Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing

Tips and Tricks 7: Common problems and how to solve them

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This entry gives tips on twelve mistakes I see again and again in students’ work. They are all easily avoidable, and if these are observed in conjunction with my other tips and tricks you should be well on your way to having a very readable and nicely laid-out essay. The content of course, is up to you.


1)         Tabs and page breaks are easy to use in Microsoft Word, yet so many students resort to using the space bar or enter key to create breaks in the text. This is not a good method as creating a large space using the enter key may mean a heading is at the top of the page initially, but if you change some text higher up, the entire document will move up to fill the gap, leaving your headings in funny places. A much better way to keep headings at the top of pages is to use page breaks. These can be inserted via the insert menu, under the ‘break’ option, just place the cursor where you want the break to occur. These break the text meaning the next line appears at the top of the next page. Inserting these breaks before headings will keep your text well ordered no matter what else you change. (You can remove breaks by clicking the ‘show formatting’ key, clicking the break and clicking the delete key).

Tabs are a way of creating even gaps in text, though the tab key is most often used to create indents at the start of a new paragraph. Tabs are useful for making text on separate rows line up, for example:

A list

can be drawn

so each item lines up with the one above

more accurately than just pressing the space key multiple times!

2)         Make sure all text is either justified, or left aligned throughout your document – not a mixture of both. Using formatting creatively, for example having certain key quotes centred within the rest of the text, can look really nice, but having inconsistent formatting such as random variations in text size, line spacing and alignment just looks unprofessional.

3)         On a similar note, keep formatting for headings consistent. You may wish to adopt a system which shows heading hierarchy such as main headings in bold, sub-headings in italics and sub sub-headings in plain text.

4)         Make sure bulleted/numbered lists are not out of line with the rest of the text (unless they are intentionally so, and if this is the case, follow this convention for all lists in the document).


1)         Make sure paragraphs flow logically, there should be no abrupt subject changes. This is obviously easier said than done, and like many problems, is often hard to spot in your own work, as you understand the logic behind the order, even though someone else might not. This is easiest corrected by either (if you have time) setting the work aside for a week and coming back to it – this makes problems easier to spot, or by having a friend look over it and tell you if any parts don’t make sense. To avoid abrupt subject changes stick to one topic per section, so that all paragraphs in that section have a logical link. Use words such as ‘likewise’, ‘alternatively’ or ‘similarly’ to show that sentences have a relationship to the ones before.

2)         Make sure all writing is in the past tense, not present or future. This is an often-made mistake because writing often starts before all the research is complete, so at the time of writing sentences like ‘questionnaires will be distributed’ make sense. However, always try to imagine how this will sound from the perspective of the reader who is reading your essay when everything is complete.

3)         Always tell the reader where to find things – don’t just say ‘in the appendices’ or ‘discussed later’ give them page reference. This is especially important in dissertation length essays or documents with very long appendices, as it is very frustrating as a reader to not be immediately able to find what you’re looking for.

4)         Abbreviations cause a whole host of problems. First, make sure that you define your abbreviations! Check through the document to make sure it is the very first use of the abbreviation that has the definition – don’t leave it to a later sentence when the reader may already be confused. Also make sure your abbreviations are consistent and properly capitalised (many abbreviations such as PhD contain both upper and lower case characters). If you have created an abbreviation yourself make sure you use it to mean only one thing, e.g. one student used ‘VM’ to mean both Visual MerchandisING and Visual MerchandisER, – as one was a job title and the other the description of a process, the abbreviation ‘VM’ should have been used for one or the other, not both.


1)         Harvard references should always have page numbers as well as dates (Smith 1988:12). The exception to this is if you are referring to the entire subject of a book or article, rather than a specific section of the text, in this case, only the date is used, e.g. ‘there have been multiple texts on the evolution of the species (Dawkins 2009, Ridley 2006)’ – as you can see from this example, this is a good way to reference multiple texts which have a common theme.

2)         For both Oxford and Harvard references make sure you have the place of publishing, as well as the name of the publishing house, e.g. Oxford: Blackwell

3)         For Oxford references, if you have a footnote for a reference and the one immediately after it would be an identical reference, it is ok to write the word ‘ibid’ after the reference number. This is Latin for ‘as above’ and means you can avoid unnecessary repetition.

4)         It is a common academic practice to put a web address between these symbols <> like this: <> this distinguishes the web address from the rest of the reference and makes it easier to see.

Please keep following this blog for more useful hints – or even better comment on my entries – I am always willing to help and am happy to elaborate on anything you don’t feel is clearly explained. I am also very happy to answer individual questions, or to create entries based on questions asked.


Author: Liz

Hi, I'm Liz. I like easy crafts, photography, cooking, lifestyle blogs and YouTube videos. I work as a part-time proofreader and am currently studying for a PhD in linguistics.

One thought on “Tips and Tricks 7: Common problems and how to solve them

  1. Pingback: Common Problems and How to Solve Them: 2 « Academic Tips and Tricks

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