Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Five Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid

Over the last couple of years I have marked literally hundreds of essays. I've given everything from (sadly) low failing grades to marks in the mid-80s, and I've become intimately familiar with a variety of mistakes students make in their writing.

Whilst most of this marking has taken place in Sociology and Social Policy, the principles of good writing hold regardless of discipline. I don't think that students are told often enough what a good essay looks like, and I don't think that they're sufficiently warned of the kinds of traps that they are likely to fall into. This is an attempt to rectify some of those mistakes and prevent further students from making them. I hope it helps.

1. Making the introduction too fluffy

You were probably taught in school that the introduction to an essay (or any piece of writing) needs to grab the reader, that it should do the textual equivalent of picking them up by the scruff of the neck and screaming into their face, "PAY ATTENTION TO ME". Alternatively, perhaps you were told that you needed to show that what you were doing was incredibly important: that there's a gigantic issue that's been debated for centuries that only you are going to be able to resolve once and for all.

You don't need to do either of those things. If I'm reading your essay and it begins with something like "since the dawn of time, one question has tortured thinkers around the world: what does John Meyer mean by the 'World Society'?" then I'm going to immediately think worse of the material in front of me than I did five seconds beforehand.

Introductions don't need to be complicated. All you have to do is tell the reader what's contained in the essay. If it's a 2000 word affair, that means giving me your overarching argument in a sentence, followed by a sentence for each of the body paragraphs explaining what you'll be doing in each one and how it contributes to the overall argument. After that, you should tell me what's going to be your conclusion. That's it. That's a good introduction. You haven't wasted vital words on needless exposition, and you've conveyed the maximum amount of information in the smallest number of words. If you really want to, you can include some definitional work and explanation of methodology in the introduction, but that could equally well go in the first body paragraph.

There's an extended treatment of introductions in this guide to essays I wrote in 2017.

2. Being too lazy too proofread

We don't mark for spelling and grammar. Not officially, anyway. There's a box on our marking sheet that contains mention of spelling and grammar along with fluency, structure, referencing, and so on.

But if you leave your essay unedited once you've done the first draft, you're probably losing on average about 5 marks. That's half a grade bracket, and often it's enough to pull you down from an A to a B, or a B to a C.

Why? Because examiners don't read every single word of your work, carefully weigh it up, think about the cogency of the logic of the argument, and then finally come to a well thought-through decision on what mark they're going to assign. They're hurried. I get paid half an hour to mark a 2000 word essay, and that's at the generous end of the compensation for markers.

Instead, examiners use heuristics. They read an essay and get a rough, overall feel for what quality it has to it. Yes, they might think a little bit more carefully about whether it's a 63, a 65, or a 67, but ultimately they establish the general category it's in from the first read. That means that impressions matter, and it's simply just the case that most examiners will be biased against essays which have poor spelling and grammar. Typos don't affect the logic of your argument. In my opinion they shouldn't affect your mark, but they do.

So when you've finished the draft of your essay at 3am the night before it's due, try to give yourself half an hour when you've awoken from the well-earned post-essay sleep to have another look. Give it a once over: are the references all correctly formatted? Are there typos? Did you say effect when you really meant affect? These are tiny errors, but they'll cost you marks if you don't catch them. Even better, you could get a friend to read yours over in exchange for you doing the same. They're probably more likely to see mistakes that you would just automatically skim over.

3. Trying to copy academic language

You know this one when you see it. You're reading an essay and there are, just, too many commas, everywhere. The author has clearly read a paper and decided to parrot the language of the author, using words like "systemic" and "discursive" with zero regard for their specific meanings. One of the key markers of an amateurish essay is that the author substitutes what they think is clever and complex language for analysis. They take far too long to say one thing, and it's never entirely clear what they're saying.

I know it feels really clever to manage to make the word limit by adding in a bunch of words that don't really mean anything. For a brief moment, you might be able to trick yourself into thinking the examiner will be fooled. We're not. We were students, too. Some of us still are. We know bull when we see it.

Say what you want to say. Don't dress it up in language that makes it needlessly complicated. It's one of the worst conventions of academic writing that we try to make ideas more complex than they need to be. Simplicity in conveying complexity should be rewarded, and even if it isn't always given its appropriate dues, it will almost always work out better than a load of waffle.


4. Not making an argument

This sounds silly, but it's far more common than you'd think. One of the single biggest factors that prevents essays from getting above a 59 is that the author simply doesn't make an argument.

What does this look like? In History, you might simply be describing trends or changes rather than making an argument about what it is that has caused them. In Sociology, you could be telling me that an external social factor is responsible for a particular kind of individual behaviour, but without giving me any links as to why that might be the case. You might also be simply describing an author's views, rather than telling me why you think they're correct or incorrect. And if you are telling me that you think they're right or wrong, it's possible you haven't given me any real reason for that other than that you said so.

How can you fix this? It's relatively simple. Every time you write down a claim, ask yourself: why is that true? And why should anyone care? This will lead you to say the word "because" an awful lot more, and to begin with it might feel quite awkward, but it will quickly lead you into analysing things rather than simply describing them or asserting that they are true.

5. Trying to claim too much

In a 2000 word essay, it's just not the case that you're going to be able to overturn the entirety of the world order. It's unlikely you could even do that much for a single discipline. The most you might be able to hope for is to demonstrate that there is some kind of hole in the existing literature or consensus, and then give a plausible way in which that hole might be filled.

What I mean here is that students often feel like every essay needs to be a thesis, and that they have to be able to claim everything and solve all the problems of a discipline in one fell swoop.

You don't need to do either of those things. Instead, the best way to show the examiner that you have a real command of the literature and a real grasp upon the topic at hand is to demonstrate that you know the limitations of what can be achieved in your essay. Actively frame your essay so that the examiner can see which topics you're going to focus on and which examples you're going to use. Clearly state what is in and what is outside the scope of the essay. If you circumscribe the claims you want to make in this way, it's no longer so easy for an examiner to accuse you of overreaching.

If you really want to go further still, you can use your conclusion to both recapitulate the argument you've made and show how it might have wider implications. If, for example, you've answered a question about the differences in voter participation between democratic nations by looking primarily at England and Scotland, you might say that your argument could be applicable to other places in which there is an oppositional or fraught relationship between two places, such as Catalonia and Spain, or Quebec and the rest of Canada. You can't solve everything, and you shouldn't try to.

I hope you found this guide helpful. If you did, why not check out my other guides on how to write better essays?

How to Write Better Essays v1

How to Write Better Essays v2

How to Write Better Essays (video edition)

How to Write an Essay Introduction in Five Ludicrously Simple Steps

I'm also available for hire! I offer proofreading and editing services, as well as academic guidance on a pay-what-you-can basis.

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How to Write an Essay Introduction in 5 Ludicrously Simple Steps

Religion and Science were never opposed

Religion and Science were never opposed