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How To Write An Essay
Part 6 - The Finished Product
It seems no matter how many times students are advised to do this, they keep ignoring it. It is probably the single most important thing you can do to improve your essay: READ IT OVER TO YOURSELF! That means actually read it, don't skim it. If you find that your brain inadvertently skims it, try reading it out loud and listen to how it sounds. Do the sentences sound jarring? Does it make sense? If you hadn't researched it, would you understand it?
To improve further, GET A FRIEND TO READ THE ESSAY as well. They may find inadvertent errors such as spell-check failures (i.e. "from" when you mean "form" and vice versa), bad edits (i.e. Smith went to the a store (forgot to remove "a" or "the")), repetitions (i.e. He said, "Blah blah blah," he said), and other elements you may miss after staring at it for so long. Furthermore, if your friend is completely confused as to what you mean by a particular sentence, paragraph, or the entire essay, you know you have done something wrong. You don't have to accept every bit of nitpicking advice from your friend, but keep in mind that if they don't understand your phrasing, your teacher or professor may not either.
If you're using a computer and don't bother spell-checking your essay, you deserve marks off for every spelling error you make. It only takes a few minutes, and an essay rife with spelling errors looks sloppy and unfinished.
Go over the essay for consistency. After writing these pages, I realized I had sometimes capitalized widget watching and sometimes not. While it probably should be capitalized when it's part of a name (i.e. New York Widget Watchers), the rest of the time it should be lower case, so I went through and changed it. You can use your word processor's 'find and replace' function for this kind of thing, but beware that it will change every instance unless you make sure that it doesn't. Other consistency issues could be how you deal with numbers (I use the standard journalist format of spelling out only numbers less than 10), how you refer to people (usually use only the last name after the first instance unless there are references to different people with the same last name), whether subtitles are bolded, underlined, or both, and the style of attribution.
Make sure the pages are formatted according to the teacher/professor's instructions. Standard essays are double spaced (meaning blank lines between written lines) with one inch margins all around, and page numbers. Some professors might require headers on all pages with your name, that certain pages begin halfway down, etc. (In fact, putting your name on every page, whether in a header or perhaps written neatly on the back of each page, is a good idea in case the pages come apart.) Other formatting guidelines can be found at the Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. If you didn't include formatting considerations while writing, be sure to apply the formatting required now.
If you have used tables or graphics in your essay, after you've finished all the necessary formatting you should check that the table or graphic is still where you wish it to be. Formatting moves things around quite a bit, and you may find that things are now on the wrong page. Also, if you have a table of contents or any other reference to specific pages, make sure the page numbers still match.
As mentioned throughout these instructions, it is vitally important that you attribute anything you have taken from another source. Plagiarism is a serious offense, and one that many universities will expel you for. You do not have to attribute basic facts, nor do you have to attribute your own analysis and thoughts. But if you didn't come up with it and you're not sure if it's basic, attribute it. Keep in mind that if you thought of something yourself and then found it confirmed in a source, you must attribute it to the source. They get credit for publishing it before you did. You can indicate to the instructor that you did think of it yourself, however, by phrasing it this way:
Attribution can also be useful aside from protection against accusations of plagiarism. If you're presenting a controversial point and can attribute it to a respected source, the reader is less likely to suspect you of saying something ridiculous. In our example, if we had written:
the instructor might wonder what the evidence is. By not attributing the second sentence, not only would we be plagiarising Doorknocker, but we'd also be leaving ourselves open to doubt.
Attribution styles vary between fields of study, countries, schools, and even professors. A very picky professor will probably give you an indication of how to attribute in essays for their course. Follow it, even if it's not your normal method. If no instruction on attribution is given, use a standard format such as MLA. If you don't use a standard format, at least make sure whatever you do is consistent throughout your essay. When in doubt, ask your teacher or professor for guidance.
Almost all high school and university formal essays require a bibliography. This is a list of all quoted sources as well as other influential sources. You don't have to actually cite the source in order to include it in your bibliography, but don't include source that you didn't even read. If the assignment requires that you have a bibliography of, say, 10 sources or more, don't include sources that you didn't read just to flesh it out. Not only is that dishonest, but you may find that the instructor is very familiar with a source and questions a paper that is missing key details from that source. In our example, if you didn't actually read Doorknocker's article but included it in your bibliography, the instructor may be suspicious when you fail to mention the new revelations about Smith's demise.
As with attribution, there are many styles of bibliographies, and your instructor may give you a specific format to follow. The most important thing is to make sure all of the information necessary for someone to look up the source is there. MLA and other styles have specific formats for writing entries in the bibliography. When in doubt, follow one of those styles.
Even if it's not a stated requirement, it's a good idea to have a title page on your essay. It looks good, and serves as identification should the essay be misplaced (and if you've seen the inside of a typical professor's office, you can understand how this could easily happen). Again, some instructors might give you guidelines for a specific format and information. Otherwise, follow this model, centred on a clean page:
Joe Smith: His Life and Contributions to Widget Watching
by Kimberly Chapman
For Professor Corran Webster, Office CBC B306
September 29, 2000
Congratulations! You should now have a solid essay worthy of a decent grade. But to continue to learn how to improve essays, go on to the next sections.
Next Lesson: Extras
Last updated in February 2005.
Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.
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