This may seem to be a bizarre topic for a blog entitled Musician at Work, but part of my work is lecturing on a music course at an FE College. As I am the lecturer in the department with a PhD, I get lumbered with trying to teach academic writing skills to 16-18-year-old wanna-be Popstars. You can guess how popular these lessons are…
These ‘Ten Common Mistakes in Essay Writing’ are the fruit of several years of marking dodgy essays that just throw away marks needlessly.
If you are in the ‘joyful’ position of home-schooling your kids at the moment, feel free to use this advice to help your offspring with their school work. (You can adapt it to fit younger age groups too.) Here we go…
1. Include the title and make sure the essay actually addresses the title. Eg: If the title is a question, does the essay answer this question, or does it go off at a tangent?
2. Proofreading. Check the spelling, grammar and punctuation for mistakes before submitting the work. The free app/programme ‘Grammarly’ is excellent and much better than the normal spell-checker on your computer, as it checks punctuation and grammar too.
It is also useful to listen to your computer reading the text back to you. [Google ‘text-to-speech’ for instructions on how to do this. It is fairly easy to set up but varies from machine to machine.] The computer reads exactly what you have written, not what you think you have written…
3. Neat Presentation. If an essay looks a mess then it probably is a mess. Keep the font, text size and line spacing consistent throughout the essay.
4. Present information in a logical order in paragraphs. I once ‘marked’ (actually I didn’t mark it because I gave up trying to read it) a 1500-word essay that was a continuous block of stream-of-consciousness text unbroken by paragraphs or even full-stops and capital letters. You can guess what grade this got!
5. Include an Introduction and Conclusion. Don’t just stop when you have reached the minimum permitted word count…
6. Include a ‘List of Sources’ (in alphabetical order) at the end of the essay. NB: This used to be called a ‘bibliography’ but no student these days knows what a book is, let alone reads one. And I refuse to use the phrase ‘webography’!
7. Make sure that any statements or quotations are linked correctly to the ‘list of sources’. At one extreme, this avoids any accusations of plagiarism. At the other end, it proves to the person marking it that you have actually done some research. Both of these are ‘good ideas’... The standard referencing system nowadays is Harvard Referencing, and the ‘bible’ for this is a tiny book called Cite them Right. This is updated regularly and the most up-to-date edition even includes how to cite tweets (if you really want to quote Donald Trump!).
8. Pictures, diagrams and graphs. These should all have a title and a figure number (fig. 1, etc…) which should be referred to at the appropriate point in the text.
9. Stick to the word-count (usually plus/minus 10%). If the essay is too short you will not get a good mark, and if it is too long you will not get extra credit for writing more (and may even be penalised).
10. Rushed, unresearched work done at the last minute - is very, very obvious to the person marking it. Don’t do it! Plan ahead and get the essay done in good time. Finish it and leave it alone for a few days. Then revise it. It will always end up much better than the first draft.
I hope this helps.