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Common Errors in Research Essay Writing

For many students, the prospect of writing a research essay is daunting. Where to begin? What to write? What to include? How to document it? The questions seem endless. There are a number of pitfalls to avoid when writing a research essay. Being aware of these dangers and knowing where to get help are the first steps in writing a successful paper.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing a Research Essay

Not planning the process

Use the 1/3 time plan:
  • 1/3 of time to research and prepare
  • 1/3 of time for drafting
  • 1/3 of time for revising, and editing

Leaving it too late

Start the process several weeks in advance.

Collecting research material too early

Before collecting a lot of research material, it is valuable to do a bit of background reading from your textbook in order to define and refine your topic.

Choosing too large a topic

Choose as small a topic as you can for the length of the paper required.

Failing to define your thesis and make a plan

Before you start using your research materials, define your thesis. This will help to establish structure, organization, and focus.

A standard 3 part thesis contains:

  • statement of topic
  • your position on it
  • basic parts of your argument (blueprint or plan of development)

Once you have a thesis, creating even a basic outline will help you stay on topic and adequately develop your ideas.

Trying to use all the sources you found

  • Select only those sources that directly apply to your paper.
  • How many? Check with your instructor and/or assignment
  • Journal articles are easier to use than full length books.
  • Not all sources are credible; use the databases recommended for your program.

Not following instructors’ specifications

  • Conforming to instructor specifications is good!
  • Use the marking key or written instructions as a revision checklist.
  • Use standard APA document format unless otherwise specified by your instructor.

Using quotes or paraphrases to make your points

  • You make the point: use quotes and summaries to support your ideas.
  • Avoid the “necklace” paper: don’t string together a series of direct quotations or paraphrases.
  • In fact, avoid paraphrasing because the idea is to summarize your research. If you are restating someone else’s work or ideas, you have to be very careful you don’t overdo it or that your instructors will accept paraphrased research.

Using too many quotes

  • Only use quotes when a summary will corrupt or lessen the idea.
  • Use quotes for authority, eloquence, and control.
  • How many quotes? Only 1 – 2 per page and try to keep them short.
  • The remaining information should be summarized or paraphrased.

Plagiarizing and other forms of academic dishonesty

  • All information you got from your sources except common knowledge in the field must be credited – in text and on your reference page.
  • This means that you should have 4 – 5 in text citations per paragraph.
  • Don’t rely on only one source per paragraph.
  • If you can find it on the Internet, so can your instructor!
  • The work must be your own and must be the first time it’s submitted for grading.

Skipping the revising process

  • If the idea doesn’t fit, take it out.
  • If you have a hole in your ideas, fill it.

Not checking your documentation

  • Follow the APA manual – down to spacing, periods, brackets, ...the works!
  • Skipping the editing process
  • Look for and fix your common grammar and mechanics errors. Use your grammar checker, but make your own decisions.
  • Run the spell checker - - this is a no-brainer! Double-check for homonyms which the spell checker won’t locate as errors.
  • Make sure your final version is a clean copy.

Not backing up your documents

  • We all learn this one sooner or later – failure to back up your documents in more than one place can mean you may lose all evidence of your work.

Not asking for advice

  • Ask a friend with strong writing skills for feedback on your draft, but don’t expect friends or family to take responsibility for editing your work.
  • Make an appointment with a writing instructor in Learning Services for some advice during the organizational or draft phases of your work.

Adapted from Lethbridge College Learning Cafe

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