All posts by Steve

Cleanliness Is Next to a Good Grade


The stereotypical bachelor student’s room looks something like this:

  • Smudge-ridden computer screen
  • Crumb-filled, crusty keyboard
  • A desk buried under papers, food, clothes, and heaven knows what else
  • A floor that’s…well, it’s under there somewhere, just can’t see it right now

Does this describe you? Of course not. But believe it or not, such people do exist in the world—and there’s a little of that slovenliness in many of us.

Unless you’re a so-called neat-freak, there are probably some areas of your work area that could be in better shape. But it’s not just the obvious, physical area I’m bringing up, although that’s important. It’s also other areas, including the following:

Your mind:
If your room is cluttered, you’ll have a hard time finding stuff. Same with your mind. When it’s time to work, you need to shut out distractions as much as possible. So, resolve that you’re going to forget about all the other pressures (and pleasures) of life, just long enough to do a great job on the essay you’re doing.

Your computer:
Do teachers even accept handwritten papers anymore? Beats me. In any case, since you’re almost certainly going to be working at your computer to write your essay, you need to make sure it’s not a mess.

First, tidy up the desk (or floor, bed, or lap) that your computer happens to be on. Banana peels and old soda cans in your line of vision are not conducive to concentration.

Second, take a few minutes to un-clutter your computer’s desktop and My Documents, if these areas are not already reasonably organized. It is very nice to be able to find things when you need them.

Once you do these things, make it a habit to keep things in good shape. It will put you in a better state of mind while you work, and this by itself may result in a higher grade.

Engaging the Reader


If you’re a copywriter, you understand the importance of engaging the reader. If you’re a student—maybe not so much. Nevertheless, the key to successful writing lies in seeing things from your audience’s perspective and then writing accordingly. Let’s see how that applies to essay writing and, subsequently, good grades.

One thing you can do is to use stories. For example, if you’re writing about tigers, you can actually tell about what you know has happened to some of them (make sure it’s true, of course). You might say something like:

It’s another day for the new cubs. Mom’s not back yet, and they’re starting to feel the pain of hunger. If she doesn’t make it back, they’re not yet old enough to hunt; instead of becoming the future predators, these little ones could instead become today’s prey…

Engaging? Yes. True? Yes. Likely to get you a good grade? Well, probably (unless, of course, your report is supposed to be about something other than tigers). Now, let’s take a look at a not-so-effective essay about the same subject:

The tiger is in the grass. It is about 6 feet long. It has stripes and a tail. The tail is long. It eats other animals because it is a predator. The little tigers cannot hunt until they reach a certain age. Before they can hunt, they may become the prey of other predators…

  • Paper 1: A.
  • Paper 2: Probably not an A.

Why is Paper 1 more engaging? Because it goes beyond just fact citing. It brings the subject to life in such a way that the reader will be interested. And you must do that if you’re going to get good grades on essays. It’s not just about putting facts on paper. That’s obviously important, but you’ve also got to have these facts well organized, properly formatted, and interesting to the reader.

That’s not to say that all this is easy; it takes time and practice to develop one’s writing skills. But the extra time and effort invested in making a paper interesting—as well as factual—will definitely pay off.

That Paper You Don’t Feel Like Writing…


Let’s face it—sometimes writing can be hard work. For example, you may not really care about Russia’s GDP in 1933 (or, then, perhaps you might). Likewise, the migration habits of squid are not at the top of most students’ lists of captivating studies. Nevertheless, to get a good grade (and to learn something, of course), it is necessary at times to do a good job and write a solid paper.

Here are some helpful tips to writing those “ugh” papers (and any other papers, for that matter).

Choose to have a good attitude:
If you look at it as a learning experience (which it is, not only in your subject matter, but also as an exercise in self-discipline, writing, and probably research), you can really motivate yourself to get something out of this.

Fact is, some of the most personally rewarding papers you write may not be the ones you’re naturally motivated to write. On the contrary, the ones that you have to stir yourself up to do will be the ones that make you feel really good when you end up with a good grade.

Basically, before you even start doing the actual work, you need to tell yourself that you can do this paper; you can do a good job on this paper; and you will both learn from it and feel great when you accomplish this task that is not naturally appealing. And during the times you feel like, “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?” just remember the preceding points.

Make a plan:
When you’re intrinsically motivated to do a paper, it comes easy. Even then, however, you should be as organized as possible. But when the subject matter is something you don’t really care about, you have to protect yourself from the natural tendencies to escape from applying yourself to the task at hand.

With this in mind, insulate yourself from TV, friends, other work, or anything else that would give you an excuse to stop doing what you need to do to succeed at this writing. Keep in mind, however, that it is especially important to reward yourself with breaks periodically, or you can get burned out and really frustrated.

Make the most of unappealing writing assignments. The ones you enjoy will come along soon enough.

Let Word Do the Work for You!

Microsoft Word

Okay, let’s see…I need to check for:

  • Correct spelling and grammar
  • Run-on sentences
  • Having commas and periods on the inside of quotation marks

Users of Microsoft Word all know about spell check, and many of us are also acquainted with grammar check. But this software can check for so many common errors—if you have it set up to do so.

Some other useful features include searching your document for:

  • Serial commas (you can choose to have them or not, depending on the style manual your paper uses)
  • Clichés, colloquialisms, and jargon
  • Having the same amount of spaces at the start of each sentence (you can opt for either 1 or 2 spaces)
  • Passive sentences
  • Wordiness
  • Split infinitives
  • Unclear phrasing

There are many more features available, which you can check or uncheck, depending on your preferences. Once you know your professor’s specifications, you can tell Word how to help you. Here’s how, on Word 2003. With Word open:

  1. Go to Tools
  2. Select Options
  3. Click on the Spelling & Grammar tab
  4. Click on Settings
  5. Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar & Style
  6. Check the items you want and uncheck those you do not want Word to look for

Here’s how to access this is Word 2007. With Word open:

  1. Click the Office button
  2. Click on Word Options
  3. Select Proofing
  4. Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar and Style
  5. Check the items you want and uncheck those you do not want Word to look for

Will all this help? Yes. One very helpful feature is checking for passive voice. Some professors (maybe yours) can be a real stickler about that.

Is it perfect? Yeah, right. This is technology we’re talking about—very useful, but undeniably brainless. With this in mind, be sure to check your document yourself, as any software can miss things.

Advice for ESL Writers

Advice for ESL Writers

English can be tough. Unlike many Eastern languages, English places great emphasis on seemingly minor aspects of written communication. Yet, by paying careful attention to the finer points of the language, a writer can create interesting subtleties and nuances that would not otherwise be possible.

One of the problems for non-native writers of English, of course, is that there are exceptions to every rule (for example, i before e except after c). The solution? Learn the rules, by rote, by practice, or by whatever works. There is no other way. In time, you’ll find yourself remembering them.

Also, Americans have a great penchant for colloquialisms and slang. We are a very diverse nation, and we borrow from every culture. Colloquial references to pop culture and sports are particularly problematic to those not familiar with them.

Prepositions and articles seem to be the main source of confusion, though. And unlike acquainting oneself with references to bygone TV shows, learning the proper way to use “a” and “the” is not that hard.

Without getting too technical, let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • RIGHT: We will go to the store.
  • WRONG: We will go to store.

Without the word “the,” the whole meaning of the sentence is changed. The word “store” actually becomes a verb.

  • RIGHT: It is on Broadway Street.
  • WRONG: It is on the Broadway Street.

The preposition “the” is not required here, since there will be only one Broadway Street in any town.

  • RIGHT: I need a doctor.
  • WRONG: I need doctor.

Yes, the article “a” is necessary here—it is important. Interestingly, Microsoft Word does not flag “I need doctor” as being incorrect—but it should.

There are ESL software, courses, and instruction available. In the meantime, until one becomes better acquainted with the intricacies of the English language, there is no shame in using a professional editing service.

Writer’s Block: Part 2

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Even if you enjoy the subject matter about which you’re writing, and it is something you find interesting, occasionally you may hit a roadblock and not know what to say. In such a case, there are several things that may help, especially if you’ve been working on the same project for some time:

Take a break:
Many times it’s best to just leave your work, forget about it, and go do something completely unrelated to it. After awhile, come back to it (hopefully refreshed). This gives your mind a chance to recover and, after a rest, refocus. And while you’re on a break, your subconscious may still be busy working, figuring things out for you behind the scenes.

Hit people up for ideas:
Make use of your friends, family, or acquaintances (or even cooperative strangers). Getting a different perspective is very often the catalyst that moves a writing project forward. After all, if you only get the same view day after day (your own), your perspective will necessarily be limited. It can be a wise thing to discuss what you’re writing about with some non-experts, as their views will be an interesting—and perhaps inspiring—change from the same-old, same-old opinions you get from yourself, textbooks, and experts in the field.

Do more research:
Oh, I can imagine the response to this suggestion: MORE?! Do you know how much I’ve looked into this already? That’s not the way to look at it, though. Rather, you need to think of it like this: There’s something I may be missing; if I look hard enough, I’ll find it, and then my essay will really shine.

Review what you’ve done already:
Sometimes it helps to just go back through and see what you’ve already written. It may be that something pops out at you, such as Oh, I forgot to cover this part of that subject…or maybe, Ah—I just need to expound a little more fully on this area…

Writer’s block never lasts forever. If it does, there’s probably something wrong with the length of the essay you’ve been asked to write.

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Well, there’s plenty I could write about this…but I seem to be stuck. Ha! Okay, sorry…

Seriously, this is a frequently recurring problem for all writers. For example, writing blogs about one area of subject matter at some point becomes difficult, even though it’s enjoyable. Why? Because there’s only so much anyone can say about a given topic.

With essay writing, experiencing writer’s block is often a question of two things:

  1. Do I care a whit about what I’m writing about?
  2. Are my writing skills sufficient to accurately express what I want to say?

In the latter case, writing workshops can help, or a professional editing service can lend a hand. But the former case is most often the problem when it comes to academic work. It’s usually something like this:

Submit an essay of at least x pages covering the [insert the non-interesting topic of choice here].

It’s not that you don’t like your class (hopefully), but rather that no subject is interesting in every facet. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and write about something that you do not have passion for or much interest in. The result? Writer’s block.

To get through a situation like that, it’s best to have fun with it if you can. Find a way to make it enjoyable. Once you manage that, the writing you do about even the dullest subject will be a pleasant experience. Often it’s just a matter of adopting an unusual take on what you’re covering.

Another thing you can do is call upon classmates or friends to help. Sometimes just involving someone else in the process (or having them help bear your burden) can be beneficial. Better yet, take some time to sit down with your instructor. Ask him or her why the material in your essay matters. If the instructor can convey anything interesting about the topic, it will help you to be able to write about it.

Finally, just take a mature approach. Not every subject is interesting, but there’s a reason you’ve been given the assignment. Now it’s up to you to do your best and make the most of it. Good luck.

APA Headings

APA Headings

Most academic papers are written using the rules of either APA style (although MLA is also pretty popular). In the papers you write, you will have to use headings in different places. These, like the rest of your writing, need to be correctly formatted. Here’s how to make sure your paper is APA-compliant when it comes to headings.

What may seem confusing is that the style of headings you use will vary, depending on how many levels of headings your paper has. Huh? Yes, it’s a little confusing at first. Actually seeing it in action may help.

In most of your papers, you will be unlikely to ever have more than three levels of headings. In fact, it will be unusual if you have more than two, unless you’re doing graduate-level work. So, let’s look at what you should do if you have one, two, or three levels of headings.

One level:
If you don’t have any secondary or tertiary headings, all you have to do is to center your heading above the text. There should not be a space between it and the text, and it should not be formatted any differently. May students like to use bold or larger fonts for headings, but this is (according to the APA manual) not correct.

Two levels:
If you’re using two levels of headings, the first level will be the same as if you were only using one. For the second level, your heading will be left-aligned, italicized, and title case (i.e., the first letter of each word will be capitalized unless it’s a preposition or article).

Three levels:
The first two levels will be the same as above. For the third level, the words will be lowercase (except that the first word will be capitalized), it will be italicized, and it will be indented five spaces.

Again, remember that for academic work, you should not bold, different colors, or different fonts for your headings. Gotta play by the rules.

Are Your Citations Correct?

Are Your Citations Correct?

Unless you’re a professor, used to grading lots of papers, or a professional writer or editor, you may not notice some of the common mistakes made with citations. Here are a few to look out for.

Typical Convention Errors

Consider the following example from a sample paper using APA style:

It now seems clear that global warming is an out-and-out myth, propagated purely for the intent of destroying the American economy (Conservative, A., Wing, Wright, and Republic, Ann.).

Wright Wing, Ann Republic, and A. Conservative. Global Warming is Bunk, Period. Conservative Booksellers of Greater America: Washington, DC. 2006.

Corrected Form

Here are the errors:

  1. In-text citations have only last names of authors.
  2. In the parentheses, you should always use an ampersand (&) for APA style.


  1. The second and all subsequent lines should be indented five spaces.
  2. The author names should be in the format of Last Name, First Initial.
  3. An ampersand (&) should be used instead of writing out “and.”
  4. The title of the book should be italicized, not underlined (it would be underlined in the body of the work itself, however).
  5. The publisher’s location should come before the name of the publisher.
  6. The date of publication should appear in parentheses, immediately following the name(s) of the author(s).

Here’s how it should be written, again, according to APA style:

It now seems clear that global warming is an out-and-out myth, propagated purely for the intent of destroying the American economy (Conservative, Wing, & Republic).

Wright, W., Republic, A., & Conservative, A. (2006). Global Warming
is Bunk, Period. Washington, DC: Conservative Booksellers of
Greater America.

Citations can be tricky, regardless of whether you’re using APA, MLA, Chicago, CSE, or something else. It requires tedious, detail-oriented work. If you don’t want to spend time on such nit-picky considerations, you may want to look into a professional editing service such as Papercheck.

Give It a Rest

Give It a Rest

Have you ever slaved away on an essay or other writing project, only to find yourself unable to think clearly, concentrate, or focus? Probably—most of us have. This is due to the simple fact that no one can do an activity constantly, without rest. If we try to do so, our ability to hone in on exactly what we’re doing becomes impaired.

Management professionals have known for decades that a worker who goes non-stop for several hours will not be as productive as someone who takes an occasional break. Why? We are designed in such a way that, unlike some purely mechanical machines, we’ve got to stop once in a while.

Here are some tips to help with all this.

Find your optimum break time:
It has been recommended that if you’re reading, it’s a good idea to rest your eyes (by simply not staring at a page or a screen) after 20 minutes. How long should you rest? For a few minutes—at least two, but probably not more than five. But different people are different, so you need to find the amount of time that works best for you to first work, then have a break, and then return to work.

Activities for your break
The main thing here is that you can do just about anything, as long as it’s different from what you were doing. For example, since you would have been sitting at a computer, thinking, typing, and staring at a screen, you should now do something totally different. Here are some possibilities:

  • Get up and walk around
  • Lie down (be careful with this one if you have more work to do)
  • Have something to eat or drink
  • Talk to someone
  • Pray (not a bad idea, especially if your essay is important)

Some things you should not do include watching TV (which is staring at another screen), reading, or thinking deeply about anything.

So, remember to give it a rest, once in a while. You’ll end up being more relaxed and efficient, and your essay will likely show it.