When writing academic reports, whether it be a simple essay, a thesis, or a dissertation, it’s important to watch out for the little mistakes that can easily change your grade by more than 10%. In having graded hundereds, if not thousands of technical reports from students, I have noticed that there are five BIG mistakes, that many students make, and are easily avoidable.
1. K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid.
When I tell this to my students, I actually change the phrase to ‘Keep It Short and Simple’. For some reason, students writing papers love to use extremely long sentences. Some do this to fill up the page requirements, while others do it to appear as if they know more about the subject and sound ‘scholarly’. Narrative is good, but don’t let it become fluff. (we’ll discuss fluff in section 5).
If you are doing technical writing, or scientific writing avoid using passive sentences. these documents should be as straightforward as possible, especially if you ever want to see them published. Try to keep in mind that in scientific papers, people will be trying to reproduce your experiments. These people will not always be native English speakers, and will be more impressed with an easily understandable report than one from somebody who tried to use too much jargon in order to seem like an expert.
2. SPELL CHECK
I can’t believe that it’s necessary to write about this, but every time I get a batch of reports, there are numerous spelling errors in as many as half of them. Being able to spell correctly is one of the key effective writing skills that teachers notice immediately. It doesn’t matter how well written your report is if, when the teacher looks over it again there are red marks on every page. Deciding the final score on an academic report is a VERY subjective process, and those red marks really DO make a difference. Every word processing program on the market had a decent spell checker – USE IT!
3. Watch out for Homonyms
For those of you who do use the spell checker, be careful about homonyms that don’t get caught by it. On my PC, I have a homonym checker that flags words for me to check to make the process easier, but printing your paper out, waiting a day and re-reading it is a good way to catch things you might not notice at the time of writing. Have a friend read your report as well.
4. Proper Format
Find out what format your teacher wants and USE it. Some teachers are very picky about this. If your teacher has specified that you use APA style and you turn a paper in using MLA style or Chicago/Turabian, don’t be surprised if it knocks a big chunk off your final score. The teacher gets used to having all reports submitted in the same format, and when one is different, things they will be looking for will be in different places. Do you want the teacher to be frustrated and angry while thinking about what your grade should be?
If you aren’t sure about the academic report format your teacher wants, ask them. You might even ask them for a few writing samples you can look at to make sure you get the formatting correct. I actually had a student ask me for a writing template once. (I didn’t give him one, but I showed him some papers from the year before of student who had done it properly and of those who hadn’t)
If you’re really uncertain about formatting and your teacher can’t help you, get a formatting tool like StyleEase to make it easier.
5. KILL the FLUFF
As a teacher, I can honestly say that I HATE fluff. If you don’t have enough real material to fill your page requirement, do more research or change topics to something that you can write about in detail. This comes back to part one about keeping things short and simple. Fluff doesn’t make you look any smarter, or make the teacher appreciate you for getting those last two pages in, because we have to READ THROUGH THEM.
Fluff makes your point harder to understand, and ultimately your grade will suffer.
Just remembering to check these 5 things when you hand in your paper could change your grade.