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Common mistakes to avoid in essay writing

Steven Tannason

Fri May 18 2012


DON’T lose unnecessary marks on your essays. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common mistakes students make when it comes to essay writing. 

Failing to address the question 

Failing to adequately address the essay question is the number one mistake students make. Always read the question a couple of times to make sure you’re addressing all the components. For example, if a question asks you to outline a theory…and apply to an event and give critical analysis, be sure you answer all three parts.

No clear argument

Another common mistake is the absence of a clear argument. Some students might have an idea of what they want to argue but they don’t express it clearly. Try to have a clear one-sentence argument in the introduction and not leave it to the end of the essay. Additionally it’s a bad idea to write hoping to find some sort of argument along the way ather than having your argument organised prior to writing the essay. Always have your argument clear in your head before you start writing.

Describing rather than analysing

It’s one thing to describe, and another to analyse. It’s easy to get caught up in talking about a subject matter without analysing the information you’ve got on hand. Most essays will ask you to engage in the question in some way, so being descriptive is never enough, you have to agree, disagree and offer an educated perspective.

Not using reliable references

Wikipedia is good to get an overview of a topic, but it’s just a starting point. Also be careful when using internet sources as academic articles carry a lot more weight than an article you randomly found on the internet. So do your own research outside of Wikipedia. Academic references are core. While reading academic articles, you should look at the citations and find the articles being cited.

Related story: Top tips for essay writing success

Quoting without understanding

You don’t show you’ve done thorough research and engaged with a topic by lifting whole chunks of text from an academic article to quote in your essay. Demonstrate understanding by paraphrasing and using your own words to explain the concepts as well. Use a mix of both direct quotes and your own reworded indirect quotes when writing your essay.

Inflated and overly-elaborate style 

Most students tend to overwrite and inflate their essays with big complicated words. You’re much better off keeping your language plain and using short sentences. After all, it’s the ideas that are important, not the number of complicated words you use.

No clear introduction

A good essay has a clear introduction that indicates you know what your argument is and how you are going to argue it. The reader should be able to get a clear framework for the points you intend to elaborate on in the rest of your essay.

Not supporting statements with evidence

It’s not enough to have a point of view if you don’t  have evidence to back it up with. You have to substantiate your arguments by drawing on your research.

Incorrect referencing

Forgetting to include page numbers or submitting an incomplete bibliography is the easiest and silliest way to lose marks. Writing up a complete bibliography doesn’t take long. You should reference all the statements in your essay that have been drawn from other sources to avoid plagiarism. Try to update your bibliography as you write, that way you don’t have to go back at the end and try to figure out where you got all those references from.

Recommendations not drawn from analysis

If you give recommendations that don’t relate to your analysis you could get yourself in a lot trouble. While it’s good to form your own thoughts and opinions, you should always base your recommendations on the research you’ve done and make sure you explain where your recommendations come from.

Conclusions are not forward looking

A good conclusion is more than just a summary – it looks backward and forward. For example, a good conclusion in a business essay explains not only the history, but the future of the organisation you’re discussing.

Making assumptions

If you’re making assumptions, back them up with academic references and if possible direct quotes from notable academics.

Poor data collection

Business, science and math essays need to be supported by data. Business disciplines in particular require data, i.e. the link between strategy and organisation and how it affects the bottom line.