Common Essay Problems – Formal Writing

Formal essays, and short writing pieces can often leave students grasping to understand why their assessment doesn’t match their expectations.  This is because there are a number of common mistakes that students make.  In a number of cases, this isn’t even their fault as, often, they aren’t even taught to look for them.

Here are FIVE common mistakes students make in their formal writing.



1. Use the Formal Voice

The FORMAL VOICE is used to remove both the author and the reader from the piece of writing.  When you write an essay you want your writing to stand alone, presented from the perspective of an expert who does not need to involve themself in the piece.

What it Looks Like

The FORMAL VOICE requires that students DO NOT use “I”, “you”, “we”, “my”, or other similar pronouns in their piece.


Poor Example: I think that Batman is the best book, and you will like it because he’s cool.

Better Example: Batman is the best book.  One will enjoy it, as Batman is cool.

Why the Second Example is Better

In the first example the author involves themselves by stating, “I think…”.  This problem is overcome in the better example by simply stating the fact that they believe.  It is implied that the statement is what they think, as they are the author of the piece.

Next, the first example is problematic as it involves the reader by stating “you will…”.  The better example solves this problem by using the FORMALLY REMOVED term “one”.  Should you ever need to refer to an other in your formal text, using the term “one” helps overcome the use of informal language.


2. Be Confident and Sure

In a formal piece of writing the reader should not have to GUESS or make ASSUMPTIONS.  Students often will write vague or unspecific sentences that remove credibility from their otherwise strong impact.

What it Looks Like

Using terms like “probably”, “may”, “sometimes”, or “many” often (but not always as is the case with the use of the term often in this sentence) remove confidence and credibility from a formal piece.


Poor Example: You may like Batman, because he sometimes acts as a hero, which is something you’ll probably enjoy.

Better Example: One will enjoy Batman comics as he is a hero.  The reader will be engaged by his actions.

Why the Second Example is Better

In the first example the reader states that one “may” like Batman.  As their duty is to prove that the reader will like Batman, they have already created a self-imposed roadblock for success.  Rather than stating that one “may” like Batman, they need only say that one “will” like Batman.

Next, rather than explaining that the reader will “probably” enjoy something that Batman “sometimes” does, they can be sure, confident, and direct by stating that the reader “will” enjoy the actions that Batman takes.  While Batman may not always do the same thing, that doesn’t need to be expressly stated – as it is assumed that characters take a variety of actions.

Even if the reader wants to draw attention to the fact that Batman makes different choices based on the specifics of a situation, they should give SPECIFIC EXAMPLES rather than just stating “Sometimes Batman does this, and other times he does that.”


3. Always Be Specific

When you are making a point, you must ALWAYS SUPPORT IT with SPECIFIC TEXTUAL DETAILS.  It’s not enough to claim that something is true – it must be supported with examples that come from specifically summarizing an event or text, or from direct quotations from the source.

What it Looks Like

Students make claims but fail to support them with specific examples that prove the claim to the reader.  Students feel that because they know something is true, or obvious, the reader should as well.

The trap of the obvious is what normally leads to students failing to use specific examples.


Poor Example: This text is great because Batman stops criminals.

Better Example: This text highlights the importance of the failing Justice System when Batman decides to stop the Organized crime boss, Falcone, by becoming a vigilante.

Why the Second Example is Better

In the second example the reader doesn’t simply state the vague idea that “Batman stops criminals”.  Instead, they point out that “Batman … stop[s] … Falcone”.  This specific example allows the reader to fully understand the impact and importance of the action, while also offering specific evidence from their text.

The second example also explains that the “text is great” without needing to state that, as the reason the text is great is clearly pointed out: It “highlights the importance of the failing Justice System”.


4. Don’t Editorialize

Formal writing should be filled with FACTS and DETAILS.  At times students decide to add an emotional explanation to their piece which is better left to the reader to arrive at on their own.

What it Looks Like

When students write that something is “unfortunate” or “sad” they are adding an emotional slant to their piece.  Likewise, when students write that a “great” or “exciting” event has occurred, they are similarly tarnishing the integrity of their piece by remaining removed from it.


Poor Example: It was sad when Batman discovered the Joker had lead to the upsetting death of Barbara’s child.

Better Example: Joker’s use of an electric buzzer caused the death of Barbara’s child, leading to Batman’s relentless hunt.

Why the Second Example is Better

The first example tells the reader that the event was “sad” and that the death was “upsetting”.  In both cases, these can be removed as the specific details of the event are more than enough to convince the reader of the emotional resonance of the actions.

By remaining removed from the emotional subtext, the reader is allowed to come to their own conclusions based on the facts and evidence provided.


5. Don’t Involve the Reader

While we have already seen how to keep the reader removed by removing the use of pronouns that specifically refer to them, it is just as important to keep a formal piece as a one way piece of communication.

A piece of formal writing is NOT CONVERSATION.  Due to that, the writer should not ask questions of the reader, as they have no way to answer.  Now, many of you may be asking, “but what about rhetorical questions?”  There’s obviously no need to address that is there?

I won’t leave that as an unanswered rhetorical question.  While there is a place for them, students often have a hard time using them effectively, and their use normally leads to them undermining their own piece.  While they can be powerful, they require EXPLICIT direct instruction as to their effective use.

What it Looks Like

Involving the reader in a ONE SIDED DIALOGUE looks like the use of a QUESTION MARK.  There is rarely a reason for a question mark to exist in a piece of formal writing.  The purpose of the formal piece is to impart knowledge, not to seek it.


Poor Example: Do you like superheroes?  Then you’ll dig on Batman!

Better Example: Superheroes are popular in modern film and television.  This popularity translates to one’s enjoyment with written text as well.

Why the Second Example is Better

In the second example the write simply explains that readers most likely enjoy superheroes.  And, rather than “dig[ging] Batman” it explains that the “popularity translates to … enjoyment”.

By keeping the question out of the piece, the reader is better able to continue reading the piece, without having their flow interrupted by being abruptly addressed and forced to stop and consider something before moving on.



The Five Common Essay Writing Problems.PDF

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