Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Top 10 Things to Do Before You Hand In Your Essay

10. Spellcheck. It's obvious but often overlooked. Run the grammar checker too.

9. Proofread. Again. The spellcheck will not catch typos which create a different but properly spelled word such as "lover" when you meant "loner." Also look for words which are easily substituted for the wrong spelling such as "it's" and "its" or "your" or "you're". Look for all words which use an apostrophe and if they end in "s" ask yourself if they need an apostrophe. (Possessive: yes; Plural: no)

8. Read the essay through paragraph by paragraph. Do the paragraphs follow in a logical order? Does any paragraph refer to information which should have been introduced into the essay instead of assuming the reader knows? Are facts documented with proper footnotes?

7. Read the paragraphs through sentence by sentence. Is each sentence a proper sentence? Are any too long? Are there some which could be combined to communicate your ideas more effectively? Look for passive sentences and fix them if necessary. Often the passive voice is correct for academic essays; sometimes it is wrong.

6. Did you specifically refer to any work mentioned in the assignment? If the instructor asked you to write about Emmanual Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" make sure you include the words "In 'Critique of Pure Reason' Kant argues..." It makes the essay accessible to a wide audience. Anyone should be able to read the essay without having been in your class. Never say "...in our text..." or "...as we saw in class..." If you must refer to material from class, you can cite it and footnote it as "Professor Frink, Springfield College, Physics 400 Lecture, November 14, 2005." (Check your style guide.)

5. Write in the present tense. "Plato says..." or "Einstein shows..." The people are dead, but their ideas are alive. It also gives you more grammatical freedom. It's easy to shift tenses by accident while you're writing. Take time to look for these tense shifts.

4. Avoid the second person. Make sure you don't have any places in the essay where you say "You can see..." or "You ..."

3. Make sure you answered the question! This is a surprisingly common fault. The essay assignment might specify certain facts or arguments you might be required to include. It's easy to overlook some of them as you begin to put together your own arguments about the material. Make sure your name is on the essay as well.

2. Use your grammar checker. But don't trust it. My experience with grammar checkers is that they expect people to write very basic sentences. When you are writing at a university or college level, you should be stretching for complex ideas which need to be expressed in complex sentences. I've often had serious disagreements with grammar checkers, but they have also alerted me to errors I have made such as tense agreements for example. Academic essay style and scientific writing use the passive voice. Most grammar checkers flag this as an error. But the grammar checker is a great and easy tool to let you look at specific sentences and phrases which might be problematic.

1. Spell check it again. If you haven't made a few changes while going through the list then you weren't trying very hard. When you make any changes, you introduce the possibility of a new typo. A last spell check never hurts. Then you can print out your final copy which will be all clean and ready to hand in.