Julia M. Garrett
Department of English and Language Studies
Women’s and Gender Studies Program
University of New England

Common Problems in
Undergraduate Writing

During the past year I have been conducting a survey with my colleagues from several different departments on the UNE campus. I asked them to report back to me in detail about the problems and errors that they notice most frequently in undergraduate writing––problems that seriously affect the grades that students earn on written assignments. They were very generous with their reflections about how student writing and research needs to improve. Strong, effective writing and research skills are obviously very important to all of us.

I also collected analysis from about 40 other college teachers on an academic discussion board that reaches teachers in higher education across the country. There was a great deal of consistency in the problems we notice in student writing. What appears below is a compilation of our collective observations as teachers at dozens of colleges and universities. I urge you all to read through these items carefully and bookmark this page to review whenever you sit down with a new paper assignment in one of your future classes. I composed this page primarily for my own students on this campus, but you are welcome to share the link with others if you wish.

Remember, this is a list of writing problems that you should make efforts to avoid. To some extent I have “weighted” or ranked the items on each list––i.e., the items at the top of each list are those mentioned more often by teachers. Those of you who are currently taking a composition course with me will receive detailed instruction about how to address the writing problems described below. If you have already completed your composition course and would like some assistance with a paper you’re writing, one of the writing tutors at the Learning Assistance Center will certainly be able to help you.

One important overarching thing to keep in mind when writing a research paper is your audience, i.e., your professor or instructor. In most cases, the person reading and evaluating your paper will be grading hundreds of pages of student writing for each assignment (really, hundreds of pages––think about that carefully). This simple fact means that papers that are shot through with dozens of little errors and mistakes are likely to put your professor in a––how shall we put it?––less than charitable frame of mind. Papers that are sloppily argued, packed with errors, and printed in barely readable ink are harder to comprehend and take much longer to grade (in my courses, these papers quickly drop into the “C” range). Grading paper after paper with such problems can make us, well, a tad cranky.

On the flip side, students who thoughtfully attend to all the details, who carefully proofread their papers, who scrupulously follow the assignment guidelines, who come to us for advice more than a week before the paper is due, who demonstrate enthusiasm for what they are writing about. . . ? Students like these make us genuinely happy. On some occasions they magically restore our faith in the entire profession of teaching. Sadly, for most paper assignments, these students are in the minority. However, it’s actually not that hard to be one of these students. Avoiding many of the problems posted on this page is a good place to start. You might also check the “Final 15” link for a short list of minor errors that you can likely proofread and correct in 15 minutes or less before submitting your final draft of a paper.

general work habits:

formatting issues

miscellaneous matters:

sentence style, diction, and punctuation:

thesis statements:

paragraph content:

incorporating direct quotations and evidence from a source:

research skills and incorporating scholarship into research papers:

Additional links:
Creating a Research Plan: to Complete a Research Paper
Final 15: Simple Errors to Correct on the Final Draft of a Paper