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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Clean it up. Read back through your writing to prune out excess verbiage and root out punctuation and word-usage problems.
- Do not rely on spell-check. Auto-correcting programs will insert errors or leave wrong words.
- Don’t be vague or wordy. Root out unclear verbiage and replace it with short, clear sentences.
- 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.