Ask any veteran student what the worst part of an assignment is and they will invariably respond, “Referencing,” with a look of conditioned despair. Because it is, by nature, tedious and not at all interesting, many students lose marks for doing a half-arsed job of referencing. Yes, I am guilty of it as well. Thing is, I know how to fix it. It’s a matter of getting into good habits.

I’m not going to tell you how to reference; your course description has all the information on what style is expected and where to find a style guide to help you get it right (Moodle has a really useful link as well). My advice here is to follow the style guide. They will usually give you the formula for how to reference each type of source, and an example to go with it. I find the examples more helpful than looking at the formulae, but that’s me.

My practical advice for easy referencing is to have your bibliography/source list/works cited on a separate document to your essay. Doing this helps you to see how many (or how few) sources you have, and allows for changes to be made without affecting the essay. When you’re done with the essay, add a new page, copy and paste the bibliography onto it. Too easy.

A final slice of advice-cake with easy-mark icing: vary your sources. Having two academic journals and as many websites might get the job done, but your lecturer will be seriously excited to see documentaries, interviews and radio broadcasts being sourced and quoted. Really, this is what gets lecturers going. Even if you only quote a source once or twice, make them happy, and the marks will roll in.

Unless, of course, your essay still sucks. I’ve already spoken about answering the question, but if your essay has poor form, you’re still not going to see those Credits turn into High Distinctions.

A few of us were taught how to write essays with things like the TEEL formula (Topic Sentence, Evidence, Explanation, Link) or a hamburger model. Whatever way you were taught, you should write a balanced essay. When I say balanced, I mean you should write an essay that looks at both sides of the question. The way to do this for an essay is, when looking at the question, answering it with, “Yes, but…”, or, “No, although…”. My point here is you should be considering, and writing, both sides of the argument. Just like an argument, there are two sides to every solar panel, and while one is going to be more useful than the other, you still need to have both.

If I’m honest, I still loosely follow the TEEL model. I want to stress loosely. Often I start with the linking sentence, just for fun. Or have a linking paragraph rather than a sentence. I might follow my topic sentence (which is the main point of a paragraph, for those who are confused) with an explanation of what it means, before throwing in the evidence to prove my point. You are allowed to mess with these models. Think of them more as (very) general guides, rather than rigid formulae.

That brings me to another qualm: ever been reading through an academic journal article (especially older journals) and come across a page that is completely filled with one paragraph? No breaks, no spaces, nothing but a solid rectangle of text. Discouraging, isn’t it? Makes you feel like you don’t want to read any more, yeah? That’s how your lecturers feel when you make your paragraphs too long.

A paragraph should contain ideas (sentences) that are tightly grouped together. If the link between one sentence and the next isn’t super tight, start a new paragraph. Even if that paragraph will only run for two or three lines. Better to give whoever marks your work a break than to lose marks for having a page without breaks. Sounds strange, but a good-looking essay is as important as a well-written one. That doesn’t mean type it in Comic Sans. Comic Sans is never okay.

Words by S. Hooley