Focus on Research| Top 10 Common Student Mistakes When Preparing Research Essays (PART TWO)

In  Part One of this post, I introduced the first five common mistakes I have encountered while evaluating student research essays. Listed below are the remaining five problem areas to avoid when completing written assignments for submission.

6. Failing to properly format a publication or work of art

This is a problem area that relates to some basic formatting rules that are often mixed up by students of different disciplinary backgrounds. The trick is to determine if the work is a "stand alone" work of art/literature or "part of a collection" work of art/literature.

  • As a basic rule, any work of art or literature that can stand on its own as an independent work is italicized OR underlined. Books, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, plays, and music albums or CDs are therefore italicized or underlined, i.e. War and Peace, Mona Lisa, The Godfather, A Hard Day’s Night. The trick is to keep the choice consistent so that you EITHER italicize OR underline throughout the essay-- just choose one and stick with it. It is also preferable to cite the PRODUCER and DATE of publication in brackets the first time you introduce a work, so that your audience is presented with an immediate context (in this example I am choosing to underline instead of italicize), i.e. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869), Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503), Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather (1972), The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). In subsequent mention of the work, you can easily shorten the title if need be, i.e Stanley Kubrick, 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) can become Space Odyssey.
  • As a basic rule, any work of art or literature that is part of a series or collection is placed in quotations. Journal articles, chapters from books, newspaper articles/reviews, individual songs, short stories, poems, individual episodes of a TV show, and skits fall into this designation and are therefore placed in quotes, i.e. “Top 10 Common Student Mistakes”; “Review of The Godfather”; “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; “Poker Face” etc.. As with the major works of art or literature, make sure to include the PRODUCER and DATE the first time you introduce the title.

7. Inserting images directly into the body of the essay

Avoid wherever possible inserting images, tables, charts, and graphs directly into a scholarly essay written for an arts and humanities based course. Place them instead at the end of the paper, after the bibliography, and wherever possible include the ARTIST/PRODUCER, TITLE, and DATE of the work along with the notation Figure 1, Figure 2 etc.. In the text, you can then refer to the image and its notation figure 1, figure 2, etc.. and readers will know to look for the images at the end of the essay. Also note that works of art DO NOT NEED TO BE LISTED in the bibliography as sources.

8. Referring to authors/artists by their first name

NEVER ever refer to an artist, author, filmmaker, or any kind of producer by their first name in a scholarly paper. For example, if you are talking about Andy Warhol, refer to him as Warhol and NOT Andy in the paper. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, especially since most students end up personalizing a woman’s names three times more often than a man’s. Marina Abramovic is Abramovic and NOT Marina, Kanye West is West and NOT Kanye, etc… The only exception to this rule is if the artist/producer does not have a last name or is a group, i.e. Cher, Banksy, Lady Gaga, Beatles.

9. Providing a boring or uninspired paper title

As I mentioned in a previous post about planning and outlining your research essay, the title of an essay is like the icing on the cake and sets the mood for your argument. A good title can also boost the level of interest in your topic and set your paper apart from a stack of boring titles. In other words, avoid the lethal error of titling your paper something like: “Andy Warhol’s Pop Art” or “A Research Paper about Dada.” Make an effort instead to align the title of your paper with your argument or specific topic, i.e. “Warhol and the Art of Mass Consumption: A Case Study of Marilyn Diptych (1964)” or “Dada as Anti-Art and the Influence of Marcel Duchamp.”    

10. Not proof-reading the essay (more than once) before handing it in

Quite simply, this is the easiest and perhaps most important mistake to avoid. I routinely tell students that the most important final step before handing in their essay is to sit down and READ THE ESSAY OUT LOUD. This will help you identify lapses in grammar, run-on sentences, nonsensical passages, and mistakes in argument and logic. Better yet, have a friend read the essay aloud with you so that you can hear the mistakes coming out of someone else’s mouth. Editing is a critical step throughout the writing process, but most important at the final hand-in stage.  Imagine your professor marking stacks of essays at the end of a long semester. Now imagine that they have to struggle to understand your argument, however fantastic it is.  At this point in the game, clarity will almost always win out and translate to a higher mark than dense and impenetrable language or sloppy, error-filled writing.

  • Also, some simple grammatical errors to check for visually: contractions (don’t should read do not, can’t should read cannot etc.), placing periods inside quoted passages (“this is correct.” “this is incorrect”.); making sure paragraphs do not run on for more than one typed page, and remembering to do a FULL SPELL CHECK before printing the final copy of your paper.

Good Luck!