Advice for students: Getting details right


According to a survey developed by OfficeTeam, 84% of executives polled consider one or two typos in a résumé sufficient to remove a job-candidate from consideration. One or two typos! Translated into academic terms, one or two typos in a paper would equal a failing grade.

I’m not sure how much I want to trust this poll: the number of executives polled is small, and “no typos” might be a rule that strictly applies only in some Platonic ideal (or nightmare) of a workplace. Still, this poll offers a cautionary reminder to college students thinking about their futures: the world beyond college is a tough place, with standards that are sometimes far more stringent than those of even the strictest professor. Here are a few details to get right, always, when you are writing for a college class. They might be details that no professor or teaching assistant will ever take time to comment on. But they are things to get right, even if no one seems to be watching:

Use one space after a period. Two spaces were the norm when everyone produced monospaced text with a typewriter. Using one space is a good way to show that you’re at home in print (where additional space after a period now looks like an unnecessary gap) and in html (where the second tap of the spacebar doesn’t register). If you were brought up with “two spaces” and find it a difficult rule to break, use search-and-replace in your word-processor to find and eliminate extra spaces.


Two hyphens equal an em dash. If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can get a proper em dash in your text by going to Tools, AutoCorrect Options, AutoFormat As You Type, and checking the box next to “Hyphens (–) with dash (—).” In, go to Tools, AutoCorrect, and check both boxes next to “Replace dashes.” In print, the em dash—a really useful mark of punctuation—does its work without additional spaces, as in this sentence. In html, proper dashes (like proper quotation marks) don’t display properly on all systems and sometimes make a mess of line length and word-wrap, so double-hyphens preceded and followed by spaces — like these — seem to be fine.

Take care with your title. Use the same point-size that you’re using in your essay (a jumbo-sized title looks silly). Type your title without quotation marks (unless the title includes a quotation), and don’t capitalize entire words. Capitalize articles, prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions only if they’re first or last words. Type the words of a quotation just as they appear in the source, adding an initial capital letter if necessary. If you need more than one line, break your title across the lines in a logical way. Not

“To be or not to be”: Hamlet’s Soliloquy and Modern


“To be or not to be”:
Hamlet’s Soliloquy and Modern Introspection

Take care with the titles of works you’re referencing. Titles of longer works that stand on their own — a long poem, for instance, or any book — should be underlined or italicized; titles of shorter works such as a short poem, a short story, or a song go in quotation marks: Homer’s Odyssey, Proust’s Swann’s Way, Blake’s “The Tyger,” Eudora Welty’s “Why Live at the P.O.,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” For more complicated title questions, consult a standard source (Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). One more small but important point: novel is not a synonym for book. The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, is not a novel. Swann’s Way is.


Take care with spelling proper names. If you’re writing about, say, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, add the author’s last name, properly spelled, to your AutoCorrect entries, so that you can have it appear by typing its first few letters. You especially don’t want a misspelling or typo in your professor’s name or your own name. (I’ve seen that happen several dozen times.)

Get in the habit of turning in work that’s finished by stapling the pages of an essay in the upper-left corner. Or use a paper clip if one is requested. Loose pages or folded-down corners suggest indifference toward your work and a lack of courtesy toward your reader.

Some professors and teaching assistants will not notice or correct these sorts of details. Others might notice and simply grumble. And some academics seem to enable carelessness in their students, even bringing a stapler to class when an essay is due. So why bother? By doing so, you cultivate a habit of careful attention that will serve you well in the world beyond the classroom.

Michael Leddy has published widely as a poet and critic. He blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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