Rookie Mistakes and Professorial Pet Peeves
Dr. Elizabeth Baughan says: "A consistent problem I meet among all levels of writers, in both my art/archaeology and language courses, is a lack of specificity when referring to comparative examples. For instance, many students make general statements like, 'This motif was common in Archaic art,' without pointing to a specific example of the motif. I often write in the margin: 'Use specific examples to support the general statements you make.' The backbone of ancient art history is comparative analysis, but this is only persuasive or effective when specific comparative examples are adduced."
How to avoid this pet peeve? Obviously, be specific! Have a specific thesis instead of a general one. This means talking about Penelope as the ideal wife in Homer's The Odyssey, not women in Classical literature. From there, use specific examples with carefully chosen quotes and criticisms. A good paper does not broadly talk about a huge subject; it delves deep into a specific issue. Think of a good thesis, and then tackle it. A narrow focus will allow you to think critically, form new analyses and ideas, and hopefully even impress your professors!
Given their frequency, it is not surprising that a myriad of problems arise when students quote. The problems that seem to crop up most in Classics papers may be broken into three categories.
Look to the section on Integrating and Citing Quotes for more suggestions.
While it is often difficult to tell a good introduction from a bad one, you can easily avoid what Professor Stevenson calls the "clearing the throat" paragraph and what Professor Simpson refers to as the "grand introduction" that's miles away from the topic. Avoid starting your paper with sweeping generalizations about the time period, and remember that your audience, i.e. your professor, knows, for example, that Catullus is a Roman poet.
Your introduction should get as quickly as possible to your main argument. By attempting to sound overly-intellectual and rehashing basic information, you show contempt for your audience. Respect your professor's time and make the effort to formulate your thoughts before you begin your introduction. Some simple pre-planning will allow you to cut right to the chase and avoid alienating your reader.
Your professor knows that you are an undergraduate. He or she knows that you do not yet have the knowledge to write a definitive piece of work on your topic, and you must remember this as well. It is very tempting to make bold statements of opinion-worded-as-fact. However, you do not want to exceed your own authority. Do not make statements that imply you have read all works of classical literature or know about every Senator in Roman History. These declarations actually weaken your paper because you are claiming knowledge your reader knows you do not possess.
A simple way to correct this mistake is the insertion of qualifiers to your claims. Using phrases like "it may be that" and "it is possible" do not weaken your paper. You are just being fair to what you actually know and admitting the limits of your knowledge.
A word of advice from us to you: just because you're in college, writing a paper about a poem that was written 2400 years ago doesn't mean that you need to fluff up your paper with stiff, overly-academic prose. Dr. Carole Newlands, professor of Classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says that "students often think that writing an 'academic' paper means writing stilted jargon. No. The best papers are clearly articulated. That doesn't mean using slang, just good, clear English."
When writing a paper, KISS. (That's Keep It Simple, Student, in case you were wondering.) Obviously, abide by the customs of formal writing (no contractions, no colloquialisms, no inappropriate uses of the second person), but don't overreach and lose your own voice while attempting to sound more "academic." Here's a simple rule to follow--if you found a word via a thesaurus and have never used it before, don't. Your reader can always tell when you don't know what you're saying. Keep it simple!
A problem Dr. Elizabeth Baughan finds with her writers is "a reluctance to read paper guidelines thoroughly and use the approach and/or resources I outline there. If I recommend going to a particular database and looking for particular information, that means that the 'A' papers will have done that!" This pet peeve is so easy to avoid--follow your professor's directions! While researching and writing a paper, you should always have the prompt on hand. Take note of what your professor is looking for--a survey, research, analysis, a specific number of examples, a certain source, secondary or primary sources--and make sure that your final draft includes all of those "suggestions."
While this suggestion may seem trivial when compared to the others in this section, it again has its roots in the respect you must show for your reader/professor. Since you don't, as we've said above, know everything about all classical literature, it seems easier to just say "et cetera" or "and so forth" at the end of any list of examples. But by inserting "etc." into your paper, you are essentially asking your reader to do the work you as a writer and researcher should have done. Your job as a writer is to fill-in-the-blanks for your reader, not send them on a hunt for information on their own.