Archaeology, Archaeology Teaching

TA’s Thoughts: Seven common essay-writing mistakes that bug your marker

While university students enjoy their holidays and a break from study, June and July see lecturers and academic staff frantically finishing the last of the term’s marking and sitting through innumerable panel and board meetings to finalise the year’s grades across the undergraduate programmes.

This term I been lucky enough to get marking experience at both first and second-marker level. One of the things that struck me was that of the many complexities to assessing student writing, one of the most challenging aspects to a new and inexperienced marker is preventing technical writing issues clouding the assessment of a piece of writing.

In subjects like archaeology technical writing issues – and I’m speaking about spelling, grammar, etc. – are only one assessment criteria amongst many, and overall more emphasis seems (rightly) to be placed on a learner’s ability to assess evidence, construct a well-reasoned argument and express your own ideas.

From what I’ve seen technical writing problems don’t make learners fail an assignment (at least in archaeology – I’m guessing things are different in writing/literature courses). But at their worst these issues can make writing verge on the incomprehensible, utterly obscuring what may be fantastically intelligent argument. There’s nothing more disheartening than getting 4/5ths of the way through a paper and having built up a list of reasons why you intend to grade the paper highly, only to end up mired in an almost illiterate conclusion that lets the whole paper down.

I’m no expert in the English language nor its written form, but in the interests of my sanity, I’m going to list the major technical errors that lead to frustration when marking.

  1. Spell check errors. Everyone uses a word processing package of some kind – but not everyone uses it intelligently. That means not just clicking ‘change’ on every error – but making sure the software is using the appropriate word. [And I know the spelling on this blog isn’t always perfect… but I’m hoping no one is grading this!]
  2. Wrong language. In the UK we use UK English. In the US they use US English. Your software will be set to one or the other – ensure it is the correct one. This isn’t an unimportant ‘style’ issue. US spellings can be incorrect in the English.
  3. Lack of sentence sense. Writing works best if each sentence actually makes sense on its own and avoid fragments. “Trade was important. This made the pre-Sassinid Empire wealthy.”
  4. Inconsistent references. This is the thing most likely to enrage me, personally. Whatever reference style you use, make it CONSISTENT. I cannot express how annoying it is to read a paper where each citation is in a slightly different format. And that means itty-bitty things like the use of commas and fullstops (i.e Smith, 1999. or Smith. 1999).
  5. Incorrect referencing system. You can get away with a lot by just making the references consistent, but you can’t hit the top grades without using the correct referencing style.
  6. Lack of proof reading. Please, please proof read. If you don’t then it’s really obvious to your marker, and it makes you look sloppy. Most importantly, proof read for sense. Read your sentences aloud to make sure they actually make some kind of sense.
  7. Unreadable fonts. Sensible departments have guidelines from which you would be reckless to diverge. But if they don’t, please pick a font type, size and line spacing that is both readable and markable. That means no serif fonts (fonts with curly bits), size pt 11 at least, and preferably more than 1.0 line spacing to ensure there’s space for comments. I would also suggest you only print on one side of the paper, leaving the other blank for comments.

You might be thinking ‘this is all obvious stuff’, and I would have agreed – before I started marking papers. But looking back on my own work I’m pretty certain I’ve neglected some of these, even in my masters dissertation! I think most markers want to see the best in their student’s work, so it pays to make their job as easy as possible – and after this experience marking I think I will be feeling a little more sympathy towards my own assessors!

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