In my 2 years working at the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication (CWSC), I learned a lot about what mistakes and confusions students encounter when writing papers of all disciplines.
Since this knowledge would have helped me when I began university, I’ve made a list of common mistakes to share.
The list below assumes you understand certain components of essay structure, like thesis statements and topic sentences. If you’re unsure what these are, I suggest reviewing this student toolkit on writing or visiting the CWSC.
Let’s get started!
10. Arguing with absolute language
In academic writing, arguing with absolute words like “proves” should be avoided. In academia, all knowledge is open to re-assessment. Considering that the most professional, heavily-funded research can’t produce 100% proven findings, your paper definitely can’t!
It’s better to use less extreme words like “suggests” or “indicates”.
9. Your transition sentences stray too far from the paragraph’s topic
Worrying that one paragraph doesn’t flow into the next, students often end paragraphs using a sentence that belongs in the next paragraph. A transition sentence should not begin the argument of the next paragraph.
The best transition sentences flow into the next paragraph by coming back to main points of the thesis.
8. Your counterargument paragraph only summarizes opposition
In counterargument paragraphs, students often just summarize arguments of people that disagree with them. This weakens the paper’s argument.
The purpose of a counterargument paragraph is both to acknowledge the opposition and to explain why your argument withstands or outweighs theirs. Do both.
7. Your thesis isn’t argumentative
Most academic papers, aside from exceptions like summaries, are argumentative. Use argumentative language like “should” in the thesis to state a position rather than summarize or seem undecided.
6. You misinterpreted the assignment instructions
To make sure your paper follows the instructions, underline key instructions and return to the instructions as you write! Often students don’t follow the assignment instructions as intended because they aren’t sure how to write a certain kind of paper.
If you aren’t sure how to write within an academic genre, ask your teacher, look up tips online, or make an appointment at the CWSC.
5. Your introduction is too long
The intros of most academic papers—especially undergrad arts papers—shouldn’t be longer than 3-5 sentences.
The only purpose of the sentences before the thesis is to prepare the reader for the thesis, which shouldn’t take many sentences unless your topic requires lots of background or definitions.
4. Your thesis is too scattered or too general to give your reader a clear idea of the main argument
When the thesis statement is spread throughout multiple sentences, the reader can miss it. This is why, unless you have a good reason and write clearly, theses should be only one sentence long.
Also, make sure your thesis is specific enough to give the reader a clear idea of all your paper’s main arguments.
3. Your topic sentences don’t clearly connect to your thesis
All topic sentences should clearly connect to the thesis using key words. Without these key words, the reader will either forget the thesis as they read or have to keep flipping back to the intro.
2. You introduced your arguments, provided evidence, but explained neither
Ideally, when writing body paragraphs, 1) an argument is introduced, 2) evidence is provided, then 3) it is explained how the evidence supports the argument.
Step 3—most important because it explains the connection between 1 and 2—is often overlooked.
1. Your topic sentences don’t accurately capture argument/topic of their paragraph
Probably half the papers I looked at have this issue somewhere. A topic sentence is like a mini-thesis that should capture the argument or topic of a single paragraph.
So, if the first sentence of a body paragraph only introduces a part of the paragraph’s argument or mentions something outside of the paragraph’s argument, the reader will probably end up confused.
I hope these tips were helpful. If you have any questions about the list or want to make sure your writing is on track, visit the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.
The CWSC offers free one-on-one writing consultations to support UBC students with all their writing needs. Each consultation is 25 minutes long for undergrads and 50 minutes for grad students.
You get to work with peer writing consultants to improve your writing, shape your writing process, and meet your goals. Book your appointment today!