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How to Write a Paper Without Making Common Mistakes

Updated on September 8, 2016
VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Want A Better Grade?

Many things have changed in the 22 years I've taught College English, but one thing has not. Students still make the same common errors on their papers. I guarantee that if you follow my instructions to eliminate these errors on your paper, you will get a better grade. Not much time? My suggestions are ordered with the most important ones first.

Make your instructor happy by turning in an error-free essay.
Make your instructor happy by turning in an error-free essay. | Source

Spelling and Grammar

The Problem: Students rush to finish their papers and don't take the time to find and fix errors that they could easily correct.

The Solution:

  1. Spell-check your essay using your word processing program.
  2. Use Grammarly to help check for errors (Google "Grammarly' to download the free version). After using this myself for a year, I'm finally requiring my students use it too because it really does catch many common word choice errors and comma errors.
  3. Re-read your essay slowly (out loud is best) from start to finish. That helps you find a lot of mistakes and typos that might be missed by your spellchecker.
  4. Ask someone else to read your essay to look for errors. Sometimes a friend can see something you can't.

Why Fix? Misspelled words and typos tell your teacher that you don't care. More importantly, these sorts of errors on the job tell your boss that you are a sloppy worker and that can make you get passed over for a promotion (but no one will tell you it is because you don't spell check!). So learn to be a careful proofreader.

Making an effort counts when your instructor gives grades.
Making an effort counts when your instructor gives grades. | Source

Check Word Useage

The Problem: Students write the way they talk, making their writing too informal.

The Solution: Check your essay to see that you are not using these common words and phrases that are either:

  • incorrect grammar
  • confused words
  • poor word choices
  • not appropriate for an essay for class.

To Solve this Forever: Keep a list of the word errors that you find in your papers, or that your instructor has marked on graded essays. Try to learn the rules. Double check those words when you use them on an essay, or else when you proofread.

Why Fix? The rules on most of these words are taught in elementary school. Maybe you missed those lessons, didn't understand, or just have a couple of these you don't remember. Since these are lessons taught to young kids, it should be a breeze for you to learn them now. Do yourself a favor and learn your common errors.

Common Word Choices You Can Correct

Wrong Word
Correct Use
Why it is wrong
Being as, being that, due to the fact that
Because or Since
alright, alot
all right, a lot
wrong spelling
your, you're
your=belongs to you, you're=you are
British use or old fashioned
anyways, anywheres
anyway, anywhere
fixing to
intend to
should of, could of, would of
should have, could have, would have
wrong verb
its, it's
its=belongs to it, it's=it is
confused use
lots, lots of
a great many, a large number
OK, O.K., okay
all spellings are correct but only use if recording a conversation
too informal for an essay
previous to, prior to
question of whether, question as to whether
with regard to, relating to, with respect of
But, And, So, at the beginning of a sentence
However, Additionally, Therefore
these are conjunctions to use to join 2 parts of a sentence
suppose to, use to
supposed to, used to
spelling like you hear it
than, then
than=compared to, then=what time
confused words
there, their, they're
there=place, their=belongs to them, they're=they are
confused use
to, two, too
to=preposition, too=also or very, two=2
confused, avoid using "too" if possible
affect, effect
affect=to influence, effect=result
confused words
passed, past
passed=he passed by, past=in the past
confused words
cite, site, sight
cite=to quote, site=a place or web site, sight=to see
confused words
A spell-checker will not usually find these incorrect words. Therefore, you need to learn the words that you sometimes confuse, so that you can double check that you have them correct. While not an exhaustive list, these are the most common word err

When You Fix Grammar Errors..

You cut away the cobwebs!
You cut away the cobwebs! | Source

Check for Boring, Short and Repetitive Sentences

Problem: Sentences are wordy, boring, and sound the same.

Original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people. People wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus. People don't trust government sources that assure us the Ebola virus is contained.

The Fix:

  1. Circle every word that you use to start a sentence.
  2. Look for sentences that have the same first words, especially if they are in the same paragraph and change them in one of the following ways:

Add a transition word or phrase to start the sentence (However, Even though, Moreover, in addition, Consequently). See my "transition words" chart for more examples.

Use different sentence types, like questions, interjections and commands.

  • Which is really the most important way to help stop Ebola?
  • We need to act now!
  • Don't forget that as our world shrinks, what happens in Africa and elsewhere has great importance for everyone.

Re-arrange the sentence with an Introductory Element. Introductory elements are phrases that come before the subject in the sentence. Often you can take the end of a sentence and move it to the front to make a more interesting sentence. Don't forget a comma after the Introductory Element.

West Africa is the place where the deadly Ebola virus first hit. Wondering if the deadly virus will spread, many people are frightened by Ebola. Not trusting government sources, citizens in hard-hit countries are wondering if they or someone they love will be the next victim.

  • Combine short sentences together and eliminate repetitive words.

original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people.

re-write: The deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is frightening to many people.

  • Use a semicolon to combine sentences.

The frightening and deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa causes people to wonder who will be the next victim; moreover, many people don't trust the government sources that say the virus is contained.

Why this works: When you have sentences starting with the same word, you are probably using the "subject-verb-object" type of sentence that English speakers use when we talk. When you write, you don't have to always keep the subject as the first word in the sentence. So when you revise the first word, your writing automatically seems more professional and intelligent.

Sample Revisions: Even though government sources assure us the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will be contained, many people are frightened that they may become the next victims of this deadly virus.

Not trusting government sources which assure us that the Ebola virus is contained, many people are frightened and wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus which comes from West Africa.

Transition Words

first, second, third
in addition
on the one hand...on the other hand
in contrast
as well as
as a result
on the contrary
Taken from my full list of: Easy Words to Use as Sentence Starters on

Check Commas, Semicolons and Colons

The Problem: Commas appear when they aren't needed, or are missing when they are required. Your instructor may write "comma splice," "run-on sentence" or "no comma needed."

The Solution: Proofread your paper while looking at the Rules for Using Commas, and Easy Rules for Semicolon and Colon.

Here are the Basic Comma Rules:

  1. Use a comma in a list. Example: James loves bananas, apples, peaches, and strawberries.
  2. Use a comma before a conjunction (and, but, or, so, for, yet, nor) if there is a full sentence (subject and verb) before and after the conjunction. Example: James loves bananas that are ripe, but he does not eat any fruit that has brown spots.
  3. Use a comma after an Introductory Element (word or phrase) that comes before the subject in a sentence. Example: In spite of eating a whole bowl full of fruit at lunch, James was still hungry.
  4. Use commas to mark off unimportant information. If you aren't sure if it needs a comma, then try saying the sentence without that phrase. If the sentence still makes sense, then you should probably use commas. Example: James, who loves all sorts of fruit, always tries to come with me when I'm shopping at the Farmer's Market, which is only open on Saturday mornings.

2 Ways to Use a Semicolon

  1. Use a Semicolon instead of a period to put two sentences together. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; we always argue over whether to get green, red, or black seedless grapes.
  2. Use a Semicolon with a transition word + comma. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; however, we usually spend most of our time arguing over which sort of grapes to buy.

How to Use a Colon

A colon is used before a list, an explanation or example. Example: James and I always argue about which grapes are the best: red, green or black.

Check Your Quotes and Sources

The Problem: Students don't always use quotation marks correctly or tell where they got information.

The Solution: 1. Check for where you need sources. As you read your paper over, mark the parts that were ideas that came from someone else. Have you told the reader where you got that information? You especially need to cite your source for facts, statistics, quotations or other information that isn't general knowledge.

2. Put your sources in your paper. The easiest way to make sure you aren't in trouble for not including your sources is to mention where you got the information in your paper. Here are some sample formats:

  • In Damian Reed's article, "Where Birds Fly South," he states that....
  • According to Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South," the hummingbird doesn't migrate...
  • Hummingbirds don't migrate as soon as expected, notes Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South" (Reed 24).

The last example uses MLA citation format. See here for APA format.

3. Make a Bibliography (see the style guides above) or "Works Cited" page.

4. Check to see if you've done your quotation marks correctly. Remember that the quotation marks come after the punctuation. Examples:

....completely an utterly true."

....completely and utterly false!"

....completely and utterly confused?"

....completely and utterly my own opinion" (James 44).

Reader Poll

What Type of Essay are You Writing?

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    • profile image

      Taylor Thompson 4 months ago

      This has been a very helpful article. A lot of these common mistakes still come up when writing in college, and a refresher is always needed. I am looking forward to your ENG 1304 02 class this semester.

    • profile image

      DianaHamza 4 months ago

      Very helpful! I have definitely made one or two of these mistakes in the past.

      (I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11:00 TR)

    • profile image

      nathanbarker98 4 months ago

      Great article Professor Kearney, I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11 this semester.

    • profile image

      Ryan Carr 4 months ago

      Hi Professor Kearney! The suggestions offered in this article will definitely help me cut down on the number of common errors in my writing.

    • profile image

      Bailey Goyette 4 months ago

      I have a tendency to write overly long sentences and really appreciated the points you made on that. Great article! I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11:00 TR.

    • profile image

      Alex McMillan 4 months ago

      Hello Professor Kearney! I am in your 1304 English class this semester. This article offered great tips for fixing common writing errors that I will definitely use during this semester as well as other English classes in the future!

    • profile image

      Danayla 12 months ago

      The word chart was very helpful in correcting my word choice.

    • profile image

      Joanna Disch 12 months ago

      I like the tip of circling the first word in every sentence to make sure that you aren't using the same one over and over again. That is something I find myself doing in my writing a lot.

    • profile image

      Kylie Besly 17 months ago

      This is super interesting as I start your class this semester. Thank you!

    • profile image

      Daniel 2 years ago

      These are some great tips that I will definitely utilize.

    • profile image

      Braden Bailey 2 years ago

      I found this article very informative and easy to follow. It gives me simple rules to follow on every paper I write. I make some of these mistakes without even realizing it. I will definitely refer back to this article as I revise my essays.

    • profile image

      Bradley Nelson 2 years ago

      I honestly hadn't thought of some of the words not to use. Wish my previous teachers had mentioned some of those along the way. Others, I did learn from my elementary school teacher, but not until she helped me revise my college scholarship essays.

    • profile image

      2 years ago

      Great article

    • profile image

      Janie Contreras 2 years ago

      I wish I read this article before I wrote out my homework. I have already spotted many mistakes I made. Next time I will use this!

    • profile image

      Brian Sacks 2 years ago

      I will definitely be using this throughout the year!!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      Never hurts for a person to review these rules regularly. Less and fewer is something that always irritates me when I see them used incorrectly. Even the people who want to edit our hubs on here don't seem to know the correct way to use these words.

      This is an excellent article for everyone to bookmark for reference.

    • charlynjune profile image

      Charlyn June 2 years ago from Philippines

      That was really useful.. For beginner writers like me, I will be bookmarking this page for future reference. Thanks!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I find that msword spell checker is very useful

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 2 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you for the helpful hints. Jamie

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Far too common and familiar… :) Thanks for good reminders and a great guide for students. Pinning to my Home Education/Schooling board.

    • tzwrites profile image

      tzwrites 2 years ago

      What a useful article! Thanks for sharing this. I've seen so many of the errors you listed in the essays I proofread.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 3 years ago from United States

      js--absolutely right--I'm writing this for American students who are actually using the "British use" as slang. However, I also think it is useful for those who are writing for an American audience to know what will sound "correct" to an American ear.

    • profile image

      js 3 years ago

      Good points!

      But why is "the British use" wrong?

      What about the non Americans amongst us?

      Is this web-site meant only for the American people?

      Greetings from a European non English speaker.

    • Ed Jusino profile image

      Eduardo Amando Jusino 3 years ago from Horsham, PA.

      Hi Virginia Lynne. Why all the words in the tittle have capital letters? Is that correct? Do not worry, i do it all the time too. Great job!

    • sara0129 profile image

      Shamim Rajabali 3 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for sharing. Having someone else read a hard copy of your essay definitely helps in pointing out the errors.

    • biblicaliving profile image

      biblicaliving 3 years ago from U.S.A.

      Extremely well written hub! Writers of all types can benefit from your advice. Your correct in your assertion that keeping track of which mistakes your instructors mark off for can greatly increase your skill as a writer.

    • My Bell profile image

      Marcelle Bell 3 years ago

      Nice hub! I studied Journalism in college but was originally an English major so I know what you are talking about with all the grammatical errors. I'm trying to educate my high schooler now on all the grammar pitfalls and how to write a quality paper. Congratulations on HOTD!

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Virginia, this is excellent! - Voted up and away! Congrats!

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for this, I can sure use it. Especially the common word choices you can correct, I'm always getting caught with them. Will bookmark it so I can return to it as I'm writing my book.

    • Misfit Chick profile image

      Catherine Mostly 3 years ago from Seattle, WA - USA - The WORLD

      Thanks for the grammar hacks. I try to remember the rules; but when I know I've got something wrong, I seldom take the time to look up the correct usage. I"m saving this and sharing. :)

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 3 years ago from Arkansas USA

      What great advice for beginning writers of all ages! "Your welcome" versus "you're welcome" is my number one grammar pet peeve, but another contender that I see a lot, at least in this part of the country, is using "for sale" in place of "for sale." I think it has to do with the Arkansas accent, but that mistake seems to be occurring more and more frequently and it's driving me crazy (which is a pretty short drive). Congratulations on Hub of the Day honors!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      Congratulations on HOTD. It is important to both read through and use the error checker programs. In this way, more mistakes are caught. I have trouble with its / it's, that / which, and who/whom. I have to watch myself on those, or avoid using them if I'm not sure.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Nice hub on grammar and frequently made errors in writing. This is an interesting and informative hub that everyone should read. Everyone needs a refresher course from time to time.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 3 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Hi Virginia,

      Nuts with college papers. This is good for HubPages users. Thanks!

    • SAQIB6608 profile image

      SAQIB 3 years ago from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN

      Good enough points regarding mistakes in papers. Congrats on HoTD

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 3 years ago

      Very useful lessons on fixing grammatical errors and improving essay-writing in this Hub and your many other Hubs. Writers can sometimes make the same certain simple errors over and over again without realizing them, and I like the solutions you gave in identifying the common ones and weeding them out. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • VJGSA profile image

      VJG 3 years ago from Texas

      I'm going to share this with my son. Valuable pointers.