I've seen students make each of those blunders, and I've even penalized students for making them. Alpert's blunders by themselves, however, may not result in failing grade.
Here are seven steps students can take to really make a mess of their essays.
1. Don't read the directions.
Instructors usually specify in the assignment's directions what they expect students to accomplish in the essay. In addition, they often have instructions in a syllabus that explain requirements that apply to all the written work in the course. Not bothering to read the directions for an assignment can mean failure on the assignment.
Putting off starting an assignment until the last minute leaves students with no time to change course if they discover something isn't working. By figuring out a tentative schedule for the essay as soon as the assignment is given, students give themselves freedom to do a good job with a minimum of hassle. Students who have problems with spelling, grammar, and punctuation need to plan to finish writing especially early to give time for several edits.
3. Don't write a working thesis statement.
A working thesis puts in a one-sentence nutshell the opinion or point the writer intends to prove in the whole paper. Writing a working thesis almost immediately after getting an assignment guides a writer's research. Key words in the working thesis become key search terms that speed up the research process. Writers need only record information pertinent to their working thesis rather than taking notes on everything related to their general topic. If research doesn't support the working thesis, the writer can change easily rework it so it fits the evidence.
4. Don't have a plan.
Few students do an adequate job of planning their writing. Writers need a plan that includes at least the working thesis sentence and at least three sentences stating a reason for believing the thesis is true. Anything less than a four-sentence plan puts the writer at risk of not having enough to say. Novice essayists almost always end up with two points that overlap, which causes their paper to contain repetition. If they cut out the repetition, they may end up with underdeveloped papers.
5. Skimp on evidence.
For each reason for believing the thesis is true, writers should have for three to five pieces of supporting evidence so they can select what works best in the essay. If writers indicate as they gather evidence which point in their plan it supports, they can avoid not gathering enough and having either to do more research or take a lower grade for having underdeveloped ideas.
6. Don't edit for your habitual errors.
By the time they are teenagers, most students know what errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage they make regularly. Students whose grades suffer because of those errors should edit their work for the serious errors they make nearly every time they write. Such editing is essential for errors that spelling and grammar checkers don't spot: barley for barely, for example, or it's instead of its.
7. Submit your work late.
Instructors don't like late work. Writing turned in after deadline almost always gets a grade penalty from the instructor. Some institutions go so far as to prohibit instructors from accepting late work at the end of a term.
(*) Linda Aragoni is a nonfiction writing advocate with experience in traditional and online education and communications.
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