Avoiding some common problems when writing papers:
1. Writing: grammar and mechanics. There’s little that I can think of doing to improve one’s writing other than advising you to practice, practice, practice. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it (which is no different from any other skill). Of course at some point you need feedback concerning errors in grammar, mechanics, and punctuation, and suggestions to improve style. You get that feedback from me (on formal assignments), but you might want to look for help elsewhere, too. There are no simple solutions to a weak command of grammar. Grammar-check software won’t do much for you, and the writing manuals can help if you suspect an error and know where to look, but if you have consistent problems with grammar you will have to do a lot of work to develop proper grammar habits. Some people suffer writing problems when working on formal papers, but write fine on informal things like letters. If that’s your case, try to adopt a less formal style for your formal papers, but strive to improve. The attempt to force a formal style onto paper may be interfering more than it’s worth. (That shouldn’t be seen as a license to be disorganized, to use slang, acronyms, or address the reader personally, but write in a style that is comfortable, not stressed.)
2. Research. Facts that you think you know are, unfortunately, useless in a formal paper. Unless the facts are general valid knowledge (the earth is round, and it rotates on its axis, and it revolves around the sun… and we all know that), then you must substantiate your factual claims with citations showing that you are not simply making it up yourself or repeating some assumed common-sense, uninvestigated belief. To put it plainly, in case you didn’t get it yet: what you claim to know, what you think is true, is just an opinion unless you can back it up with a reputable citation. Verifying your facts is simply good scholarship. It’s how college papers are written. Keep in mind, also, that you have to be able to justify that your sources are valid (or at least reputable). In college, we tend to prefer sources that are scholarly publications because they are more likely to be valid than commercial or completely unedited publications. In sociology and psychology we prefer sources that are “peer-reviewed” scholarly publications. This doesn’t guarantee the validity of everything published, but it provides the ounce of consumer protection that is necessary for serious scholarship. Also, learn how to cite your sources formally and how to present a full bibliography. There are a few usual styles for doing this (APA, MLA, Chicago) and you would have learned about those in English class. Use one of them – correctly. (In psychology classes, only use APA.)
3. Logic. In many of your papers you are constructing an argument. You make some claim and you want to show why it is valid. You must develop the argument. (An “argument” isn’t a fight – it’s the support provided for some position or claim.) You must follow rules of logic and progress from premises (i.e., givens) to conclusions. (If… then….) Your argument has to flow, typically in a linear fashion, and you have to take the reader along with you as you reason through the problem. If things don’t relate to your argument, edit them out. If some material is only tangentially related, but you want that material left in your paper, write in a style that shows the reader that you’re aware of this. Anticipate counter-arguments and provide the logic that could disarm some of those counter-arguments.
4. Clear purpose. Your paper has to have a clear sense of its own purpose. You have to know what you’re doing and why, and you should inform the reader about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I usually see too many papers that don’t even have a thesis statement, or statement of purpose. This is one of the basic lessons that you learn in English writing courses and there’s no reason to abandon it. Many times if the writer doesn’t appear to have a clear purpose at the outset, the paper wanders on showing that there is no clear sense of purpose in the writer’s mind. Know your material... it’s your paper and you should become an expert on whatever your topic is (see point 5, below). Clarify your thesis at the outset and then go on to support it throughout the paper in a logical fashion.
5. Scholarship. Show that you know what you’re writing about. Don’t just toss in big words to make it look like you’ve got a relevant idea – use terminology only when you have a good grasp of it. Foremost is studying the material enough to know exactly what you are working on. (For example, if you choose to write a paper about attention deficit disorder, then read as many relevant scholarly publications as you can, given the amount of time you have to work with; know what the pros have already written about the topic.) Use the classroom to get help on material and thoughts that are confusing. If you don’t understand material from the class discussions, lectures, or readings, use the classroom to ask. If you’re afraid to look stupid by asking a question about course material in class, get over that fear because it won’t help the learning process. You’re a student, and students don’t know everything yet – teachers are aware of this, and I think your fellow students are aware of it as well. And learn to recognize the differences between your uninformed, or vaguely informed beliefs and the knowledge and beliefs that are formed as a result of actual scholarship.
My apologies to anyone who already knows all this stuff.