "run-on sentence" or "no comma needed."
The Solution: Proofread your paper while looking at the Rules for Using Commas, and Easy Rules for Semicolon and Colon.
Here are the Basic Comma Rules:
- Use a comma in a list. Example: James loves bananas, apples, peaches, and strawberries.
- Use a comma before a conjunction (and, but, or, so, for, yet, nor) if there is a full sentence (subject and verb) before and after the conjunction. Example: James loves bananas that are ripe, but he does not eat any fruit that has brown spots.
- Use a comma after an Introductory Element (word or phrase) that comes before the subject in a sentence. Example: In spite of eating a whole bowl full of fruit at lunch, James was still hungry.
- Use commas to mark off unimportant information. If you aren't sure if it needs a comma, then try saying the sentence without that phrase. If the sentence still makes sense, then you should probably use commas. Example: James, who loves all sorts of fruit, always tries to come with me when I'm shopping at the Farmer's Market, which is only open on Saturday mornings.
2 Ways to Use a Semicolon
- Use a Semicolon instead of a period to put two sentences together. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; we always argue over whether to get green, red, or black seedless grapes.
- Use a Semicolon with a transition word + comma. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; however, we usually spend most of our time arguing over which sort of grapes to buy.
How to Use a Colon
A colon is used before a list, an explanation or example. Example: James and I always argue about which grapes are the best: red, green or black.
Check Your Quotes and Sources
The Problem: Students don't always use quotation marks correctly or tell where they got information.
The Solution: 1. Check for where you need sources. As you read your paper over, mark the parts that were ideas that came from someone else. Have you told the reader where you got that information? You especially need to cite your source for facts, statistics, quotations or other information that isn't general knowledge.
2. Put your sources in your paper. The easiest way to make sure you aren't in trouble for not including your sources is to mention where you got the information in your paper. Here are some sample formats:
- In Damian Reed's article, "Where Birds Fly South," he states that....
- According to Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South," the hummingbird doesn't migrate...
- Hummingbirds don't migrate as soon as expected, notes Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South" (Reed 24).
The last example uses MLA citation format. See here for APA format.
3. Make a Bibliography (see the style guides above) or "Works Cited" page.
4. Check to see if you've done your quotation marks correctly. Remember that the quotation marks come after the punctuation. Examples:
....completely an utterly true."
....completely and utterly false!"
....completely and utterly confused?"
....completely and utterly my own opinion" (James 44).
What Type of Essay are You Writing?See results without voting
More by this Author
Great topic ideas for science essays, links to articles to begin your research, writing tips, and step-by-step instructions for writing your paper.
Clear instructions with outlines and sample essay forms for writing summary, analysis, and response papers.
Want to write a great argument paper, fast? Try one of these easy topics. You'll also find links to research ideas, writing tips, and sample essays.