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10 Common Mistakes That Make Your Essay Mediocre – And How To Avoid Them

10 Common Mistakes That Make Your Essay Mediocre – And How To Avoid Them

Common mistakes writingDo you ever wish you could write a flawless essay competition entry?

Well, it’s possible.

It’s not entirely easy but it can become effortless. The same way a child starts to walk or an adult masters a new language and speaks it without thinking.

I edit and critique essays for friends and students often and I see that most of them repeat some mistakes in common. The 2013 Naija Writers’ Coach Essay Competition afforded me an opportunity to skim over a hundred entries … and I discovered the popular mistakes I regularly encounter were made by many of the entrants.

If anything, these show that you probably are making these blunders too. Let’s examine them:

#1: Designing your essay

Preparing your entry for an essay competition isn’t an occasion for you to display your artistic proficiency. Using page border designs, drop cap, word art, a colourful cover page or font colours other than black should be avoided.

Instead, write a plain essay unblemished with fanciful colours and designs.

#2: Omitting to justify your texts

Ever seen an essay with the right margin appearing zigzag?

That’s what it means when a work isn’t justified. Such essays are difficult to read.

To fix this problem, just highlight the essay in MS Word with “Ctrl + A” and then justify with “Ctrl + J”.

#3: Using fanciful font types

This one makes my blood boil – that some entrants find it fanciful to use fonts like Algerian, Bradley Hand ITC, Freestyle Script, etc.

Using any of these impedes readability. If you burden the panel of judges to change the font type for you before your essay can be read, it’s fairly likely they won’t find it impressive.

The simple rule of thumb is to stick to Times New Roman, unless the essay contest guidelines require otherwise.

#4: Using inapt font sizes                                                              

This also pisses me off – that some writers use font sizes that are so big that only three words sit on a line … or so small that you can’t read without a microscope.

This also impedes readability.

The way out is to stick to font size 12 unless the organizers specify something else.

#5: Using single line spacing

The emphasis here – like for the last point – is on readability. I often encounter writers using single line spacing.

So unless it’s otherwise stated, the recommended line spacing is 2.0. You can set this by highlighting your work and pressing “Ctrl + 2”.

#6: Improper paragraphing

How do you think a 700-word essay written in just a single paragraph would be?

Unsightly, right? The texts would be jam-packed and clumsy. But that’s exactly what some writers do.

Reading on screen is dissimilar to reading a hard copy book.

Inserting adequate white space in your essay increases readability. This is the same reason why publications in soft copy like this piece you’re reading or ebook (not crappy ones) use short paragraphs.

#7: Using an opening salutation

I’ve seen essay entrants – especially where the topic is an argumentative one – start with something like:

Good day Mr. Chairman,

Honourable Panel of Judges,

Accurate Time Keeper,


Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

Did I hear you giggle? I often do too.

Avoid such in your essays, period.

#8: Appreciation and dedication

Your entry for an essay competition isn’t a book or an undergraduate project. It’s no avenue for you to express gratitude to your parents or the essay organizers. Neither should you dedicate the entry to your mentor.

If you must do either of this, do so in your mind or at the award ceremony if you win the contest.

#9: Writing a wrong topic

When I was to be quizzed by the panel of judges after the defense of my entry for the 2012 CIPMN Essay Competition, the first question put to me was, “What’s the topic of the competition?”

I’m sure I would have been penalized if I couldn’t reproduce it verbatim. When you’re writing the essay topic on your entry, “Does the Nigerian education system prepare students for the work environment?” isn’t the same with “Does Nigeria education system prepares student for the work environments?”

If you’ve not noticed, there are five conspicuous differences between both.

#10: Exceeding the word count

If the maximum word count specified is 500, it’s for real.

Write 501 words and risk disqualification. Or if you’re lucky, you may merely be penalized with deduction of some marks.

Whichever will be the consequence, I’m sure you’re not ready for it. One mark can decide who comes first and who gets a consolation prize.

What do you think?

Which of these mistakes do you make or see other writers make? Drop your comments and let’s get talking.

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About Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin

Writer. Difference Maker. Entrepreneur. Author, Your Right To Write & Vertical Writing. Winner, 11 Writing Prizes.


  1. That gratitude to mentor, family and what not, is more common with writer’s these days. The art work thing too is a bit juvenile. I am really puzzled at some of these revelations. But, hey it is why we are human, to err and to correct, isn’t it?

  2. Tohir Olaitan says:

    How has been your days sir? Please, I need to be clear on whether someone can observe the protocol or not in a written arguematative essay

  3. Moshood says:

    Thank you for this write-up but on the issue of wordcount; if an essay requires 500 words maximum, does it include the reference. As in, are the references quoted at the end of an essay part of the wordcount?

    Secondly, how can one genuinely know the “exact” wordcount of his/her essay because if I manually count mine, what I get is usually different from that which I get when I use online wordcounting tools which is in turn different from what I get when I use the Microsoft Word wordcounting tool.

    • Moshood,

      The reference does not matter for counting the total words, except where the essay contest organizers state otherwise. However, to be safe, what I recommend is that you should indicate the total word count on the title page where you have your personal details and state it that you haven’t counted the references. For instance, “Word count: 489 words (excluding the title page and references)”.

      I suppose MS Word doesn’t tell lies. I think you can just rely on what it says.

  4. Hahahaha@salutation and dedication.i see a lot of these mistakes but usually,the writer's fanciness is simply an attempt at hiding the tackiness of the essay.

  5. I agree with you. If the writer has much value to give the judges, he wouldn't embark on a frolic of dedicating his entry.

  6. Amatanweze kingsley says:

    Some of the mistakes sound quite unbelieveable. But hey! Anything is possible in the act of writting. But I won’t leave to mention that i was also guided in some aspect. Meanwhile I am saving the page right away and Kudos to M.A.T.

  7. Ajani Joel says:

    I must commend your effort for your post on this site. I have learnt to correct one mistake of designing the cover page. May God bless you. Pls i didn’t hear anything about the prizes for the ten shortlisted candidates.

    • Joel,

      Thanks! You’ll never make it again, I trust.

      I have sent ALL the prizes. Please check your spam folder for the books and software. If you can’t find them , shoot me an email and I’ll resend them.

  8. Ajani Joel says:

    I can’t find the software prize in both inbox and spam of my e-mail.

  9. Abolaji Oladayo MJ says:

    This is an eye opener. Though, I’ve not being to contest before, I just write at my leisure time for the fun of it. But this tips will surely go a long way in preparing me for any contest. Thanks Mr. Abdullahi (Oxygen).

  10. Zakariyah Olowo says:

    bro, to be candid this the first time I will read your writing tips here and I must confess, I join reading, keep it up. may Allah increase you in knowledge. could you believe that I never know that such mistakes exists

  11. An eye opener, I think.

  12. Noted, sir.

  13. Well,Sir,your piece was most enlightening and quite droll.I find it almost incredible that an essayist would make such blunders which could be avoided by sheer application of wit or minimal on-line research.I have never written for an essay competition before but i shall do so shortly,just to try my hands at the craft of course.I would reach you for tips if i find
    myself at my wits end.

    Wish me luck,Sir.Cheers.

  14. Y can’t i subscribe to get the e-book? Men i need it real quick.

  15. Naze Kelechi says:

    Mr Tosin,I must really commend you for deeming it fit to create this platform(known as the Naija Writers’ Coach) to serve as a training ground for prospective writer-soldiers,and enable them carve a niche for themselves.I wouldn’t want to be left out at all.So,I solicit for my inclusion in your veritable programme of unleasing the writing-genius inside.

  16. Mojisola Adebola says:

    SubhanAllah. #7 and #8 cracked me up. Jazakallahu Khayr.

  17. Mohammed, u’re a genius! I want to ask a question, is it wrong if I make a topic from the title of an essay?

    • Thanks, Solomon.

      First, I should state that topic/theme is the general focus or subject matter of the essay contest. Title is the personalized heading you give your essay. So, if you’ve not been given a title (as is the case most times), you’ll have to couch a suitable title from the given topic.

  18. Ajayi Motunrayo says:

    I am indeed very pleased to have read this, thanks for the insight. I really haven’t written any write-up, my friends tell me i can though. Regarding the CIPM essay contest is necessary to include the references in the essay? and what are personal information to be added? Hope to hear from you soon. Best Regards.

  19. #7- Using an open salutation
    Thanks for the tips

  20. Hamis abubakar says:

    Salam. Your probocative posts always come to me like an oasis in a desert… Pls keep the flag flying.

  21. Good one man. Keep this up.

  22. sean collins says:

    Thumbs up bro

  23. Charis Mokelu says:

    Grt piece there. Timeless. Question though. For d references and personal info, do they come on a seperate page at d end of an eassy or before?

  24. salam…I m quite impressed. I m a young writer and campus pressman. I got the info abt d GIC competition from here and I won it last year.
    I also prepared for the 2015 NCC essay Compt. but I guess the topic was typed wrongly on the page. I had gone so far and i couldn’t rectify it cause I got d right topic accidentally 2 days to deadline.
    Anyways…I just want to say that I appreciate the information and I m a dedicated fan! thanks…KIU!

  25. Ozemoya precious oshiozuwe says:

    Wow, your writes up are informative and educative. I have read almost all your posts. I just started by let me just check one but the moment i was through, i couldn’t help it i found myself surfing through the rest which lead to hours. The time was worth it as i was educated instead of wasting it on unproductive activities. Continue to make the youths proud.

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