Quick fixes for essays

I volunteer as a PWA (Peer Writing Assistant) at the Writing Centre, and, while I spend a lot of time helping students with their theses and paragraph structure, I also see a number of small mistakes that would be remarkably easy to fix. Of course, one small mistake shouldn’t really affect your final grade, but if it takes you only 5 minutes to fix a few things, why not?

1. Check your fonts. Most people don’t have Times New Roman set as their default font in Microsoft Word (or any other word processor), so they change from Cambria or Ariel when they open a new document. Should solve the problem, right? Not so much. When you go to set up your header with your last name and page number, you have to change the font up there. When you insert your footnotes, you have to change the font down there, too. Or just set Times New Roman to be your default. Up to you.

2.  Never have a lonely this. When you use the word this, it needs to be followed by a subject; ask yourself, this what? For example, if I write, “Students often submit their papers late, with poor grammar, and different fonts. This is one of the biggest problems in society today,” what is this? Is it the lateness, the grammar, the fonts or the combination of all three? It should read something along the lines of “This tardiness is one of the biggest problems in society today.” Besides being a general grammatical rule, avoiding the lonely this also reduces ambiguity in your essay and confusion in your reader, which is always a plus.

3.Comma which or that: choose one. You know when Microsoft Word gives you the green squiggle and wants you to choose between comma which and that?

Comma Which and That

Well, for once, you should listen to it. Basically, you use comma which for nonessential information (if it doesn’t really matter that the zoo’s downtown) and that for essential information (if it’s really important that the zoo’s downtown). I realize that the mechanics of this choice probably sound a little grammatically heavy, but, for the most part, it’s easy: just choose one. Comma which or that.

4. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. I’m sure that most of you know this rule, so it’s more of a gentle reminder. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. If you’re writing a blog then, by all means, contract away (I certainly do). If you’re writing an essay or a lab report or a book review or a comment sheet, maybe steer clear of the contractions. (And avoiding contractions will also up your word count, a perk that shouldn’t be ignored.)

Now, these rules might not be applicable in absolutely every situation, but they’re generally true. Good luck with your papers and, until next time, happy writing!

-JN