Common Problems with Student Papers

Big Picture

You must have a thesis argument, stating your position very early in the paper. Your position must be clear.

Make an original argument. If you are writing a position paper, there has to be something arguable about your position. It can't simply be an assertion with which most people already generally agree. Otherwise, your position is not original.

Stake out and defend a specific claim.

You must suport your position clearly.

Proceed in a logical manner -- build an argument.

When analyzing a cultural situation or a work of art, avoid vagueness and superficial analysis.

Include specific details.

Be concise. Don't say the same thing over and over again. Find all similar points and consolidate them in a single section.

Don't spend all the paper on research. The research only serves to support your position.

If you are writing a research paper, it should be in dialogue with other research on the subject.

It is fine to apply a critical approach (marxist, feminist) to your topic.

Your outline may change once you start writing your rough draft. But you should still maintain and modify the outline as it changes.

Writing a research paper is like shooting at a moving target > research, outline, draft.

Develop a thesis statement. Write an outline that supports your thesis statement. Write a rough draft that follows the outline. Don't expect your thesis argument to magically emerge as you write. It won't. Instead, let your thesis statement drive what you write.

Avoid stringing quotations together. A collection of various quotations all asserting the same thing is not in itself a convincing argument. The foundation of the paper should be your own words, not someone else's.

If this is a research paper, have more than two or three sources. Otherwise it will seem that you are merely reiterating someone else's position instead of using them to support your own original position.

Your position paper should not just be a research paper. I can read a Wikipedia entry myself. I can read a book on the history of the Bauhaus myself. What does your paper add to the topic?

Don't simply assert your position over and over. Support it with multiple arguments and examples.

Purposefully relate your supporting material to your overall thesis throughout the paper. Don't just drop in some supporting content and expect the reader to figure out why it is there. Your reader does not have your outline. It is your job to connect your supporting arguments with your main thesis.

Don't over-assert or exaggerate. You don't have to fully agree with an extremely radical position.

On the other hand, don't perpetually qualify and prevaricate. You must commit to a solid position and defend it.

"Good/bad," "positive/negative" > these are vague descriptions. They could be applied equally to any topic. "Animals are changing the way we live in good ways. Cats make old people feel less lonely." "Animals are changing the way we live in bad ways. Sharks bite off people's heads." Be more nuanced in your critique than simply "good" or "bad."

There is no such thing as a future fact. Avoid speculatively predicting future outcomes. Such speculation is not appropriate for an academic research paper, since it cannot be proved or supported by sources, because it hasn't happened yet (and may never happen).

Style / Tone / Rhetoric

Avoid slang.

Avoid "I" and "you." Don't say, "I think it is a bad painting." Just say, "It is a bad painting." Your reader already assumes that you are the one writing, and that you are writing your own thoughts. Don't refer to "my paper." Just write your paper.

Generally wise to avoid "we." If you say "we," consider your readership (a broad academic audience, any intelligent person who might be reading your paper in an academic journal now or years hence, not only in the U.S. but anywhere in the world).

Avoid convoluted, long sentences.

Don't tease your reader with vague rhetorical questions. Turn any such questions into positive statements.

You may begin the paper with an anecdote if you must, but it must directly relate to your topic, and you should get quickly into your topic. This is a fairly short paper, and you don't have time to waste on filler.

Avoid rhetorical devices like "without a doubt," "clearly," "plainly," and "obviously." These phrases prove nothing (except that you are trying to cover up a weakly supported assertion).

You can't just say "many people believe." You must cite specific sources.

Introduce people at their first mention. "The painter and educator Paul Klee..." You can't assume that your reader knows them.

Whenever possible, use the active voice. Don't say, "Duchamp was impressed with New York," when you could say, "New York impressed Duchamp."


Every paper needs a title which summarizes its content in an intriguing way. The first word of a title should be capitalized. Every important word in a title should be capitalized.

Number your pages (except for the first page).

If you are making multiple points in your argument. Consider using headers (and subheaders if needed).

Attribution / Figures

Proper MLA formatting.

Only directly quote an author if she is saying somethng particularly pithy. Otherwise, just summarize their point.

Avoid quotations longer than a paragraph.

Always attribute any information you got from research (even if it is not a direct quotation).

Use " " for quotations, and probably all other uses of quotations.

If discussing a piece of art or design, include specific characteristics of the work. If the work is particularly visual in nature, consider including a figure.

Figures should have captions and credits.

If figures appear at the end of the paper, there should be a figure call within the paper that directs your reader to the proper figure at the back of the paper.

Consider including figures in the flow of the paper itself, as they are referenced.

proper citation format:
"Duchamp is the genius of our century" (Clark 223).
Clark calls Duchamp "the genius of our century" (223).

For multiple works by the same author:
"Duchamp is the genius of our century" (Clark 1972 223).

Your list of "Works Cited" at the end should be alphabetized by author last name.


awk = awkward
sp = spelling
frag = sentence fragment (incomplete sentence)

"It" and "this" must be preceded by a specific antecedent noun.

If you are making multiple points in your argument. Consider using headers (and subheaders if needed).

Avoid contractions.

In a list of three or more items, put a comma before the third "and":
"Apples, oranges, and cherries."

Verbs should all remain in the same tense (unless there is some sensible reason for them to change).

Don't end a sentence with a preposition. "Ending a sentence in a preposition is something up with which I will not put." - Winston Churchill

Don't begin a sentence with a conjunction.

." not ".

Separate two complete sentences that are related to each other with a semi-colon. A comma is not strong enough to join two complete sentences. A simple sentence has at least a subject and a verb.

Singular subjects should agree with singular verbs; plural subjects should agree with plural verbs.

If an artist makes one popular print, you write "the print's popularity." If an artist makes three popular prints, you write "the prints' popularity."

1960s is abbreviated '60s, not 60's.

it's = it is [It's a nice day.] -- Avoid using "it's;" it is a contraction.
its = a possessive pronoun [The dog ate its bone.]

Use a spell checker, otherwise you will come across as a rank slacker.

For a singular indefinite first person pronoun, use either "she" or "he," or alternate between the two each time. Do not use "he or she," and do not use "they."
YES: "When a painter uses oils, she must be very careful..."
YES: "When an painter uses oils, he must be very careful..."
NO: "When a painter uses oils, he or she must be very careful..."
NO: "When a painter uses oils, they must be very careful..."