12 common essay writing mistakes you’re still making

In my 13 years of teaching at university, I have graded thousands of essays. And in that time, I have seen students make the same mistakes over and over again (sometimes even when I know I’ve already taught them how to do it properly in a tute!)

Some of the commonly made mistakes are things that are tricky to learn, and that’s why it takes students a while to get it right—referencing, for example. But some mistakes are just made because no one has told the student the correct rule. The purpose of this article is to help students to learn the correct rules, and not make the same mistakes as their peers!

I’ve taught in the areas of history, politics, English, Creative Writing, and academic learning and writing. So the advice contained in this article is mainly aimed at students in Humanities and Social Sciences, though some of it will be useful for students outside these fields.

Titles and Names in Your Essay

The titles of book chapters and journal articles go in quotation marks: ‘The Guile of Delium’. But the titles of books and journals go in italics: Soldiers and GhostsJournal of Military History.

The first time you mention a person or an author, use their full name. For all subsequent references, just use their family name. In some disciplines, you might only ever use the family name.

Common Grammar Mistakes

Plurals and Possessives

Generally, form a plural by adding an ‘s’ or ‘es’: One soldier, two soldiers / one box, two boxes.

Form a possessive by adding a possessive apostrophe and an ‘s’: The soldier’s firearm (belonging to one soldier).

Form a possessive for a plural noun by just adding a possessive apostrophe at the end: The soldiers’ firearms (belonging to more than one soldier).

You’d be surprised how often students make mistakes in relation to those simple rules! For more information on apostrophes, please read our article ‘Using Apostrophes to Indicate Possession’.

‘Quote’ and ‘Quotation’

The word ‘quote’ is a verb, the word ‘quotation’ is a noun. So, you refer to the ‘quotation’ by the Duke of Wellington, not the ‘quote’ by the Duke of Wellington.

British/Australian English

Use Australian spelling (British/Australian English), rather than American. For example, ‘realise’ instead of ‘realize’. Australian spelling uses the ‘s’ endings, not the ‘z’ endings. For more examples of spelling differences, see our article on the topic.

British/Australian English uses ‘these’ single quotation marks in documents, and only uses double quotation marks ‘when “quoting” within a quotation’. It is American English that does the opposite.


Don’t use full stops in abbreviations: use USA and NATO, not U.S.A. or N.A.T.O.


Don’t use contractions, such as ‘can’t’, ‘don’t,’ or ‘won’t’, in an academic essay. Formal essays require formal language, so you must write words out in full: ‘cannot’, ‘do not’, ‘will not’, etc.

Essay Structure

Topic sentences go at the beginning of each paragraph in which you are about to discuss a new topic (not at the end of the previous paragraph).

Spell Check and Final Proofread

Don’t forget to use Word’s spelling and grammar check but also make sure you carefully proofread your work. There should be no spelling or typing errors in the final draft of your essay, because this indicates to your tutor or lecturer that you haven’t taken the proper time or care to complete your essay.

This article is just a very basic overview to the most common errors made by students. Please read the other articles in this category for more in-depth advice on academic writing!

If you need any further assistance, you can read more about our professional editing service. Capstone Editing is always here to help.

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