By Mel Beasley, CSB Marketing Assistant
It’s happened to the best of us. We convinced ourselves that starting our essay three weeks ahead of deadline and combing through it five times before submitting it would land us that A+. To the contrary, you earn a high C and are ready to crack open a box of bonbons and watch Friends reruns before the depression sets in. What on earth did you do wrong? Probably one of these three most common essay mistakes.
1. You missed the prompt entirely and did an assignment completely off track from what the professor instructed.
This is a big one I see quite often. Students are told to write a rhetorical analysis about a Ted Talk, and they end up giving a report about everything covered in the discussion. This is a huge problem since a rhetorical analysis is often an essay that analyzes the methods used in the discussion and not the content of the discussion. Let’s take a look at a sample prompt.
“Write a 2-3 page rhetorical analysis (analysis of the argument) of the assigned text. You will need to complete two different tasks: (1) summarize the text’s argument and (2) explain how the text’s argument is put together. Is the author doing well or poorly with this argument? In what ways are they using ethos, pathos or logos?”
This is a rather simple prompt, but it’s very easy to get lost within our own papers as we get started. I recommend pasting the prompt into your essay so you can constantly refer back to it during your writing. This will help you stay on track as you write. Be sure to read each sentence of the prompt carefully and dissect each instruction to its bare bones.
Check out this helpful link if you have trouble understanding prompts.
2. You didn’t put a topic sentence at the top of each paragraph to keep your paper organized.
This is one of the most detrimental errors you can inflict on your essay, so please pay special attention to this section. Students often tell me that their essay feels disjointed or that “it doesn’t flow.” After reading the paper, I quickly identify the problem: No topic sentences. What is a topic sentence? Think of it as a mini-thesis statement that tells the reader what each paragraph is about. Having a topic sentence helps you stay organized during the writing process, and it helps the reader follow along with your argument.
“Following these five key steps are essential to surviving this mass devastation.”
Imagine if I started a paragraph like that. First, it introduces a lot of questions, but no context. I’m telling you how important some steps are to survive something horrible, but I haven’t even told you what is going on yet. This is the feeling your professor will get if you don’t put topic sentences on each paragraph.
Check out this helpful resource from Purdue Writing Lab if you want to improve on this issue.
3. You failed to put a thesis statement in your essay so not even you know what your paper is about.
Aaahhh, the dreaded thesis statement. High school taught us that they are the scariest, most complicated sentences of all time. Well, I have news for you. They are actually quite easy. There is no formula to writing them. Think about what you would say to your friend if you had to give them a quick summary of what your paper is about. “Well, basically it’s about how comedian Jerry Seinfeld is responsible for the crop circles in England.” It’s really that simple. If you fail to put a clear thesis at the end of your first paragraph, your entire essay might fall off track.
If you have trouble in this area, I recommend writing your entire essay without the first paragraph. Only develop the basic concept for your essay and write it out. After it’s on paper, go back and fine-tune a thesis statement and introduction paragraph.
UNC Chapel Hill's Writing Center provides helpful tips for writing a thesis statement.