7 Simple Fixes for the Writing Mistakes that Brand You an Amateur

Carol Tice

Businesswoman struggling to write presentation Often, writers ask me if I can recommend a course for improving your writing. Most of the ones I’ve seen are pretty pricey.

It seems like few writers want to use the method I employed to improve my writing — writing at least three articles a week on deadline for 12 years.

Fortunately, I’ve found a shortcut.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with writing professor Ben Yagoda, who’s put out a new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

In decades of teaching writing students, Yagoda finds the same writing errors occur over and over.

What are we doing wrong? Here’s a look at his ‘hit list’ of common writing errors:

  • Word repetition. Yagoda says this is the comment he writes most often on school papers. We all have little words we tend to overuse — mine’s “really” — so be on the lookout and cut them out.
  • Cut that out. Hunt and kill filler words such as “that.” If the sentence still makes sense without it, that’s a sign the word should go.
  • Extra prepositions. If your writing feels choppy, count the number of prepositions you’ve got in a sentence, and then try to cut the number nearly in half, Yagoda advises. Prepositions are a weak part of speech, and the more they clutter up the sentence, the duller it is to read.
  • Word use. There are a long list of these, such as affect/effect, like/such as, your/you’re, and whether it’s hearty or hardy, baby’s or babies. If you aren’t sure which it is, find out. These small gaffes tip off an editor that you’re not a pro.
  • Fake quotes. Quote marks have a way of popping up around phrases where they don’t belong, as in: Then it got “hot and heavy.” Remember, quotes belong around things people said.
  • Semicolons and parentheses. Particularly online, these punctuation marks don’t work very well. Sentences should be short, not strung together with semicolons, which many writers don’t even know how to use properly. “If you feel like using a semicolon,” Yagoda says, “lie down until the urge goes away.” And if you open a parenthetical phrase, be kind enough to remember to give us a closing parenthesis, too.
  • Comma confusion. You’d think we could master this simple piece of punctuation, but many writers will splice two sentences together with one, or insert commas where they don’t belong, sometimes changing the sentence’s meaning. Others omit commas where they’re needed. Apparently, relying on our gut instinct of when it feels right to use a comma isn’t working. Learn the rules — and when in doubt, ask an editor what their publication’s style demands.
  • Starting and ending sentences with prepositions. This is more acceptable than it used to be, particularly ending with a preposition, but don’t overuse. And if you start a sentence with a preposition like this one does, don’t put a comma after the initial preposition. That’s just silly.
  • Subject/verb disagreement. Remember, a singular noun needs a singular verb. Don’t let modifying clauses confuse you. You can’t say, “A bucket of worms were on top of the bench.”
  • Identity crisis. If you’re using a pronoun such as “he,” make sure there aren’t two men in the sentence and a confusion about which one you mean.
  • Misplaced modifiers. A favorite of mine from high school English is, “Running down the hall, my jacket caught on a locker.” Your jacket didn’t run down the hall by itself, so don’t do this.
  • Random capitalization. This is a particular plague in business writing, where marketers tend to start writing that they are Director of the Logistics Division. Of course, random all-caps words online denote yelling, though not everyone seems to know it.
  • Bold/underline/italics. These are overused by writers too lazy to build the emphasis into their prose. Yagoda’s rule is not to use bold unless it’s a heading. When you write online, be particularly aware that underline usually denotes a clickable link. Don’t use it for anything else — you’ll just confuse your readers.

Fixing the problems

How can you correct your bad writing habits? These writing gaffes are preventable if you follow these simple steps:

  1. Read. The more we read magazines, books, and newspapers, the more we intuitively soak up nuances of the language. You can iron out a lot of your writing errors fairly painlessly this way.
  2. Read it aloud. So many problems come to light when you read your own work out loud. Do you have to take a breath in the middle of a sentence? It’s probably too long.
  3. Look it up. If you aren’t sure whether you should be using affect or effect in a sentence, look up the definitions. Don’t be lazy.
  4. Clean it up. Read back through your writing to prune out excess verbiage and root out punctuation and word-usage problems.
  5. Do not rely on spell-check. Auto-correcting programs will insert errors or leave wrong words.
  6. Don’t be vague or wordy. Root out unclear verbiage and replace it with short, clear sentences.
  7. Use a style guide. Not sure if you should be writing the state name out or using an abbreviation, or whether to spell out ‘percent’? The Associated Press Stylebook is the most common for newspapers and magazines, while Chicago Manual of Style is the go-to for books.

What’s your pet peeve in writing? Leave a comment and add to this list.

Freelance Writers Den

80 Comments

  1. Mark Hoult

    I dislike sentences which run on, such as:

    “She picked up her hat, the one she had bought at the Spring Fair, which always took place on the field behind the village green, often to the sound of children playing in the background, enjoying the freedom given to them by the school holidays, which were now so much shorter than when she was a girl, growing up in the nearest town, raised by her father, who had been laid off by the armaments factory following the end of the war, which had been started by Hitler……….”

  2. Graham Commandeer

    I tend to use Microsoft Word as it has a spell check, although as it is American based some words are spelt different and their grammar can get a little odd

    Two things I have problems with, 1st: using it & is together example it’s but sometimes Word underlines that as wrong and this is suggested its

    2nd Quite often when I type a long sentence, instead of using comers or semi colons I use a hyponym dash like this – I expect this is a bad writing habit

  3. Kay

    I know this post is super old but my pet peeves are Errant Capitalization Syndrome and random quotation marks. I think people capitalize when they think something is important. I’ve seen “I told my Mom to come over” and things of that nature.

    A bit off topic but I’m also not a big fan of smileys. Online? OK. But if you’re emailing or in any kind of professional setting (work, school, etc) I think they make you look unprofessional and childish.

    I particularly can’t stand when men use them. It’s a huge turn off.

  4. Azwan

    I am not new to writing, but writing in English is very very new to me. Any tip is a good tip even though others may think otherwise. Thanks for the post.

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