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Academic Writing

Writing pitfalls

 

Tips to help strengthen your college essay

Four common mistakes that students in their writing include passive voice, run-on sentences, sweeping statements and plagiarism.

Below are details about these writing pitfalls and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Look out for Passive Voice

An active sentence contains a subject that acts on a direct object.  

Active voice example: Monkeys love bananas.

This is a clear, direct sentence.  Monkeys (subject); love (verb); bananas (object).  

You flip the sentence when you use a passive voice. It occurs when the object becomes the subject of the sentence and is the recipient of the action verb.  

Passive voice example: Bananas are loved by monkeys.  

This new sentence is awkward when compared to the active voice sentence. 

In student essays, the passive voice tends to spring up when: 

  • the "actor or doer" of an action is unknown  

  • the student feels uncomfortable using pronouns like I or we 

  • the result of the action verb is more important than who acted  

In these cases, the passive voice may be acceptable, especially when rephrasing the sentence would make it more complicated.   

Here are examples that illustrate when passive voice may be appropriate: 

  1. The actor is unknown 

Complex hearth features in Eastern Alaska were used in the neo-glacial period. 

(We don’t know who made them.) 

  1. You want to be vague about who is responsible 

An error has occurred with the experiment, but every attempt has been made to correct it. 

  1. You are writing about a general truth  

Happiness cannot be bought by money 

(By whomever, whenever.) 

  1. The actor is irrelevant

An ICT hub will be built in Ireland.  

(It does not matter who is building it.) 

However, sometimes the passive voice can make sentences complicated and can sound too vague and even dishonest.

TIP: It’s good practice to look over your essay and identify the subject of each sentence (the actor or doer) and ensure the subject appears at the beginning, or near the beginning, of a sentence.  

2. Avoid Run-on Sentences 

A run-on sentence occurs when the you join more than one sentence together without any punctuation, making the sentences and their ideas flow into one another. A simple sentence will contain a subject (what or who the sentence is about) and a predicate (says something about what the subject is doing or feeling). In college-level writing, sentences can get more complex, making it extra important to recognize where to make the proper, grammatical sentence breaks.   

Incorrect          

Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away. 

Correct            

Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch. Along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away. 

Correct            

Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch; along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away. 

Correct 

Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch, when along came a spider who sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away. 

Once you identify where the sentence needs a break, there are many ways to correct it.  

You can: 

  • create two separate sentences 

  • use a semicolon. A semicolon is used when there are independent clauses (sentences that can stand on their own) on either side of it, and when the clauses on each side relate closely to one another. 

  • use a comma + preposition or comma + conjunction  

All of these will improve your sentence. However, in the above example, the third correction makes the most sense.  

3. Be aware of Sweeping Statements

It is good practice to avoid sweeping statements or generalizations in your essays. This occurs when something that you write is too general and cannot be supported with proof or evidence. Words to include in your essay paragraphs that could to help safeguard against sweeping statements are: “tends”, “suggests”, “could”, “may”, “might”, “possibly”, “probably”. Better yet, include concrete details, examples and facts to support your points.

4. Steer clear of Plagiarism

According to Sheridan’s Academic Integrity Policy (2016), plagiarism is "the act of presenting another person’s words, research or ideas as your own without acknowledging the source of the information used" (p. 5). Plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, is treated seriously at Sheridan College. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand what it is so that you are not accidentally committing it. Even students with the best of intentions can get stuck in a situation that could lead to plagiarism. Here are some tips to help avoid being caught in a situation that could lead to plagiarism: 

The short video below provides Sheridan student's perspectives on plagiarism (3m, 38s).

Conclusion

You have completed the Academic Writing module.  We hope you found it useful.  On the following tab, you will find a library of all Tutoring handouts used in this module.  If you need help with your writing, please book an appointment with the Sheridan College Tutoring Centre or email the tutoring team at tutoring@sheridancollege.ca

Additional resources

Sources consulted

 

Grammarly Blog. (2020). Active vs. passive voicehttps://www.grammarly.com/blog/active-vs-passive-voice/ 

SCRIBENDI Inc. (2020). Five habits to avoid in your academic writing. https://www.scribendi.com/advice/five_habits_to_avoid_in_academic_writing.en.html 

Sheridan College. (2016). Academic integrity policy. https://policy.sheridanc.on.ca/dotNet/documents/?docid=917

University of Toronto. (2020). Passive Voice: When to use it when to avoid it. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/