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Common Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them: Part 1

Updated on February 3, 2017
NatashaL profile image

Natasha is a former English teacher who studied under the author of the A Beka English curriculum. She is also a freelance proofreader.

Why Worry about Writing?

In this fast-paced world of text messaging, instant messaging, and social media, writing often seems like a lost art—a throwback to the days of black and white television. Yet writing still has its place in school, the workplace, and among friends and family. We write term papers and essays for our classes. At work, we write business proposals and commission agreements. With family and friends, we write thank-you notes or communicate with relatives who aren't "connected."

Whether we want to believe it or not, others do form an impression of us based on our ability to write. A teacher resource I purchased included a list of commonly misspelled words, warning that parents might use misspelled words to call the teacher's competence into question.

Here, we'll go into some of the more common errors I've encountered in my time as an English teacher and as a scorer of ninth-grade standardized tests.

Effective writing often takes a lot of time and editing.
Effective writing often takes a lot of time and editing. | Source

Why Do We Have Trouble Writing Effectively?

In my search for freelance proofreading jobs, I was taken aback at the number of requests for freelancers to proofread university students' work. One English student wanted someone to proofread all her papers, lamenting that she had trouble with grammar. In other cases, masters' level students were looking for freelancers to write and format entire end-of-course papers for $25. Ethics aside, it's worrisome that so many college students have no idea how to properly write and format a paper.

This experience made me wonder, just why is writing so difficult for so many of us?

One problem is a lack of guidance. For example, my brother was frustrated in his freshman English class when he came home with the assignment "Submit a well-written paper." The problem was, neither this instructor nor the instructor in the previous semester had ever taught students how to write a college-level paper. Without knowing what constituted a "well-written paper," my brother understandably had trouble in that class. He ended up asking me to help him with all his writing assignments.

Another problem is a lack of practice. Because many of us are "connected" with social media and e-mail, we don't always need to write letters or other documents. Texting and Twitter often call for us to use creative abbreviations for words that would otherwise be spelled out. Without a need to write, most of us aren't going to write.

A problem I encountered as both a student and a teacher is a lack of understanding of basic grammar and mechanics. Although high-school juniors take the Test of Standard Written English and the SAT, the focus on grammar and mechanics switches to literature after elementary school. Although this focus on literature exposes students to excellent writing, it often fails to explain why this writing is excellent. When students aren't taught how to use semicolons and conjunctions, for example, they end up writing run-on sentences.

Those problems can be addressed. There is only so much, however, that can be done about a lack of interest. Granted, the often-taught process of writing, editing, and rewriting can be tedious. Further, the required topic may not interest the writer. In some cases, the topic may be sensitive for the writer, making it difficult to overcome the mental blocks.

Brevity: The Art of Being Concise

The Oxford English Dictionary defines brevity as "concise and exact use of words in writing or speech." In other words, brevity is using the fewest words necessary to convey your message effectively.

"Omit needless words!" was the mantra of William Strunk, Ivy League English professor and author of the definitive writing guide The Elements of Style. Professor Strunk, as many English teachers, loathed the habit of using more words than necessary to convey the point. Students often do it to "pad" their papers, but these extra words don't enhance the writing.

Even Polonius, a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, expresses the need to be brief: Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.

Brevity, Step 1: "Omit needless words."

"Omit needless words!" was the first piece of advice Strunk gave his students. As many English teachers would agree, "padding" writing with extra words only risks confusing the reader and burying the point.

Bruce Ross-Larson, author of Edit Yourself, describes needless words as "fat" that must be trimmed from our writing. One prevalent type of "fat" that plagues writers is circumlocution. The Oxford English Dictionary defines circumlocution as "the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive."

(click column header to sort results)
Instead of this  
Use this  
in the event that...
if...
I would appreciate it if...
Please...
at that point in time
then
at this point in time
now
all of a sudden
suddenly
in a joyful (or other adjective) manner
joyfully
in all seriousness
Don't use this.
for the sake of example
for example
do some research on
research
do a study of
study
It is necessary to...
We need to...
is able to
can
In light of the fact that...
Because...
The role of the Supreme Court is to interpret the law.
The Supreme Court interprets the law.

Concise vs. Redundant Writing

A Side Note About "Needless Words"

Although circumlocutions are prevalent in some business memos and correspondence, many writers also clutter their writing by being redundant. Redundant writing wastes both the writer's time and the reader's time because it unnecessarily repeats what has already been said.

Note that not all repetition should be avoided. Dr. Martin Luther King used parallel structure to great effect in his "I Have a Dream" speech. The problem is with the unnecessary repetition of words or ideas.

(click column header to sort results)
Instead of this...  
Use this...  
Explanation...  
ATM machine
ATM
ATM means "Automatic Teller Machine"
free gift
gift
By definition, a gift is free.
added bonus
bonus
By definition, a bonus is added.
6:00 A.M. in the morning
6:00 A.M. or 6:00 in the morning
A.M. means "before noon."
final result/outcome
result/outcome
By definition, a result or outcome is final.
general consensus of opinion
consensus
By definition, a consensus is a general opinion.
advance reservation
reservation
By definition, a reservation is made in advance.
red in color
red
Red is a color.
real facts/truth
facts/truth
By definition, facts and truth are real.
The reason is because...
The reason is,
Reason and cause are synonyms.
in close proximity
close
If something is in proximity, it's close.
exactly the same
the same
If two things are the same, they are alike.
first started
started
Started and first both imply a beginning.
the month of July
July
July is a month.
overexaggerate
exaggerate, overstate
Exaggerating is overstating.
baby kitten
kitten
A kitten is a baby cat.
Searching for the right words sometimes calls for consulting plenty of references.
Searching for the right words sometimes calls for consulting plenty of references. | Source

Other "Word Clutter"

Many times, writers can be more concise by using strong, vivid nouns and verbs, rather than tacking an adjective to a weak noun or an adverb to a weak verb. Note the following examples:

Verb-Adverb "Word Clutter"

(click column header to sort results)
Instead of  
Try  
ran quickly
rushed, scurried, bolted
said loudly
hollered, screamed, yelled, blared
said softly
whispered, murmured
walked slowly
ambled, plodded
threw forcefully
hurled
said rudely
snapped, bristled, sneered, huffed
ate fast
inhaled, devoured
completely destroyed
annihilated, demolished, obliterated
cut finely
mince, chop, julienne, dice
criticize harshly
lambaste, harangue, revile

Noun-Adjective "Word Clutter"

(click column header to sort results)
Instead of  
Try  
famous person
celebrity
big dog
Name the breed
theater actor
thespian
medical professional
doctor, nurse, therapist
blue flower
Name the type, if possible
small child
toddler, preschooler
unmarried woman
spinster
unmarried man
bachelor
viable role model
hero
intelligent person
genius
handsome man
Adonis

Comments

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  • NatashaL profile image
    Author

    Natasha 13 months ago from USA

    I'm actually thinking of some more 'needless words' to add.

    I think "however" has its place, but I think I read somewhere that it's bad form to put it at the beginning of the sentence.

    I actually have a bad habit of using "just," such as "I just wanted to tell you..." I've actually gone back and erased it in e-mails and such before sending them. Unless "just" is used to mean "righteous and fair," I don't generally see a use for it.

    Ah, yes..."which" and "that." Entire Hubs could be written about that pair of words.

    Whenever I write these Hubs, I always remember how generous my advanced English professor was with the red ink on my papers. He wrote the A Beka English grammar curriculum, so he was pretty strict.

  • theraggededge profile image

    Bev 13 months ago from Wales

    Like the needless words section. More like this, please! I also have trouble with these:

    Also :)

    Just

    However

    Which, that

    x

  • NatashaL profile image
    Author

    Natasha 13 months ago from USA

    That's what I like to hear, Wilma. Are there other writing-related topics you'd like me to talk about?

  • Wilma Henry profile image

    Wilma Henry 13 months ago from Kentucky

    I learned a lot from your article!