Identifying and Avoiding Common Essay Problems

The first thing students need to know, as you teach them essay writing skills, is what mistakes they’re most likely to make.  Only after being explicitly taught common essay writing problems will they be able to identify and avoid them.  This three-part lesson plan will guide you through the process of getting students writing, teaching common essay writing problems, and having them work to revise an example, and then their own short pieces of writing.

Mind’s On

Everyone loves having an opinion.  Batman or Superman, Shorts or Pants, Sandals or Crocs, Power Rangers or Super-Human Samurai Cyber Squad (a deep cut, to be sure, but a good one.)

Ask your students to choose between two binary oppositions such as:

  • Books vs. Telelvision
  • Playstation vs. X-Box
  • Frozen vs. Fresh Vegetables
  • Summer vs. Winter

Once they have selected a binary opposition, have them selected which of the two they think is best.

Once they have selected which is best, have them come up with three reasons that support their opinion.

For example:

Summer is better than winter because…

  • You can wear more comfortable clothing
  • The days are longer, so you can stay out later
  • There are better festivals during the summer


Winter is better than summer because…

  • The outdoor activities are more enjoyable
  • There is more time to stay inside talking with family and friends
  • The holidays are much better in the winter

Once students have written their three points, they can share them with the class.  At this point, those who did not finish their own points, or were unable to make a choice, can augment their own notes using the information they hear their peers speaking about.

Remember, it’s more important that students have material to work with, than coming up with the starting ingredients all by themselves.  A sculpture is just as impressive regardless of if the artist made the clay, or bought it from a store.  A cake tastes just as good even if the baker was given a bag of flour, rather than grinding it themselves.

Feel free to offer your students the examples above to use as their own if they are having a hard time coming up with their own concepts.



For the focus of the lesson, students will write a paragraph and then use the COMMON ESSAY PROBLEMS information to detect concerns with their own work, and correct it on a small scale.

Learning about the problems

Before students write their own piece, they should familiarize themselves with the Five Most Common Essay Writing Problems.  You can find those five problems AT THIS LINK.  A classroom-ready handout has been included in the resource section of this article that can be used to teach these skills.

As a way of familiarizing themselves, offer students the following example, and ask them to identify the five errors within it, and rewrite it as a corrected piece.

I think that summer is better than winter because you can wear really comfortable clothing which makes you feel super good.  Not only that, but the days are a lot longer and I think most people enjoy having time to go outside and do a lot of things that they like doing.  Also, I think that there are more music festivals, and other fun activities which create a really wonderful and great time, during the summer.  I bet that you like the summer better than winter too.  That’s just how great it is.

After students read this, they should identify the following errors:

Use Formal Voice

“I think…” / “I bet…”
In all these cases, the author needs to remove these terms.  Often times it is easier to reframe the sentence, however there are times when the word “one” can replace “I”.

Be Confident and Sure

“I think…” / “I bet…”
In these cases the author is also making suppositions.  The reader does not want to know what they think, they want to know what is.  This can be difficult for students to write their heads around, because they don’t want to identify themselves as experts.  They want to create a safety net incase they are incorrect.  Teaching your students to write with assurance is one of the most challenging, but rewarding things.  While some students will understand immediately, you’ll be catching others for the rest of the year, and perhaps in the next grade as well.

Always be Specific

“Things they like doing…” / “music festivals…” / “activities…”
In these cases the author has not given specific examples.  They should explain what things are being enjoyed, “swimming, and biking.”  They need to be specific about the music festival, “Warped Tour.”  In each case the reader should not have to guess what is being alluded to, but rather they should be informed.

Don’t Editorialize

“really comfortable clothing…” / “wonderful and great time…”
In these examples the author is trying to convince the reader of something by telling them how to feel.  The details alone should be strong enough to create those feelings in the reader.  By being specific and clear the reader will forge a much stronger connection to the emotion, than if they were simply told to feel it without having been offered a mental connection to believe it.

Don’t Involve the Reader

“I bet that you like…”
In this case the author is drawing the reader in, removing them from a comfortable state of passive consumption.  Formal writing should cause the reader to question things, but that should be of their own choice, not because they have been directly involved in the paper.

Rewriting the Paper

Now that students have identified the problems, and you have gone through the issues with the class, the students will be ready to re-write the offered example.  Their final copy should reduce the amount of errors leading to a response similar to the example below:

Summer is better than winter because it offers comfort and freedom.  In the summer people wear shorts and sandals which allow their skin to breath, taking in the fresh air while being warmed by the afternoon sun.  Not only that but the days are longer offering time to swim in neighbourhood pools, bike along wooded paths, and sit outside in the shade of large oak trees reading a new book.  Also, summer brings the Warped Tour music festival, Ribfests, and community BBQs that end in firework displays that turn the night sky red, green, and orange.  During the summer one is granted the opportunity to explore in comfort, from the moment the sun rises until the sun sets fifteen hours later.

In this example, all five common errors have been removed, and a strong persuasive paragraph has been created.

Note, this paragraph also offers the groundwork for a five paragraph essay.  Each of the five sentences act as the outline for:

  • Introduction
  • Body Paragraph 1
  • Body Paragraph 2
  • Body Paragraph 3
  • Conclusion

Writing their own Paragraph

Students should now be asked to write their own paragraph.  Instruct them to write a five sentence paragraph that mirrors the above example.  The example should be written on the board, displayed on a projector, or photocopied for students to refer to during their own writing.

By the end of this section students will have written their own persuasive paragraph which will be used for the consolidation.


With ten minutes left in class, students are instructed to swap their paragraphs with an elbow partner.  At this point their partner will read through their piece looking for the five common essay writing problems.  They will circle each problem, and write a brief note explaining how to fix it.

Once this is complete, they will ensure that each paragraph is five sentences long.  If the paragraph does not fit this template, they will indicate which of the five sentences is missing, and offer a suggestion of how to include the missing element.

Finally, if time permits you can ask them to edit for spelling / grammar, though that is less important than developing the required skills right now.

Once complete, students will hand the paragraphs back to the authors, and the author will look them over, and make a note describing whether they agree or disagree with the comments their partner added.

These paragraphs will then be handed into the teacher as an Exit Card when the students leave the class.


The Five Common Essay Writing Problems.PDF

What’s Next?

In this lesson students learned to identify and avoid the five most common essay writing problems.  They also created a five sentence paragraph that can work as a five paragraph essay outline.  You will be using those paragraphs in the next lesson to help them develop a FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY OUTLINE.

Navigate the Essay Unit

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