Common Writing Mistakes – a Cheat Sheet

grammar

I have compiled a list of common writing mistakes. I pulled these particular mistakes from an open-form class assignment, but I have seen many of these issues in several kinds of writing, and beginning writers often have to fight to keep these errors out of their work.

Punctuation

punctuation meme

Formatting Dialogue

  1. Each speaker gets her own paragraph, and a return, and an indent. I can’t do this correctly in this blog, but you can do it in Word.
  2. In American English, punctuation goes inside the quotes.
  3. Punctuation tags (he said, she replied, I asked) are linked by a comma, not a period.

Example: Hey there have you seen my car keys Sarah asked. No Maddie said I have no idea where your keys are.  If you see them let me know Sarah said looking worried. Absolutely Maddie said with a tone of concern.

Overlooking that this is bad writing, note that the correct way to format this follows the three rules above:

“Hey there, have you seen my car keys?” Sarah asked.

“No,” Maddie said. “I have no idea where your keys are.

“If you see them, let me know,” Sarah said, looking worried.

“Absolutely,” Maddie replied, with a tone of concern.

The Dreaded Comma

Commas exist to guide the reader through a sentence and prevent misreading. Some people use them freely, even indiscriminately, to mark wherever they would naturally pause in speaking, but this is not correct. These are two common crimes of omission I noticed in our group:

1. Not using a comma when using a conjunction to join two sentence. Remember the FANBOYS coordinate conjunction acronym. For, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Use a comma when you use these conjunction words to join two sentences.

This is correct: It is important to eat breakfast, but what you choose to eat for breakfast is also important.

This is incorrect: Bacon, and eggs are my favorite breakfast foods. And, but, and or do not need comas.

A note about lists. Bacon, eggs, and toast are my favorite breakfast foods.  This is correct, for the comma is used here to separate three or more elements in a series. I will refrain from talking about the Oxford comma, but here is a link if you want to read about it. If you want to know my grammatical political leanings, I am an unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma.

2. Not using a comma when you introduce the main part of a sentence with a transitional work (First, a little later, suddenly, meanwhile, at the same time…).

This is correct: First, listen to your mother.

I noticed rampant pocking of papers with commas when they were not needed, such as joining two perfectly fine solo sentences together.

This is incorrect: I practically fell over, I was literally bored out of my mind.  Each of these sentences are fine on their own.

For a more comprehensive tutorial on the comma, click here.  I urge you all to study this before turning in your final drafts.

semicolon

For more on semicolons, go here:

Apostrophe

apostrophe

Please go to this link if you have ever had any question on how and when to use apostrophes correctly.

Transition Words

You need them to orient your reader. Your readers should not have to work to know where in time they are. Your readers should never have to go back and re-read something you wrote because it wasn’t clear. Here are some transition words that work:

first

a little later

finally

three hours later

meanwhile

although

suddenly

Active Voice/Passive Voice

A passive verb tense can turn any piece of writing into a  tepid piece of lily-livered fog. Passive verbs suck the energy out of otherwise good writing. Passive voice kills opportunity for action, it convoluted logical progression of chronology, and it sucks the joy from your readers.  Simple example here:

The mailman was bit by the dog (passive).

My dog bit the mailman (active).

It’s not always bad. It’s just usually bad. There are times when you can use it, such as in journalism when you are reporting an action but you don’t know the identity of the person performing the action, but for the most part, stay hyper-vigilant about keeping it out of your work. Your future professors will thank you, and you can thank me. For a sweet little discussion on active vs. passive voice, check out this link here.

Overwriting

overwriting

It is common for new-ish writers to feel that they should avoid simple-speak and write elaborate, detail-soaked prose at all times. Why write a five-word sentence when you can write a thirty-word sentence?

I walked across the room and picked up my poodle.

Uh-oh. What if that is too simple? Too dull? I’d better add some detail.

I walked angrily across the room, snatching my poodle quickly off of the table.

Hmm, perhaps that is not conveying the emotion clearly. I should expand it.

I walked angrily across the sun-speckled floor of the dirt-riddled vet’s office, glaring at the vet tech and the medical instruments that littered the groaning counter tops as I snatched up my inky black female toy poodle from the cold, sterile, metal examination table that had stood in that very spot for years.

Is it descriptive? Yes. Is it full of concrete words? Yes. It it overwritten? Absolutely. Sometimes a simple sentence is a better choice, especially when mirrored against other sentence around it in the same paragraph. If you want to improve your skill in this area, read a lot. Write a lot. Practice.

Specificity

Writing instructors often tell their students to “show, don’t tell.” Readers respond better to a piece of writing when they are shown the scene, not told about how the scene made the writer feel.

My grandfather was the one in my life who showed me how to live fearlessly. By living fearlessly, I have been able to face my fears in life, and not be afraid of them. I am so grateful to my grandfather for teaching me how to live a fearless life.

Cool idea. Not a single concrete thing in there, except for the fact that we know the writer has a grandfather. What does living fearlessly look like? How does this writer live fearlessly now? What are the lessons that the writer’s grandfather gave him to teach him about facing our ignoring fear. What did the grandfather do to illustrate this?

Be specific, but don’t overwrite.

Verb Tense

verb tense

I often see writers start off using a particular verb tense, and then slip into another one without meaning to. It’s easy to do. The best way to check this is to go over each sentence to assure that your verbs stay in the same tense. Then you can check it twice by reading your work out loud.

Here is an example:

I woke up early and decided that today would be the day that I would make the dreaded phone call. I hated to do it, but I knew that it was necessary. I locked myself in the bathroom with my cellphone, determined to not come out until I made the call. When I pick up the phone, my hand is shaking. I dial the number. 

See the switch here? This is a colossal no-no in writing and the only way to fix it is to go over your writing carefully, looking at each verb tense.

Here is a delightfully simple page on English language verb tenses here. I recommend going over it.

Staying Concrete

Like we talked about in class, try to keep your words low on the scale of abstraction. Readers struggle to connect to grandiose, universal phrases. As writers, we want our readers to be able to visualize what we are writing about. We want to give them an experience. It is hard to do that when we use words like this:

Then I had the idea. The frightening idea. The most horrifying idea I could ever imagine in my whole entire life. 

My goodness, would you please just tell me what the idea is? What is the idea? What is frightening about it? How does it horrify you?

Here is a paragraph from Ray Bradbury’s novel, Farewell Summer, in which a group of boys look inside the display window of a candy shop. Note how well the concrete words work here:

“Inside, honey lay sheathed in warm African chocolate. Plunged and captured in the amber treasure lay fresh Brazil nuts, almonds, and glazed clusters of snowy coconut. June butter and August wheat were clothed in dark sugars. All were crinkled in folded tin foil, then wrapped in red and blue papers that told the weight, ingredients, and manufacturer. In bright bouquets the candies lay, caramels to glue the teeth, licorice to blacken the heart, chewy wax bottles filled with sickening mint and strawberry sap, Tootsie Rolls to hold like cigars, red-tipped chalk-mint cigarettes for chill mornings when your breath smoked on the air.
The boys, in the middle of the shop, saw diamonds to crunch, fabulous liquors to swig. Persimmon-colored pop bottles swam, clinking softly, in the Nile waters of the refrigerated box, its water cold enough to cut your skin. Above, on glass shelves, lay cord-wood piles of gingersnaps, macaroons, chocolate bits, vanilla wafers shaped like moons, and marshmallow dips, white surprises under black masquerades. All of this to coat the tongue, plaster the palate.”

Varying Sentence Structure and Length

It is easy to get into a pattern when the words start rolling off the pen, or off your fingertips,  and sentence begin to resemble each other. When you are writing a rough draft, it is okay, but when you are revising, think about your sentence structure in terms of each sentence within a single paragraph. You don’t want all of them to be the same length or cadence. You don’t want them all to begin with a certain verb tense (I woke up early. I got out of bed. I walked to the toilet and used it. I shuffled downstairs to the kitchen. I prepared a pot of coffee. I cooked breakfast…etc.). Good writing offers readers a variety of sentence lengths and styles, often within a single paragraph. A short, sharp sentence packs a wallop when it is next to longer, more flowery sentences.

Purdue Owl has some good examples of how to revise this kind of issue. Please go over this.

Avoiding “Meh” Words and Phrases

I was very tired. I was so tired. I was really tired. I was extremely tired. There are hundred better ways to use language to evoke an emotion than using these vague words. If worse comes to worse, simply write, I was tired. Use a well-placed idea after that short sentence to illustrate how tired you were.

Here are a few more:

very, so, really, extremely, absolutely, entirely, always, literally, basically, honestly, amazing, stuff, irregardless….

If you are going to use “so,” make it pack a punch. Use it to illustrate or even exaggerate: I was so tired I was in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. I was so tired that I imagined curling up by the fry machine during my shift. I was so tired that I collapsed on my bed as if I had been shot.

Here are some helpful links that list some of these “meh” words. Strike them from your writing whenever possible and your writing will be more dynamic.

http://boostblogtraffic.com/weak-writing/

http://www.laurenspieller.com/2013/06/16/words-to-eliminate-from-your-writing/

Good writing takes practice. Practice is painful, but it makes you a better thinker, and a better writer. Keep at it.

hemingway_meme

 

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