Having worked in post-secondary education for over seven years now, I've become intimately acquainted and vastly disappointed with university students quality of written work. I'm not complaining here about such niceties of writing as avoiding passive voice or not splitting infinitives. Rather, I'm stunned by how many grad students don't achieve the absolute basics, such as putting their name on their work or stapling their paper together.
During one's undergrad courses, students can get by and even excel with bad writing. Yet, writing papers is the bedrock of all graduate degrees in the social sciences, humanities, and even the sciences. Regardless of who is to blame for one's poor written communication skills, at the graduate level it is essential that students take the initiative and master the basics.
Good written communication skills are not only essential to get through grad school, but are also essential for many careers, particularly the kinds that grad students desire. If students think writing papers will end after grad school, they will be stunned by the lifetime of writing reports, minutes, specs, or project documentation that will be in store for them in many careers. So it's worth the time and effort to learn how to do it!
So using my experienced gained from years of grading graduate students' papers, I've collected some tips on how to improve their written assignments. Below are various rules for written work.
Top 6 Overall Rules (and Ways to Get Better Grades)
#1 Use the Academic Style Book for Your Department
All departments, faculties, or fields have a preferred academic style
(e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA etc) that offers instructions on how to format papers, writing tips, and referencing rules. If a course syllabus or professor doesn't provide their preferred style ask them. Find the book, buy it, read it, highlight and bookmark it!
At times you will need to deviate from the official style (e.g., APA's rules about headers are absurd), but only do so with a good reason. Get permission from the professor when contemplating a major deviation from the official style.
#2 Follow the Rules for Your Class
Most professors have additional rules about formatting and items to include in assignments (e.g., a title page, end-notes, etc.). This is generally in the syllabus, but if it is not ask the professor for it.
For most academic writing, unless otherwise stated this means:
- 12 point font size (going down to 10 for tables or diagrams, but no smaller)
- Arial or Times New Roman font
- 1.5 inch margins
- Double-spaced (or at the very least 1.5 spaced)
- White paper
- Letter sized paper
- Good quality paper stock - avoid paper that is so thin it is almost onion skin
- Proper print quality - smeared ink or feint printing is not okay
As one who loves nature and doesn't want to see trees needlessly killed, I find two-sided printing to be preferable. But I seem to be in a minority about this among academics, so check on this.
#3 Adhere To Assignment Requirements
Read through the assignment instructions provided at least five times. Highlight each passage that suggests you need to do something. Make a checklist out of these highlights and BE SURE to achieve them all. Professors (and in the working world, bosses) know what they are doing when they make assignments (they really do), so give them the benefit of the doubt and make your life easy by following their instructions. Also, don't feel that you can do something similar to the assignment, but not actually meet the assignment requirements. Similar is not okay. Follow the requirements.
If you really want to try something different, it's really easy to ask your professor for clarification or permission first.
Once you have achieved the requirements, going beyond them is almost always a good idea. But this does not mean you can ignore the assignment requirements. I've encountered a lot of brilliant students who thought they could do something else instead of the assignment - but they missed the goals of the assignment (and the importance of developing the skill of following instructions) and got lower grades than their mediocre classmates. If you think professors are inflexible about this, just wait until your boss asks you to do something and you do something else and tell him/her that it's just as good - you'll be lucky if your boss let's you explain your reasoning as you're being escorted out the door.
#4 Use Formal and Informal Styles Appropriately
Recognize that professional, academic, and personal writing are different. They have different purposes and thus different rules.
Granted, although there is a trend towards all three becoming increasingly informal. Still, it always helps to consider your audience and write for them. For example, take something as simple as contractions. If you are writing to impress your boss or professor, it is almost always a good idea to use a more formal tone and formal grammar rules. It's true that contractions are not a big deal any more, but it wasn't that long ago that they were verboten - so do not use them. Did you notice how I combined contractions and full forms in the same sentence above - that's even worse, isn't it?
#5 Read Elements of Style (or a similar book)
This book by Strunk and White was referred to me by a former professor and it remains the best book I've encountered to help one improve their writing. It is a quick and easy read and not a grammarian's impenetrable tome. It's useful to read cover to cover and then refer to it as needed when writing.
For example, most students I have encountered do not know the correct way to use a comma. It's not a big deal, but at the graduate level seemingly small grammar and punctuation rules start to really matter.
#6 Don't Describe, Analyze
In academic writing, you to demonstrate your intellectual abilities as applied to the course material. Unless otherwise instructed, avoid simply describing something and instead show your critical thinking. Strive for the highest level you can achieve with your writing. From lowest to highest:
- predicting (if appropriate)
Specific Tips for Written Work
Avoid acronyms and short-forms
Only use them, if you it is a term that repeats a lot in your paper and even then spell it out in full upon first usage and put the short form in parenthesis. For informal writing, you can use acronyms that aren't of crucial importance if the short-form is very well known, such as the CBC or IT Dept, or if it is a common term in your discipline. Even then, it never hurts to write out in full upon first usage.
Avoid long blocks of unbroken text
Remember the grade school rule of one paragraph per topic. Academics of old horrifically violated this rule in the hope that by obfuscating their work they would appear more intelligent. A passage of text that goes on unbroken for a page - or more! - is not intelligent, it's impenetrable. New topic; new paragraph. It's a simple as that.
Vary your sentence length
Those academics of old also erroneously believed that long sentences also reflected the vast complexity of their erudition. Long sentences don't make you seem smarter; they most likely are just run-on sentences that are just grammatically incorrect at best and horrifically impenetrable at worst.
Include a title page
Even if your professor doesn't specifically ask for it in the syllabus or assignment details. Even if a professor says you don't need one, still include one - this applies for academic and professionally writing. For one, appearance is always important and a title page goes a long way towards making your paper look suitably serious. Second, when grading comments are to be provided on your paper, having a title page protects your privacy by shielding other students from seeing your comments and possibly grade.
Use a floating header
Have a header in the top right corner of every page with your name or shortened title. This standard practices in academic writing, and it helps if your pages become separated. I should also add to make sure your name is on your paper as I estimate about five percent of grad students neglect to do what even kindergartners know.
Staple your papers together
You'd be surprised by how many students hand in assignments not bound in any way. Paper clips, folding the corners of pages or use other ineffective binding contraption are not acceptable. Also, use a stapler that actually works properly (they are cheap or easy to borrow). For big reports, this means you need to use a heavy-duty staplers or cerlox binding. Both professors and bosses have A LOT of papers to go through and reports that become separated or are difficult to flip through are more than a little annoyance.
Word limit- make sure to get near it
A former professor gave me a useful target for what is reasonable parameters for too few or too many words - it is okay to be within 10% of the word limit either way. I think this is a great guideline and use it for my writing and grading. You are probably safe if you follow this. Either way, the ultimate goal is to be close to the word limit as possible.
Avoid the universal masculine
It is no longer socially acceptable to use masculine words, such as he, his, or man, to entail all men and women. This has been true since at least the 1980s, so doing so today is really backward and sexist. I actually find more women students are apt to use the universal masculine, perhaps erroneously believing they have license to do so. It is a linguistic form that discriminates against women - there is no reason to use it anymore.
Have an introduction and conclusion
All writing forms, need some sort of introduction and conclusion. These are needed as it is very jarring to just start a document in the middle of a topic or just arbitrarily and abruptly stop. No introduction, is like joining a conversation with friends and you have no idea what they are talking about; it sounds interesting but they just keep going on and ignoring you. No conclusion is similar, your friends just walk away and you never did figure out what was going on properly
and where things were left off - how puzzling and rude.
You always have space for these as they can be really short if need demands it. In all reality, the body of your text will have lots of parts that can be condensed, unnecessary words that can be cut, and repetition eliminated - so there is no excuse to not have an intro and conclusion.
This is basic goal of introductions and conclusions do. They serve a much larger purposes that go A LONG way to making your paper more powerful and convincing and helping you get the outcome and grade you want.
Cut the crap and get to the point!
Stay on topic. Don't add filler (in this case, less is more). If you don't need to say it, then don't. I read fiction for flowery descriptions and passages waxing philosophical about tangential matters. Academic and professional writing is a type of persuasive writing that has a goal to clearly state a message and back it up.
Some would disagree with me and I've read some amazing academic papers that blend persuasive writing with narrative and emotional passages more generally seen in fiction. This is likely the hardest type of writing in the world to successfully pull off though.
Don't think that you are fooling anyone with including filler. Yes, it's better than being desperately short on your word count, but your fluff will be spotted.
Presentation quality matters
Appearance matters whether we like it or not. A polished and professional appearance of a documents makes it not only easier and more pleasant to read, but it also lends more credibility to the work. Conversely, if you don't take an assignment seriously enough to take a few seconds to avoid a messy looking paper then it makes the whole work seem lazy and sloppy.
To improve presentation quality:
- Include effective headers - try to condense the header into the key terms and essential words only.
- Bold all titles and headers. Underlining is generally an obsolete style (due to hypertext).
- Headers should never be orphaned on the bottom of the page. They should always be with the text they are referring to so force them onto the next page if needed
- Use images wisely - these can really improve the power and appearance of a paper, but make sure that they can be viewed optimally.
- Use white space judiciously - not too little and not too much though.
- Razzle Dazzle Them - Consider adding an image or design to your title page. Use colour in your diagrams and tables and print in colour. Use really nice paper stock.
FINALLY THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE...
CITE YOUR REFERENCES!!!!
Plagiarism is taken extremely seriously in academia. It is not just academically dishonest, it is illegal (as you have infringed on the intellectual property of others). I've also noticed that more students are paying services to write papers for them.
In our Google and TurnItIn.com world now it is easy to catch. The consequences are dire for students caught doing this - generally a failing grade and possibly expulsion from the university.
I've seen cases where all a student had to do was put their plagiarized passages in quotation marks and cite the reference to go from failing the class to getting a B. So why not try quotation marks instead?!
Learn the rules of your plagiarism, every university has them posted
prominently on their website and EVERYONE who works at a university will
happily point you in the right direction if you are unsure.
If you feel you are in over your head with a course, have too many competing pressures - talk to the
professor. You'd be surprised how many are willing to cut students some slack or accommodate them somehow. No pressure is worth failing a class, having the academic violation go on your record, and possibly being expelled.
It's in one's best interest to follow these tips as grades will rise. It will
also help one develop more effective writing skills that will set them
apart from most of their fellow future graduates.