Today’s blog post is a part of a two part series and is all about writing papers in college. I have been grading a lot of papers lately, and this has given me some important insight into things that college students do while writing papers (as well as making me think about all the things that I do while writing my own papers.) Being a graduate assistant has really opened my eyes as a writer and made me think about what I could be doing to write better papers. Today on the blog I am going to be sharing five of the ten mistakes that college students make when it comes to writing papers in college.
1. Students Don’t Start Their Papers Early Enough
You need to start your paper early enough so that you have a decent amount of time to work with it, fix it, and perfect it. As a college student (and a graduate student) I like to procrastinate. I am not going to lie to you as if I have everything figured out. Together we have to strive to stop this bad habit. Writing a paper is a process, and it should be treated as such. Writing your paper in smaller chunks instead of 10 pages at a time in two days will work so much better for you in the long run. Stop stressing out by giving yourself time to adequately work on your paper.
Come Up With A Plan
When you first receive a paper prompt, come up with a plan. Make sure you know when your paper is due, and make it due in your planner a few days before that date so you have time to read it and revise it.
In your plan, break up your paper into smaller chunks. Have a date when you want your topic by, have a date when you want your sources by, have a date you want the introduction by, have a date when you want the first supporting part done by, etc. If this is a bigger paper project break it down even further. What sections do you need in your paper? Break it down so your paper has steps.
The best advice that I can give to students who want to write a great paper is to start. Simply starting will help you, because once you get started it will be difficult to stop. We often dread starting and that is literally the only thing that is stopping us from finishing. You have to will yourself to stop procrastinating and write the opening paragraph or the outline of a paper. This seems simple, and perhaps it is.
2. Students Don’t Take The Time To Adequately Understand the Prompt/Topic
The prompt is not a suggestion. Usually professors have a rubric set up as to how they will grade papers. Including answers to all the questions in the prompt is crucial to scoring well and acing the rubric. If you do not understand the prompt it is impossible to do well on the rubric. There are a number of reasons that you may not understand a prompt:
The Prompt Is Too Vague
Professors are honestly the worst at this, especially in the liberal arts. Papers have to be vague enough to catch your attention, but they also should be close-ended enough to make decisions about the paper easier. If you are having issues picking a topic talk with your professor about the paper and throw some topic ideas their way. They will help you pick your topic idea if you let them know you are struggling and give them a place to start. What are you interested in studying? What can you see yourself talking about for the length of the paper topic? Check out my post on this topic for even more advice on this topic.
The Prompt Uses Language You Have No Clue About
This could happen a lot if you are taking an upper division class outside of your department. You may not understand all the language a paper prompt is using, and if that’s the case, you need to solve this ASAP. If something just isn’t quite clicking and you have used all your dictionaries and Googling abilities—ask! I promise that your professors would rather you ask and know, than not understand a topic and get points deducted for no reason. Plus, professors need to know when the language of their prompts just isn’t quite right. The more they know about this, the more they can adjust their teaching to the class and their level of learning.
3. Students Use Awful Sources
Sources are the lifeblood of any paper in college. You need to have amazing sources so that you can create an amazing paper or literature review. How do you get great sources? You read A LOT of articles and books. I don’t think that you should read each thing word for word, in fact I have a great article on The Happy Arkansan all about article skimming—so go check that out here.
Find a Plethora of Sources
One of the awesome things I got to do while I was a graduate assistant is source check a few papers from one of the professors I was a graduate assistant for. This was an eye-opening experience for me as a graduate student because it opened up my eyes to the sources and the time it takes for a professor to make one 30 page paper. For a 30 page paper my professor had a back log of 18 pages of sources. Not all of those sources went into her final paper (in fact only about 8 pages of those sources went into her final project.) Isn’t that crazy? As a college student (and as a graduate student) I have often heard, thought about, or asked how many sources a paper needed. Looking back at that I am sort of upset with myself.
You need a back log of sources. Some will not work out. Some will be the main sources you use on a topic. Obviously her situation is different because this is a paper that she wanted published, but any work you do in college or graduate school can be published if you work hard at it. Having your backlog of sources makes writing easier. It also makes sure that you don’t have to use a bunch of awful sources, because you have so many in reserve. It is better to find 40-50 sources for a 20 source paper so that you can use the best sources of the 50 you have over just finding 20 and hoping that they all work for your paper.
Find Peer-Reviewed Sources
When you are looking for sources, those sources need to be peer-reviewed sources. Peer-reviewed sources are important because it means that your source (at the time of it's publication) was put through a vetting process by people in the field and the source is seen as at the very least credible or important enough to be published. The peers of that person thought highly enough about the article that they decided that it was a great article for that publication. The biggest thing to remember is that:
Finding A Peer Reviewed Source Does Not Mean The Source Is Fantastic
One thing that I have realized more than anything this year as a graduate student is that peer reviewed sources are not always great sources. Especially when you are dealing with older peer-reviewed sources. Older sources are often riddled with awful biases and lots of misinformation. SO when you use these sources be critical, find updated information, showcase the flaws in their logic as well as the pieces of information they got right. Don’t be so quick to take what they say at face value. The sooner you start critically thinking about the sources you obtain, the better prepared for graduate school you will be.
Use Sources To Find Sources
One of the best things to do when you can’t find sources—is to use your sources to find sources. Your sources took a very long time to find the amazing resources they listed in the back of their papers. Utilize their time and effort to cut down on your own.
During my senior year of college I was writing a paper about education levels and it’s effects on tolerance. One name kept popping up in the resource section of the papers I was reading about this subject: Samuel A. Stouffer. So, being the investigator I am I took to Amazon and bought his book "Communism, Conformity and Liberties: A Cross Section of the Nation Speaks its Mind,” which talked about a lot of the issues I wanted to discuss in my paper and made a great source.
Another trick that I love when it comes to finding sources is to figure out who cited your papers. Do you have a great paper but it’s from 1990 and you want something more recent? Go to Google Scholar and enter one of your great papers. Google Scholar will then show you some results and if that paper pops up it will have a link that says “Cited By” underneath the link to the article. Click that and you are given a plethora of ways to sort this data. You can then go through these more updated sources and find more articles that could help you with your paper. As you can see the source below has been cited over 1500 times. That number includes a lot of papers that you may not have access to or may not help you, but I am sure that within 1500 papers and books you could potentially find a handful to help your paper be a stronger paper.
Check out my article on how to use research databases for more information on finding sources.
4. Students do Not Properly Cite Sources Once They are found
Properly citing your sources is very important when it comes to writing papers. One thing I learned last month as I was reviewing the sources of one of my professors papers is that it doesn’t happen perfectly the first time. When you are only dealing with 10-20 sources it might be easy, but you still need to make sure you are properly citing your sources. This may take time and energy as well as multiple revisions of your paper, but you have to do what is necessary to make sure that your papers are cited.
When you don’t cite properly you could be accused of plagiarism, get a zero for an assignment, get kicked out of a class/school, have plagiarism permanently attached to your record no matter what school you attend, etc. Plagiarism follows you around like an academic STD, so check your sources and citations before you turn in a paper. Some professors are more lenient and understand simple citing errors, but better safe than sorry.
Don’t Depend On Citation Websites
I am guilty of this honestly, I hate writing citations, and often will depend on citation websites to write them. Sometimes it’s a matter of pasting them in your paper incorrectly, or not having the correct information. If you can go in and fix and format the basics correctly that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t say don’t use citation websites at all, they can be super helpful and save a lot of time. On the other hand, make sure you check the sources that they give you for correctness. Make sure you have the right things in italics, your periods in the right place, etc.
Try To Cite As You Go
Do not cite last. When you are using basically any citing technique you have to do some in-text citations. Citing as you go is important, because sometimes towards the end of writing a paper, we get tired of seeing the paper. We don’t want to go back through and read it for the umpteenth time and we miss important points. This can create a problem because we could end up taking ideas we got from someone else and inadvertently claiming them as our own ideas. That is plagiarism. Site as you go so that you can make sure that you give credit where credit is due.
5. Students Do Not Utilize Resources On Campus
There are a number of resources on campus that prove beneficial when it comes to writing your papers. The writing center is the biggest one that comes to mind, but the library and your peers can be greatly beneficial as well.
The Writing Center
The writing center on your campus is an amazing resource—especially if you are new to writing academic papers. They can help you with things such as picking a topic, editing your paper, figuring out the various citation methods, etc. The writing center often offers a wide array of opportunities to get your papers looked at. I know at my alma mater we offered in person, Skype, text message (for small things like sentence structure), email, and more as ways to get tutored on writing.
The library can be so beneficial when it comes to looking for articles, books, etc to use in your paper. They often offer classes on using your campuses article library and archives, they know where to look in the library for information on certain subjects, and they can just be plain helpful when you have a problem with random things like sources (and if they can’t help directly they probably know where to point you so you can figure it out). Having a stop at your school’s library and asking the reference librarian can be a great place to start when you are looking for sources for your paper.
Your peers are a great resource, because they are using the same prompt to write a paper. Obviously, copying what they are doing is a no-go, but they can often be a tremendous help when writing papers. Sometimes they are helpful simply because you can lament to them about how difficult the paper is and they are in the same boat. Sometimes they are literally helpful if you need to find a source or figure out the directions the professor is giving you. Make sure to befriend someone in your class so that you can work together to create a great paper.
This is part one in my 10 Mistakes College Students Make When It Comes To Writing Papers series. The final part will be out next Tuesday. I hope that you have learned something interesting about writing papers in college and something that you can take to your next paper writing session. What new tip did you learn today?