The top 5 writing mistakes you’re probably making

Via Flickr user tonyhall.

Via Flickr user tonyhall.

Ever since high school, friends have sought out my editing skills.

I’ve gotten emails and calls asking me to edit research papers and essays. Besides the chance to help a friend, I enjoy reading other people’s work and trying to make it better.

Maybe that’s why I now work as an editor.

But after editing for almost a decade in both academic and journalistic settings, I see many of the same mistakes over and over from both college students and reporters alike.

I can’t edit everyone’s work, but I can tell you what you’re probably doing wrong. Here are the top five mistakes I see people make in writing.

  1. Not double-checking spelling. You look unintelligent when you misspell the name of the book or movie character that you’re critiquing.
  2. Failing to explain your point. If you write one sentence introducing a topic or argument, you have to expound on that thought. You can’t mention it once and never again.
  3. Not removing passive verbs. Press CTRL+F (or command+F on a Mac) and find the passive verbs. That means find every “is,” “was,” “has,” “had,” and “been.” Highlight them, and try to get rid of as many of them as possible. Active verbs make for stronger writing. Take this sentence: “My mailman was bitten by my dog, and he had to go to the hospital.” By taking out the passive verbs, it becomes, “My dog bit my mailman, who I took to the hospital.” It’s shorter, more to the point, and sounds better.
  4. Not using commas correctly. You won’t believe how many people don’t use commas in the middle of clauses. For instance, “When my mom goes to the store she always buys milk.” There should be a comma in between “store” and “she.” If you said that sentence aloud, that’s where you would put a pause. Why wouldn’t you put in a comma, the writing equivalent of a pause?
  5. Neglecting to read over your work. This is the biggest piece of advice that I have: Read your work an hour after you complete it. I know that when you finish writing that 15-page essay, you think it’s gold. Who wouldn’t want to read my paper about a snail’s diet? But I assure you there are mistakes. I can tell when you haven’t read over your work — and so can your professor, editor, or whoever else is reading it. Walk away from your writing for an hour, and then come back and proofread it. With your mind in a clearer state, you’ll catch many of the mistakes you missed before.
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8 comments
  1. When I was a writing tutor, I often found the ESL students had better grammar skills than the native speaking students, but that was because ESL students had to take an ESL class where they had the basics pounded into them.

    • I’ve found the same thing. When I proofread the work of people who aren’t native speakers, they are usually more careful.

      • I loved to look at their writing though because they often showed such dramatic improvement and it was always a joy being a part of that. Not only that, but their confidence in themselves skyrocketed.

  2. Should be: “My dog bit my mailman, WHOM I took to the hospital.”

    And pause = comma is a dangerous myth.

    🙂

    • Pause doesn’t equal comma. I began explaining in this post why you should put a comma, but it got complicated with clauses and such.

  3. Jason said:

    Woo! My girlfriend and I both are spelling and grammar Nazis. 🙂 We love this post.

  4. Johannes said:

    The plural of comma isn’t “commas” but “commata”.

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