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The 5 most common mistakes in academic writing

Mar 19, 2021 | 0 comments

Academic writing is hard. Students at every level are bound to make a plethora of mistakes. Junior high level writers will struggle to form a coherent thesis statement. Graduate students will get lost in the weeds of an argument and be forced to rewrite pages of dense analysis.

However, there are a few academic writing mistakes Englist teachers see more often than others. Take a look at the five most common mistakes in academic writing and see if these are problems you may have in your writing.

Learn more: How to write an essay

The 5 most common mistakes in academic writing

1. Mechanical issues

The most common type of mistake in all of academic writing is issues with things like punctuation, grammar, and syntax – what we call “mechanical” issues. While these types of errors are especially common in work by ESL students, even native speakers make too many mechanical missteps.

Understanding how to place quotation marks, or making sure your subjects and verbs agree across a document hundreds or thousands of words long is daunting for any student.

However, one of the biggest mechanical bad habits ESL students have is they write in their native language and simply replace the words with English, creating sentences that are convoluted and hard to follow in English.

The only way to fix this is to learn to think and write in English rather than just translating your thoughts. To learn how to think in English, you need to do a lot of reading and a lot of writing. 

Here is a passage featuring some mechanical issues written by a new student at Englist, along with a proofread version:

Mechanical issues Strong mechanics
Many people call Newyork the capitol of the world because it is considered the most busiest and flurishing city in earth. Many people who lived in other cities see Newyork as a dream City and are wishing to move and work in the big apple (another nickname). There are still alot of problems in Newyork. The population distribution makes this city a extremely crowding City which then leads to pollution problems. However, among all these problems, the major problem in Newyork is that no matter what, prices and costs are all very expensive, wich makes peoples life very difficult! Many people call New York the capital of the world because it is the busiest and most flourishing city on Earth. Residents of other cities see New York as a dream city and hope to someday move and to and work in the Big Apple, which is another nickname for the metropolis. Still, there are plenty of problems in New York. One issue is that the city is crowded, which can lead to pollution problems. However, the most serious of all of New York’s issues is that it is expensive to live there, making life difficult for many New Yorkers.

At Englist, we address the issues above by both fundamental language practice as well as level-appropriate writing (and rewriting!) practice. These methods of study allow students to see their individual mistakes corrected, as well as get in the habit of writing best practices. 

If mechanics are your problem, Englist is here to help.

2. Going off topic

In our writing courses, when students are learning how to write topic sentences for body paragraphs, one of the key pieces of advice is to STAY ON TOPIC! Our teachers actually yell that phrase at students when they read it because it is so important and so students are sure to remember it.

The reason we emphasize this piece of advice so heavily is because it is such a common mistake. Students easily start paragraphs with a clear topic, but then meander their way through commentary, and as they conclude, the paragraph has become about something else entirely.

Off topic On topic
One reason dogs are better pets than cats is that dogs are more social. Sometimes cats can be social too, but dogs are more playful. Dogs like to play in the park and play fetch, but cats prefer to sleep. Sleeping is good for cats, and most animals actually. One reason dogs are better pets than cats is that they are more social. Dogs love to play with other dogs and people, and they get lonely if they don’t have enough social stimulus. Cats, on the other hand, can roam around totally alone and be perfectly fine.

The way to avoid this is to pay close attention to your topic sentences and to think of your paragraphs as distinct packets of information that must stand on their own. Your evidence, supporting details, and commentary must all be directly related to the topic of your paragraph. If a piece of information is not related to the topic, then it is the job of the writer to either explain the connection or to cut the idea.

 

3. Unclear writing

One of the most difficult things to explain to students is that they need to “stop writing like a textbook”. Many Englist students are mostly familiar with English as an academic pursuit and tool, and thus feel like their writing should sound like that of their textbooks.

Unless you are an expert in a given field whose job it is to write a textbook, your work should never sound like that. Instead, what you want to do is aim for clarity. Students struggle with this because they want to attempt complex sentence patterns or high-flying vocabulary.

Approaching writing this way is a bad idea. First, most students don’t actually know how to use these grammar patterns or fully understand how to use certain words. Next, sometimes fancy sentence structure and five-dollar vocab is a distraction – many college professors, professionals, and even some writers fall into the trap of using “fancy” language that distracts rather than clarifies.

For example:

Unclear Very clear
The initial and primary rationale behind the certainty that history as a subject is generally more winsome amongst academic pupils than courses in the field of mathematics is due to the clear and unmistakable truth of historical courses being pervaded with titillating anecdotal experiences, while mathematical classes, on the other hand, are an ordeal of advanced and onerous numerical calculation. As an illustration of this critical notation, in a course on Western, European, or modern history, a pupil will encounter textual treatments of French royalty circa 18th century Gaul and their draconian dealings with their late-medieval peasantry and serfs. One reason history is a more interesting subject than math is because history class is like reading or hearing stories, while math class is just crunching numbers. For example, in history you can read about the French Revolution and the poor treatment of people by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or you could hear about Ancient Egyption culture and its powerful pharaohs. In math class, however, you just have to do calculation after calculation. Even when math is complicated, there is a “right answer” and it leaves no room for interpretation or analysis.

 

The unclear example above is not only poor writing, it also features a number of mistakes. Furthermore, so much time is spent on trying to sound “academic” that the author is only able to get through two sentences in the space the clearer writer is able to write four.

The world famous cognitive psychologist and writing teacher Steven Pinker says “Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word.” The best word is not always the longest, most rare, or most complicated. As a matter of fact, the best word is often the simplest and most direct. And the best words for our writers are those that they are comfortable with and capable of using.

 

4. Weak or irrelevant evidence

Another common issue for beginning writers is making sure the evidence they cite to support their assertions is relevant.

Supporting your ideas is hard, but it is one of the core skills required for high school and college level academic writing. Still, many students will make a claim, and then use a quote to illustrate that claim, but the quote will have very little to do with the idea in the first place.

For example: 

Irrelevant quote Relevant quote
Dumbledore is the wisest character in the Harry Potter series. For example, he says, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.” Dumbledore is the wisest character in the Harry Potter series because he has so many powerful quotes. One of his most incisive comes from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when he says, “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

 

The irrelevant quote above does not support the claim of the sentence before it. However, in the relevant quote example, the relationship of the evidence to the claim is clear.

Or, many students will do a quick Google search to find evidence that backs up their claims, but then say something to the effect of “one study shows” or “according to scientists”. This is what is called weak evidence, as it is impossible to verify if the information cited is true, accurate, or if it carries any authority.

For example:

Weak citation Strong citation
For example, according to an article, dogs have larger brains than cats. For example, according to an article by Sarah Gibbons in National Geographic, dogs have twice the number of neurons in their brains as cats do.

To fix this, students need to learn how to do research, how to cite sources, and they need to spend time reading and thinking before they sit down to form their own opinions and write an essay.

We cover these skills in Englist’s Level 2 Academic Writing course, so if this is an area where you need help, get in touch with us about that class.

 

5. Boring writing

When students become strong enough writers to have impeccable grammar and quality essay structure, they tend to think they are done with learning to write. However, that is just the beginning, because many of these writers also compose essays and articles that are brain-crushingly dull.

You may be surprised to hear that academic writing should be engaging, compelling, and even fun, but it’s true. A good writer can take a dull topic and fascinate readers with their clever perspective and illumination of the topic.

Some of the biggest struggles students face in regards to compelling writing is at the sentence level. The first culprit is overuse of passive voice:

Passive voice Active voice
The ball was kicked by the boy. The boy kicked the ball.

 

Also, many students struggle with limp wording, using weak forms of verbs and cumbersome conjugation:

Weak wording Stronger wording
For example, according to an article, dogs have larger brains than cats. He angered his parents by not doing his chores.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult to wrap your head around, is the overuse of hypotheticals:

Verbose hypothetical Improved description
Poverty can greatly affect citizens of a country because it has a significant impact on overall quality of life. Individuals in less fortunate situations can struggle to make ends meet and thus focus more on first order resource concerns as opposed to upgrading quality of life metrics. Poverty is harmful to people and nations because it makes life harder for everyone. Poor people are unable to earn enough money to pay for things like groceries and bills unless they are always working, which means they have less time and energy to spend on things like school and investing.

These issues require different approaches to fix. Passive voice and weak word choice are a matter of practice and having your work proofread, while fixing overly verbose and hypothetical writing requires better examples, description, and use of literary tools like imagery.

At more advanced levels, students may face issues with the entire structure of their essay, or keeping reader attention over the course of a section or chapter. Learning to engage readers is critical, both through the topic and the writer’s style, and it’s something that takes focused effort and practice. 

Learning how to engage readers is a core part of Englist’s academic writing programs, as well as Taipei Teen Tribune.

There are no shortcuts, let us help 

As mentioned, Englist courses are designed to address not only these specific issues, but a whole host of academic writing difficulties.

Whether you (or your kids, or your students) have problems with staying on topic, using engaging language, or simply struggle with fundamental mechanics, Englist can help.

Visit Englist to talk about what your goals are and learn how we can assist you.