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Write a Better Essay: Do You Know these Three “Unspoken Rules”?

March 26th, 2010 admin

Every now and then you’ll get a paper back covered in red marks for “mistakes” that weren’t forbidden anywhere on the syllabus or essay prompt–the unspoken rules of essay writing. By the time you reach college level writing, professors expect you to know them by heart, but the fact of the matter is, most college students slip up when crunch time comes around.

Read on to find out if you’re making some of the mistakes that make your professors slap their foreheads in pain:

1. Forgetting the Essay’s Default Style

So your prof assigned you a formal argumentative essay in which you have to argue the merits or pitfalls of underwater basket weaving, and you hand him a six-page paper detailing your personal distaste for the subject, with “I think” and “In my opinion” scattered all the way through it. Oops.

Fix It:

For the essay above, you should have used a formal, third person voice. That means leaving all the “I”s out of it, and focusing on proving your argument with evidence and facts instead of sharing your opinion (your prof will tell you if he or she wants your opinion!). You should also use “one” instead of “you.”

There are different appropriate styles for each of the four types of essay. In some you may use first person, telling a story from your perspective or sharing your opinion in an opinion piece. In others you might use a formal third person, like in the example above. You can learn more about the four types of essays and how to write them at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:

2. OMG!

When I edited essays in college, I was shocked by how many people wrote academic essays like they were writing the professor an email, but then, I was already in on the unwritten rules. In fact, students using text slang in their papers is starting to make the news.

Fix It:

You should always be conscious of a paper’s level of formality, and when in doubt–be professional! Use correct grammar, run a spell check, and avoid using slang or idioms (those odd phrases that don’t make sense literally, like “It cost an arm and a leg”). Please, please, please do not use texting or chatting slang like “OMG” or “thx,” and never substitute “4” in the place of “for.” If you think this doesn’t happen in college, I’m proud of you. If you’ve done it, forgive yourself, move on, and never do it again! 🙂

3. He Was Mocked for Using Passive Voice.

When I was a freshman in college one of my friends sent me a frantic email. His professor had handed back his essay with express instructions to eliminate the passive voice, and he wanted to know–what the heck was passive voice?

Well my friends, passive voice is when the action of the sentence is acted upon by it’s subject. (Are you shaking your head out trying to figure out what I just said? Purdue has a great diagram here that will help!)

Fix It:

Whenever you can, try to use the active voice, and don’t forget to proof read and try to change your passive voice sentences to active! (That’s Purdue helping out again–they know better than I!)

These three simple things can help make your essays much, much stronger, so start here and work your way up. I’ve got more essay writing tips coming your way in a bit, so once you’ve mastered these basics you can take your essay writing to the next level. (Weird what you look forward to in school, isn’t it?)


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Carolyn  |  March 26th, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    “Was running” is actually just an active past form of “to run.” It has an imperfect aspect. See:

    “She ran” is the active past form of “to run” with a perfect aspect. See:

    Neither of them are passive. In fact, you can have a passive version of “to run” using both aspects. For a past passive with an imperfective aspect, you would use “she was being run,” while for a past passive with a perfective aspect, you would say “she was ran.”

    Perfect actions are completed; imperfect are incomplete.

  • 2. Emily  |  March 26th, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Just to be clear: “He was using passive voice” is NOT an example of passive voice. “She was running like a madman” is NOT passive voice. Those are both examples of the present progressive tense.

    I would not condone the test that says that if “was” is used before the main verb, then it’s probably passive voice. It is *perfectly* legitimate to use “was + verb+ing” as the present progressive tense. That is not at all the same thing as the passive voice.

  • 3. Jamie  |  March 27th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    @Carolyn & Emily: Oh ladies! Is my face red? (And since you can’t see it, I’ll tell you–the answer is an emphatic YES.) I’ve removed my erroneous examples and really appreciate that you took the time to offer up your corrections (and links for proof!). Thanks for watching out for your fellow readers!

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