Common writing errors

Biol 337, Invertebrate Zoology



Here I've compiled a list of typical responses I give to students on papers submitted in this class. 

As always, you should avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

  1. Choose a research article.   Research articles explain the process of how information came to be known, whereas review papers and popular articles tend to summarize what is known.

  2. At every step, help your readers.  As with telling any good story, knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to put in.  Tell your story by defining a problem, explaining the approach, and giving the logic behind the resolution.  Put the information where it is most helpful for understanding the story.  Don't assume your readers have read the articles you are describing.

  3. Explain why the research was done.   You must create a broad context for understanding why the question addressed was interesting.  What aspect of theory or poorly understood process motivated the scientists to invest the time, money, sacrifice of animal life, etc. to find an answer to the question? 

  4. Explain how the research was done, without excess detail.  In describing the methods you need include only enough detail for the reader to understand how the question was answered.  Work hard to convey the logic behind the approach the authors took.

  5. Be precise, clear, and simple with language.  "WDYM?" ("What do you mean?") is a common response of mine to words or phrases that your audience is unlikely to understand without more explanation.  Do not use colloquial phrases ("This technique was tried and true…") or vague references ("Science has shown…") that don't mean anything specific.  Do not try to sound fancy by saying "juvenile stages of precocial waterfowl" when you can say "ducklings."  Do not say "utilize" when you mean "use."  If you must use specialized jargon, explain it.  "This" and "these" are confusing when used as nouns--use them only as adjectives, followed by a noun (for example, "This result shows that..." instead of "This shows that..."). 

  6. Construct your own sentences using your own words based on your own understanding.  Many students mistakenly think they understand plagiarism.  To avoid intentional or unintentional plagiarism, read the section on the website carefully.  Also, although quoting verbatim is not technically plagiarism, it is lazy and bad scholarship because it provides no indication that you understand what is in the quotes.

  7. Outline your writing.  Organization is key, especially in a short paper.  You might need to accomplish in one paragraph what would have the luxury of a whole section in a longer paper.  Although you should not write in formal sections, your goals are the same: to provide a broad context, to highlight specific questions or hypotheses, to describe the methodological approach, to show how the results answer the questions, to draw conclusions, and to raise unanswered questions.  Here are some more details:

  • Introduction: Introduce the topic in a broad context.  What was known before the research started? What defines the gap in knowledge addressed by the research?  The first paragraph should give a clear indication of where the story is going.  Do not distract the reader with background material that is unimportant for creating this context.
  • Methods:  Don't include unnecessary details--you should say "worms were put in glass jars measuring 10 x 12 cm for 4 hours" only if the material, dimensions and time are important for the reader to know.  Knowing which details to leave out requires that you think like a first-time reader.
  • Results: Make sure the question was made clear before showing how the data answered it. Then tell what conclusions can be drawn afterward. Don't list results without saying what they mean.
  • Conclusions: Return to the general goals developed in your introduction to evaluate how the research met the goals. Critique what the paper could have done better, evaluate the larger implications of what it did accomplish, and suggest what the next step would be.
  • Further research: When making suggestions, don't just say "it would be interesting to know," or "this ought to be tried", unless you can say why.  Good research often raises new questions that provide the motivation for additional research.
  • Literature cited: Use the proper format for citations in the text and for the literature cited section (see webpage).  Include figures and tables only if you cite them, and make sure each has a legend.
  • Figures and tables.  Optional, but if you include them, you must cite them in the text.
  1. Get help.  Everyone's writing, including mine, needs improvement.  Most jobs in the real world will benefit from good writing skills.  Two suggestions:

  • Have a friend read your paper aloud, or read the paper out loud to yourself, to see if the language sounds "normal," correct, clear, and unambiguous.
  • Use the FREE Writing Lab on campus. The center can help with everything from organizing ideas to improving prose to proper citation. Call 953-5635 for an appointment, look at the web page <>, or stop by the center in Addlestone Library. Also, look at the book A Short Guide to Writing about Biology, by Jan Pechenik, which is available in the library.