I serve as a Garrett Fellow at the seminary – a glorified title meaning I’m a grader for a professor. I grade two master’s level courses. In my case that means I grade papers, book reviews, and that kind of thing while the prof grades tests. I’ve done it for four semesters, and want to offer a little unsolicited advice to students who happen across this blog.
So, because I’m a nice guy (or maybe because I’m sick of seeing the same mistakes), I offer a few tips:
* Obviously the most important part of any paper is the actual content. Are you making a cogent, well structured and researched argument? (Actually – perhaps the most important thing to check is that you have properly understood/interpreted/fulfilled the assignment.) Stay focussed on your topic and avoid soap boxes and rabbit chases.
* Go ahead and buy a Southern Seminary Manual of Style. I held out too long when I started seminary because I bristled at the strict format requirements, but you really need one to reference. Some profs and graders are very strict on those things, others are not. Unless otherwise instructed, for example, you must use footnotes rather than endnotes and they need to be formatted properly. Papers that look like the author never heard the word “format” often look horrible. Just get the Style Guide.
* It is surprising, how many students, misuse commas. Sometimes even when a comma is needed none is present. (I hope you can tell I am committing the errors being described).
* Here is a real pet peeve of mine: using an apostrophe in a plural noun. For example, “Hindu’s do not eat meat.” I have no idea why this error even occurs but it happens often.
* Know the difference between words that are spelled differently but sound the same (i.e. there, their, they’re)
* Use spellcheck (not everybody does) but don’t assume that it caught all the errors. You may have the wrong word somewhere – as in the student who made reference to the sermon on the mound in his paper.
* Try to make your writing clear. Often words like “this” and “that” have vague referents that muddle your argument. For that matter, it is best to have a noun follow the word “this” – as in, “This argument is strong” instead of “this is strong.”
* When you are writing a formal academic essay, you need to sound like you are writing a formal academic essay. You are doing graduate level work, which is going to look and sound different than they way you write in your journal or blog or in an email to friends. Many people seem to write exactly the way they speak, which is fine in some settings, but not in this context.