7 common pitfalls to avoid in writing essays and dissertations 2017-04-25T07:25:41+00:00

What are my qualifications for pontificating on this? Well, I’m a formally qualified teacher and have had a long teaching career. This brought me into contact with a range of different students, from police cadets to sixth form college students and finally university undergraduates and postgraduates. My longest stint was at the University of Leicester, where I spent 30 years. Before finally retiring from that post in 2008, I launched an online course for DiploFoundation in which I am still involved. All of this teaching has naturally been accompanied by a great deal of traditional examining and newer forms of assessment. As well as marking the work of my own students and serving as Exams Officer in my department at Leicester for five years, I marked A-Level Politics Papers for the Joint Matriculation Board for extra pennies, and was an External Examiner at six British universities – Birmingham, Durham, Kent, London (chiefly SOAS), Nottingham and Swansea – on average for three years at each. I suppose I might add that for a long time I was a Palgrave Macmillan series editor, and for even longer have been a reviewer of books, both of which activities amount to ‘marking’ the work of fellow scholars!

I do not propose on this page to give comprehensive and systematic advice on ‘How to get high marks for an essay or dissertation’. At a quick glance, there are plenty of worthy pages on the Internet that detail the many steps that this requires. But this approach inevitably risks submerging the important in the relatively trivial – or at least the relatively obvious. Instead, I propose to highlight just a few of the most noticeable pitfalls to be avoided if high marks are to be obtained, and suggest some ways of navigating around them.

1.            The indiscriminate trawl for evidence

A particularly serious pitfall to avoid is thinking you have to gather all the information you need on your subject, and only then start to ‘write it up’. Unfortunately, this is likely to result in the gathering of much material that turns out to be irrelevant, while still leaving you short of stuff you need to know. It is obviously necessary to do some initial gathering of views and facts but as soon as you start to form ideas of your own you should start to write, because writing stimulates thought. At this point you will be in a better position to focus more exactly on what additional material you need. Read a bit, write a bit, read a bit, write a bit is my advice. The exercise obviously expands with the length of the work.

2.            The cluttered contents list

An essay is too short to require a contents list on a separate page but it is an essential feature of a dissertation of 10,000 words or more. As well as being a plan of your work by another name, a good contents list provides a snapshot of how your argument develops that will be of valuable service to you as well as your assessor. It will, however, fail altogether in the last regard if it is too cluttered with Parts (A, B, C etc), Sections (I, II, III etc), Sub-Sections (1,2,3 etc), Sub-Sub Sections (i, ii, iii, iv etc.). Avoid this kind of fussiness, which will make your readers feel they have by mistake stumbled on a car repair manual. When doing last-minute checks, also make sure that the chapter titles on the contents list correspond exactly to those on the first page of each chapter in the body of the work. Failure to do this is a common error.

3.            The clueless chapter heading

In dissertations, chapter headings should strive to give at least a strong clue to the theme of the chapter as well as announce its subject matter. The same applies to sub-headings within chapters, which should not only help the reader to obtain a quicker grasp of your argument but also you, the writer, because they encourage proper organization of your material. Clueless chapter headings and sub-headings – which I now see are approximated by some of my own in this book (sigh) – suggest laziness.

4.            The floodwater of quotations

Some students flood their essays with quotations from both secondary and primary sources – as, indeed, do a few surprisingly well-published authors. Great numbers of quotations swirling amongst your own words might demonstrate commendably wide reading and an equally commendable anxiety to avoid the charge of plagiarism but there are better ways of doing this. The examiner wants to hear the student’s own voice and this tactic suggests none exists. Repeated use of quotations, which often include incidental text, also leads to tedious repetition. The views of others should be summarised as succinctly as possible, while obviously being acknowledged in references.

5.            The hollow introduction

It is a natural mistake to think that because the introduction comes first, it should be composed first. When this approach is adopted, too often the ‘introduction’ is, at worst, just a short, vacuous ramble, like a couple of Trump tweets. (Even when drafting the introduction is left until later, the hollow introduction can appear as little more than a contents list by another name: ‘First I shall … Secondly, I shall … And, finally, my sixteenth point will be …’). A wise university teacher of my own postgraduate days always insisted that the first thing to write is actually your conclusion, so you know what you have to prove; and the last thing to write is your introduction, because only at the end of your work will you know what you have to introduce! There is much sense in this because what it underlines is that every essay or dissertation should have a clear argument, and that this should be worked out before the final draft is commenced. So, when doing the first draft of your essay (and certainly your plan) forget altogether about the content of the introduction and only worry about this in your final draft. But then you should also take great care over it because, obviously, your introduction is the first thing that your teacher or examiner will read, and ‘first impressions’ are notoriously difficult to shift. (I once knew an examiner who made a habit of only reading properly the first page of an exam essay on the grounds that this alone was all that was needed to judge the ‘quality of mind’ of the candidate.) What, then, should a good introduction look like? This is not straightforward because, of course, it depends in some degree on the subject to be discussed and whether or not it has been the focus of significant controversy. Nevertheless, certain general rules can be advanced. The first, I think, is that a good introduction should be short: no more than one paragraph for an essay or chapter of a dissertation and perhaps five or six pages for a dissertation as a whole. Students often spend far too long giving ‘background’ at the beginning of their essays or dissertations, which is a sure sign that they have a weak argument and are not particularly anxious to get to grips with it. The second rule is that it should present the issue and, if it has been the subject of controversy, what are the main conclusions of the rival positions on it. The third rule is that it should hint (no more than that for this is not your conclusion) at the thrust of your argument. And the fourth is that the introduction should indicate very crisply what are the methods (sources, main texts, examples etc.) on which you propose to rely.

6.            The non-comparative answer to a comparative question

Those who set unseen examination papers often employ (or often used to employ) comparative questions; for example, ‘Compare the foreign policy positions of Donald Trump with those of Hillary  Clinton during the 2016 US presidential election campaign.’ There are two good reasons for the traditional popularity of the comparative question. First, since students cannot predict with certainty which comparisons will be chosen by the examiners, over-selective exam revision is risky – and candidates should be encouraged to avoid this because ‘revision’ is just another word for course consolidation. (Other ways of encouraging broad revision prior to exams used to be to require answers to a large number of questions and to construct exam papers with sections on different parts of the syllabus, from each of which at least one question had be answered. But such methods, I regret to say, are now out of fashion, except – let us all hope – for medical students destined for general practice.) Second, comparative questions are a useful way of testing powers of analysis. Unfortunately, too often students spend the first half of their essays on the first subject to be compared (Trump in the example above)) and the second half on the other one, and then only as an afterthought make some sweeping comparison in the ‘conclusion’. Such an answer is not an answer to this sort of question at all, and grim experience prompts me to offer the following advice. When a comparative question is posed you are being asked to identify the similarities and the differences between two subjects. It is, therefore, on this division that the structure of the essay should turn. But there is more to a good comparative essay than two unweighted lists presented in arbitrary order. To begin with, is it the similarities you analyse first or the differences? This depends on your view of which are the most significant. If you believe the similarities to be relatively unimportant, it is best to start with them because it is not a good idea to end on an anti-climax. Get these out of the way and then put the weight of the essay on the differences: ‘It is true that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shared at least one foreign policy attitude: they both supported the advancement of US interests. In addition … er … well … er … come to think of it … er … [don’t waste too much time scratching your head!]. However, what is really striking is the great number of their disagreements. Among the most notable of these were … .’ Obviously, if you take the opposite view; that is, that it is the similarities which are most significant, then the order is reversed. If a comparative essay is thus divided into two ‘parts’ it does not follow that these are ‘halves’. In other words, the second part of the essay, which deals with the more significant points of comparison, should be longer and more detailed than the first. By these two means – a reasoned order and a reasoned weighting – two lists become a well-constructed argument. Whether it is convincing depends on its other attributes.

7.            The over-long parenthesis

Essays and especially dissertations are often cluttered up with lengthy passages of ‘background’, over-elaboration of fairly obvious points, or long lists of different senses of an important term. This suggests an inability to distinguish the important from the relatively trivial and dilutes the force of any argument. It also gives the vivid impression of a student struggling to reach the prescribed minimum number of words, which, in all fairness, is usually set too high, thereby encouraging this sort of thing. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a case for including this sort of material. Try putting it in ‘substantive’ footnotes (not ‘endnotes’); that is, those that provide an interesting detail and can be glanced at by those readers with a particular interest in the general point you are making but can safely be ignored by those who are not. If you cannot use footnotes, as I cannot on this page, use a bracketed ‘footnote’, as I do in pitfall 5 above, for example. But these are inelegant and I try to avoid them.