1. Losing track of why you've been asked to
Writing is simply proof that you can clearly think about certain
topics, offer convincing arguments, and perhaps find outside
support of your claims. Many young writers too quickly get caught
up in technical aspects (agonizing over sources, punctuation, and
2. Sitting down at a computer and starting to just type
up the paper you will hand in
If you were asked to drive to Texas, would you just jump in a car
and slam the pedal to the metal? Probably not. You might chart out
directions, make sure your tank is full, and/or listen to traffic
reports to avoid delays and find alternate routes. In writing,
planning gets you going the right way, keeps you from veering off
course, and puts you at ease since you know how you can reach
3. Writing without a clear understanding of your
How is your summary paper coming along? Wait, is it supposed to be
a summary or a compare/contrast paper? If your professor gives you
an assignment sheet, read it carefully and hold onto it. If your
professor verbally explains the assignment, take detailed notes. If
you know what is expected of you, then you will be in a better
position to achieve your goals.
4. Making grammar your first (or only)
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important, but don't worry
about them prematurely--these concerns may hinder your thought
process and often impose "writer's block" where it doesn't belong.
If you allow time for drafts and revision, then you can take care
of grammar after you have fleshed out all of your ideas.
5. Not talking to your professors about your
Students often ask us to interpret assignments, grades, and written
comments and feedback. Your professors are the source of these
matters, so you should speak to them. Make an appointment to talk
to your professor during office hours (approaching a professor
after class as she is gathering her materials and heading off to
her next class or the bus may not be ideal). Also, when you
approach instructors they realize you care about class--and that is
often a desirable trait.
6. Incorrectly obeying Spellcheck and Grammarcheck;
using contractions in academic writing
Spellchecked your paper, no more red squiggly lines under your
words, so you're all set, right? Maybe not. Spellcheck simply helps
you make sure all the words in your writing exist in the English
language. You're righting mite bee spell checked, butt eye wood
knot wrest their. All those correctly spelled words may be the
wrong words (these careless errors are the new spelling mistakes of
the computer generation).
Also, beware of Grammarcheck. The computer often does not know
what you're trying to say, so don't blindly let a machine think and
rewrite for you.
Contractions (changing a phrase like "do not" into "don't") are
often too casual for academic writing. Yet the bigger problem
arises when writers make the common mistake of incorrectly
switching "its" for "it's," "your" for "you're," "wont" for
"won't," and so forth. These signs of carelessness won't be caught
7. Including lines like, "Webster's Dictionary defines
(insert word relevant for your paper) as . . ."
This technique is a lazy, boring cliché. Don't waste space;
defining terms in your own words makes for more powerful
8. Improperly proofreading
When you simply "look over" your paper before handing it in, you
may get caught up in the flow of your thoughts as opposed to
finding typographical/structural errors. One of many techniques is
covering part of your paper so you're forced to read line for line
and not skip ahead as you proofread.
Have you ever cooked a meal for someone, perhaps slaved over the
stove? Maybe you gathered the freshest herbs and went to that
specialty store for the right cheese. Yet if you set your delicious
dish down and there is a big, curly hair on it, chances are your
efforts will not be appreciated. Proofreading errors often function
like curly hairs in an otherwise well-prepared meal. Don't
underestimate the importance of proofreading.
9. Thinking or saying I can't write or I stink at
You can think. Most of you can speak your ideas more clearly than
you can write them. Don't sell yourself short. You may be getting
caught up in little things that in the past have been deemed your
writing weaknesses. There is no trick to writing, no switch to flip
that separates good writers from bad ones. The more you write (and
read) the less you will stink at writing.
If you were asked to run a marathon, would you just show up the
morning of the run and be off with the starter's pistol? Not
likely; you would probably train beforehand, build up your skills,
find some proper stretching techniques, break in your sneakers, and
so forth. If you sit down and hope to type up a strong paper in one
shot, you may be setting yourself up to fail.
10. Not giving yourself enough time
The biggest mistake students make is not giving themselves enough
time to think, plan, write, revise, and rewrite their work. Start
early, then you'll have time to scrap poor ideas, enhance weak
ones, and devote time to higher-order concerns (e.g. organization)
and lower-order concerns (e.g. grammar).
Have you ever tried to get into better physical shape? If you
workout once, you cannot jump on the scale or stare in the mirror
expecting immediate results. You need to give yourself time to look
like Shania Twain or write like Mark Twain.