Errors and penalties to avoid

Some of the more common errors to be found in students’ coursework are given below. All will detract from your performance, and can be avoided if you take time to think about what you are doing.

  • Misreading the question

This may sound obvious but can easily be done when you are working under pressure. Ensure you have checked the number and type of texts you are supposed to be writing about. Mistakes in answering the correct question will lose you marks.

  • Exceeding (or being significantly under) the word limit

Every item of coursework carries a specific word-limit which you must adhere to. See the previous section on Word counts and leeway.

  • Mistakes in syntax, spelling and punctuation

These will affect your marks in both coursework and exams. Use the spell and grammar checker on your computer. If you do not know how to use common punctuation marks (especially apostrophes, commas and semi-colons), find out.

If you know, or suspect, that you have dyslexia or another specific learning difficulty, and you have not consulted Academic Support in Student Services, do so as soon as possible. All writers have at least one persistent fault: e.g. individual words over-used or incorrectly used, sentences too long, etc. Get to know what your faults are, and check for them before you hand in your work.

  • Missing or incorrectly presented references or bibliography

Incorrect referencing will affect your marks and may be deemed a case of academic misconduct. See the section on References and Bibliography for more guidelines.

  • Use of the same material for more than one assignment

Material must not be substantially repeated either for different pieces of assessment within the same module (e.g. exam or coursework), or for different modules on your course, whichever School or department the module belongs to. However, in certain cases, and depending on the module, you are permitted to ‘develop’ one piece of assessment into another. If you are in any doubt on this point when choosing your topics, you should consult your module tutor.

Substantially repeated use of material can result in one or other piece of assessed work being awarded fewer or no marks.

  • Unintentionally using others’ words or ideas as your own

Unintentional or not, this is academic misconduct and may result in penalties being applied for plagiarism (see the sections below on Plagiarism and Using Other People’s Work). When taking notes – from lectures, handouts or other materials on Moodle or the web, as well as from books and journals – always keep a note of the author and full bibliographical details for the source and use quotation marks to indicate any specific quotations. Never make notes on secondary sources next to your own notes on primary texts so that there is no risk of confusing your own thoughts and ideas with those of others.

  • Failing to back up your work

If you lose your work or your computer fails and you do not have a back-up copy – at any stage of the writing process – you will not be able to claim extenuating circumstances and, if your work is late as a result, you will face the usual penalties for lateness.

Plagiarism (copied or derivative work)

If you are suspected of plagiarism, you will need to attend an Academic Misconduct meeting and could face penalties on your work and modules.



If your work is derivative (i.e. mainly based on other people’s ideas) it will not be awarded a good mark, notwithstanding the quality of the material or the fact that it is not actually plagiarized.

It is bad practice to make extensive, uncritical use of the arguments of others, even if you use quotation marks and acknowledge your sources. Your essay should not be simply a patchwork of critics’ opinions.

On the other hand, it is good essay practice to enter into an argument or discussion with the critics. Normally, a good literary essay will have a bibliography which lists the primary sources and a few pertinent critical works. A very long bibliography is not necessarily a sign of a good essay. Occasionally, it may be appropriate to write an essay without any consideration of what others have said about the topic; if you are in any doubt on this point you should consult your tutor.

Using other people’s work

There are three principles to bear in mind:

  • Do acknowledge other people’s words and
  • Do not reproduce ideas unquestioningly, even when you have acknowledged
  • Do use these ideas to help you develop arguments of your

Read the following, and make sure you understand the difference between good and bad practice.



Each of the four writing samples below makes a different use of Longley’s words and ideas above. Some are legitimate; some are not. Read them carefully.

Writing Sample 1

It is clear that the prototype developed by ‘The Tollund Man’ is a scapegoat, privileged victim and ultimately Christ-surrogate. Heaney alludes here to Catholic victims of sectarian murder.

There are no quotation marks and no footnote supplied. This is plagiarism.

If your essay contains this kind of appropriation of someone else’s words, you will be found guilty of plagiarism and subject to the University’s Academic Offences Policy and procedures.

 Writing Sample 2

In ‘The Tollund Man’, Heaney makes reference to Catholic victims of violence, and presents the body as a scapegoat or a Christ-like figure.

There is no acknowledgment or footnote here. The re-phrasing does not alter the fact that the original writer’s ideas have been used without acknowledgement. This is, therefore, also plagiarism.

Writing Sample 3

Edna Longley describes the Tollund Man as ‘a scapegoat’ and ultimately a ‘Christ-surrogate, whose death might redeem, or symbolize redemption for’ more contemporary ‘victims of sectarian murder’. 1

[Accompanied by a footnote (1) giving full details of the source.]

This is a legitimate use of Longley’s work and uses appropriate referencing. If you do not add to it, however, your essay will be derivative and will not gain very good marks. Try to develop the critic’s material with some independent thought. Do you agree with the critic? If not, can you say why not, and provide evidence from the text? If you do agree, can you think of another aspect of Heaney’s work, or that of another writer on the module, to which you could apply Longley’s idea?

Writing Sample 4

While critics have frequently noted the connection between religion and violence in Heaney’s poetry, the extent to which he frequently distinguishes ‘religion’ from ‘sectarianism’ is often overlooked.1 [Footnote cites Longley’s work with full details.]

This is also a legitimate and appropriate use of critical material to establish a context for your own discussion of a related, but different, point. Writing like this requires some confidence in your own abilities and judgement, but with practice you should develop this.



Independent research

For most modules, there will be a reading list to follow. However, certain modules and dissertations will also require you to find books and articles yourself on a chosen topic. One of the simplest ways to start is by taking a book or article on the topic which you find important, and follow up the bibliography or references. If you find that several authors are mentioning a particular work, it is probably worth reading. Or you can strike out on your own, by using the ‘keyword’ searches in the various databases mentioned below.


To find a book in the library, go to the University of Nottingham Library Online Catalogue (UNLOC) and follow the instructions. You can search by author, title or keyword.


If you have an article’s bibliographic reference already, you need to search under the journal title, not the author’s name or article title. For example, if the reference is Fredric Jameson, ‘On Magic Realism in Film’. Critical Inquiry 12 (Winter 1986): 301-25, you need to search for Critical Inquiry. Some journals have abbreviated titles, such as ELH (English Literary History) or MLQ (Modern Language Quarterly).

Go to UNLOC and click ‘journals’. When you have found the journal and its location, keep a note of the article’s volume number or year when you search for it on the shelves. For the article above, you will need to find volume 12 of Critical Inquiry.

If the journal title says ‘[electronic resource]’ or ‘SFX’ after it on the catalogue, click there, and by inputting the volume number or author name in the search menu, you can see the article online. Sometimes you will be offered a choice of which electronic journal database you want to use (e.g. JSTOR, Project Muse). If one database is difficult to use, go back and try the other.

However, if you do not know exactly what article you are looking for, you will need to use one of the special article-finding indexes through the e-Library gateway.

You will need to sign in to the e-Library gateway using your University username and password.

From the ‘Find Database’ gateway, select the ‘Titles’ tab rather than ‘Subjects’, then search for the following databases:

  • The Arts and Humanities Citation Index (WoK)
  • The ABELL index – inside the Literature Online database
  • MLA International

Logging in to any of these databases allows you to search by keyword or topic. They will return a list of articles which have the author’s name, the title and the journal name, date and volume. When you have made a note of articles which look interesting, you then need to search by the journal title using UNLOC as before.

If you want to browse a full list of useful electronic databases in English, click on the ‘Subjects’ tab, then choose the category ‘Arts and Humanities’ and sub-category ‘English’.

Newspaper articles

Searching for newspaper articles (for example, recent book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement) follows the same procedure as for journal articles but uses different databases:

  • Palmer’s Index to the Times
  • Times Literary Supplement centenary archive (including full text)
  • The Guardian

Poems and short texts

If you are unsure of where to find a poem or short primary text, search using the Literature Online database within the ‘Find Database’ gateway of the e-Library Gateway. Literature Online is a full text, searchable database of most published works between 1450 and 1799, and has a very good selection of works thereafter, though it does not include some twentieth-century works still in copyright.

What if the library does not have what I need?

Search for the item using the combined national academic libraries catalogue. This is an almost comprehensive catalogue of the nation’s holdings, including the British Library, and it will show you what libraries have which books. Once you have found the item and its location, you can get hold of it in two ways:

  • use the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service to request the book from another library. This service can take a few weeks, so make sure it is what you All undergraduates require authorisation from academic staff before they can make interlibrary loan requests. Special forms and advice on using the service are available from lending desks; you will also need to pay £1.00 for each interlibrary loan request you make.
  • go and find the book yourself. Your Nottingham library card entitles you to read during the vacations at most UK academic libraries (and often librarians will let you in during term-time, too). Especially if you live nearby, this can be a very effective way of getting important reading done in peace and

Students doing dissertations may occasionally need to consult material in the British Library or other copyright libraries (the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Cambridge University Library, and the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland). These libraries have their own entry requirements and you should check their websites. Some may require a letter of authorisation from us, which we are happy to supply.

Frequently asked questions

Does the word-count for my assignment include quotations or footnotes?

Yes, it includes both. However, it does not include the bibliography/references list, headers and footers, the question/title-page, figures and tables or appendices.

How many poems/plays/examples do I need to include?

Where the title or question does not specify a number, decide in relation to the approach the essay requires. Are you going to examine a single text in great detail? Are you going to examine a theme or concern over a broad range of texts? Are the texts long or short? If you are asked to write on, for example, ‘a selection of poems’, some of these should be works not covered in detail in lectures or seminars – you need to develop your own ideas as well.

How many critics do I need to read?

Check the module bibliography for any critical reading described as essential. Read it. After that, aim to read several more critical works that are relevant to the question you have chosen. After that, you will eventually come up against the law of diminishing returns – read as much as you have time for. However much you read, make sure that you allow yourself time to digest and reflect on that reading, so that you can properly integrate it into your own developing argument for your essay.

Should my essay contain my own opinions or be entirely from critics?

This is a false dichotomy. You will, in almost all cases, be making use of critics’ ideas. You should be questioning these ideas and testing them against the evidence of the text, etc. Your own ideas, or ‘opinions’, are often the most interesting thing about your essay, but only when they have been developed and supported in a scholarly way, with reference to the text, its social/cultural/historical/theoretical context, and the opinions of others. If your ‘opinion’ can be reduced to ‘I do not like this text because it is boring/too long/not a novel’, do not include it.

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