Top 5 mistakes to avoid on your term papers

A Dal News Top 5 list

- November 16, 2012


Welcome to a new feature: The Dal News Top 5, where we, and other contributors, compile interesting, fun or informative lists about campus life.

Given that we’re headed towards the end of term, we decided for our inaugural edition to have staff from Dalhousie’s Writing Centre — Margie Clow Bohan, Susanne Marshall, and Gordon Miller — to offer their top 5 mistakes to avoid when you're completing that major research paper.

1. Not following the assignment directions
“Your instructor doesn't have anything particular in mind in terms of format and content.”

Instructors know what they want you to learn and be able to demonstrate. They are also following disciplinary preferences in terms of format. If you are writing a paper and the instructions say use three peer-reviewed articles, find three appropriate articles — not two, not one, but three. These requirements are there to push you to use appropriate resources (rather than, say, Wikipedia or a run-of-the-mill website). You’ll still have to organize your ideas, draft the paper with a good argument, and then revise the writing, but you'll have every chance of doing well if you stick to your instructor’s directions — and if it’s at all unclear, ask them about it!

2. Not crafting a thesis statement
“Why should you really know what you want to say? Muddling around with a few statements that circle what you think might be your point will do.”

If you don't have a thesis statement, you don't have a paper. Unless you state clearly, near the beginning of your paper, both what your aim is within the paper and the context and significance of pursuing your argument, it is difficult for your reader (in this case, the person who is marking your paper) to determine whether your argument is succeeding in building as it should — and, most likely, without a clear thesis statement, it isn't. It doesn't matter how well you discuss your evidence or how much you polish your paper if the bones of a good argument are not present.

3. Not crediting your sources

 “Why bother crediting your sources of information? You want the instructor to think you’re smart, not some old guy or woman who wrote a book or an article. The instructor won’t know.”

In a paper you develop an argument (i.e., thesis) and then find evidence that the argument is correct. Using source material (primary and secondary) appropriately makes you look much smarter — and know that the instructor will be able to identify that the work belongs to others. Believe us. Read the material. Try to understand it, summarize it, use it, and then cite it. You will have a much stronger paper AND you’ll have learned some great ideas from other people (some older than you but you’ll be their age someday – be kind).

4. Overusing your thesaurus (or the “synonyms” function)

 “If you’re struggling to find the correct phrasing, you can permanently use the synonyms function on Microsoft Word or verify in a thesaurus.”

It is important to be precise with your diction (i.e., word choice). As we’ve demonstrated above, the synonyms function and the thesaurus function can easily lead you astray (e.g., “permanently” does not mean the same thing as “always”; “verify” does not mean the same thing as “check”). You should write with a dictionary at hand to give you a clearer sense of what a word means. And don’t be afraid to ask your instructors, TAs, or the staff at the Writing Centre if you are uncertain. It is also better to repeat a word or phrase rather than change it for change's sake — clarity in a paper trumps variety. Lastly, finding synonyms for words in an original source and just making substitutions (one word for another word) is not an adequate way to paraphrase and may end in a charge of plagiarism.

5. Not proofreading
“Don't bother with that extra proofing. Your instructor knows what you're trying to get at anyway.”

A paper riddled with grammatical errors shows your instructor that you don't care about the quality of your work, that you're lazy, and that you are uninterested in learning how to express yourself clearly and well (one of the principal achievements of a university education). Your instructors may be able to decipher what you mean, but they will respect you less, as you have little respect for your own work. They will certainly deduct marks from your paper as well.

BONUS MISTAKE TO AVOID (Because we couldn’t keep it to just five — this is important stuff!)

6. Not reviewing the instructor’s comments when you get the paper back
“As soon as the paper is handed back, take a quick look at the mark and throw the paper away. Oh, yes. Don’t even pick it up if the instructor is leaving it on a shelf or in the hall.”

THE best way to learn how to write is to understand what the reader (here, the marker) thought about the paper. Read the comments. Go see the marker and ask how you could improve. The marker will be thrilled that you are so interested! The next time you are writing keep the comments in mind. That is how the old guys and women learned to write and sound so smart. Try it. You’ll surprise yourself.

Good luck. We enjoy helping you with your learning – visit the Writing Centre if you want to learn more. Call 494-1963 for an appointment today!


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