What Your Teacher Is Really Thinking When They Read Your Paper

What Your Teacher Is Really Thinking When They Read Your Paper

I struggled with writing papers as a student, but then one day I became an instructor and had to read this garbage. Geez, guys.

Photo from Don O’Brien.

Starting Your Paragraphs With Quotes Means You’re Intimidated by the Idea of Writing

I know, deep psychological insights here. But if you’re just collaging quotes together — and students who start paragraphs with quotes tend to also end them with quotes and fill them with quotes in the middle — you’re not actually writing anything. I understand this is exactly why you do it. But this practice results in an unreadable paper and a bad grade, even if the information is accurate and properly cited.

Why? Well, imagine I asked you to bake a casserole for a potluck. But you’re not sure you can actually do that, and so you spend days procrastinating and fretting and flipping through recipe magazines. And then on the day of the potluck, you show up with a pan that contains a ripped-out magazine page with a photograph of a beautiful casserole. Same thing, right? Nope.

Quoting a Definition Tells Me You Have No Idea What It Means

If you knew what it meant, you would have just explained it in your own words.

If for some reason the specific words in the definition were just so significant you have to quote them, then you would certainly discuss what’s so amazing about this source’s word choice and why you’re giving them such special treatment. But no, you just quoted the definition and then moved on to another sentence that has nothing to do with it. I see what you did there.

Same with lists. Why are you listing 10 symptoms of diabetes in the first place, and why the heck do you think you need to put that list in quotes? Whenever you find a list in your research materials and think, “Ooh, good, this is 10 words I don’t have to write,” just stop. Pick a few things on that list and use them as examples. Explain what the hell they have to do with anything, and now look at you! You’re actually writing!

You Don’t Think I’m Going to Check Your Sources, Huh?

You can’t write your paper off WebMD and Livestrong pages and then list some dusty books on your Works Cited page. Yes, I’ve seen students pull this.

Guys. I have Google too.

It takes mere minutes to find your actual sources, and thanks to the magic of Google Books and Amazon Look Inside, I can confirm that you didn’t get your quotes from these dead tree books. Nice try, but you’re in big trouble now.

You Don’t Know the Difference Between an Introduction and a Conclusion

These are actually different! I don’t blame you for this, though. I blame whatever idiot teacher told you that the format is “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” This apocryphal quote is a joke about the scholarly essay format. It can be a mnemonic if you suddenly forget, wait, which part comes first? It is not meant as literal instruction.

Here’s the difference. Your introduction explains the question you’re going to address, including who cares about it and why. And then your conclusion is about the answer: You explain how all the stuff in the middle of the paper fulfilled your promise and thoroughly answered the question. So the structure is question, evidence, answer. OK? Make up a catchy mnemonic for that please.

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