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Top Ten Mistakes in College Writing

Updated on January 4, 2015

As a professor of English for over ten years, I have graded literally thousands of essays. After a while, I noticed the same ten mistakes were cropping up in my student’s essays. These mistakes made the essays first batches of essays I graded each semester torture. Then, I realized that if I compiled a list of these errors and made that list available to my students, it may help to ease the burden of grading those first essays. To that end, I reviewed these writing errors with my students before I had them submit their first essay. Not only were the essays much easier to grade, but my student’s grades went up as a result.

1) Shifting in Person.

College papers should be written in either the first person "I" or the third person "he, she, it." The second person "you" has no place in college writing. Utilizing the second person only adds word and can create awkward and stupid sentences. Instead of using "you" try substituting real nouns like students, citizens, Republicans, consumers, drivers, computer operators, or phrases like "the working man" or "thinking person."

2) Comma Abuse.

The comma is the most abused and misused piece of punctuation in the English language. Placement of commas are determined by about a dozen or so rules, depending upon which textbook is being referenced, not by how the sentence sounds or what the sentence looks like. Grade school English teachers often tell students to "place a comma every place you take a breath." These teachers could not have done their students a greater disservice. While proofreading, take the time to look at every comma in the essay and try to justify its existence. If the comma can’t be justified, remove it.

3) Semicolon Abuse.

The semicolon is the second most misused piece of punctuation in English. The semicolon has three legitimate uses: to separate items in a series that contain commas, before a conjunctive adverb, and to separate two independent clauses in a compound sentence that contain excessive commas. The fourth use is one I try to encourage my students to avoid: joining two closely related independent clauses. Before two independent clauses may be joined with a semicolon, both clauses must be parallel to each other and the first clause must be directly related to the second. If both of these conditions are not true, then the sentences may not be joined with a semicolon. For example: “The chicken got well; we had salad.” is an extreme example of a misused semicolon. Joining these sentences together with a semicolon gains the writer nothing but confusion. The sentences are not parallel and the relationship between the clauses needs some explanation. A correct example of joining two sentence together with a semicolon would be; “Mark washed the dishes; Jane dried the cups.” In this example both clauses are parallel and directly related to each other, but it seems like a lot of work to go through to use a semicolon. The best way to master the use of the semicolon is to stop using it.

4) Possessive Case.

Understand that if someone owns something in English it is shown with the possessive case by adding an apostrophe "s" to the noun. When the noun ends in "s" add an apostrophe only. To make a noun plural in English only add an "S" Don’t confuse the two situations. "Cars" means two cars. "Car’s" means it is possessed by the car. "Cars’" means two cars jointly own something, which is ridiculous.

5) Word Choice.

It is better to use a small word correctly than to use a big word incorrectly. Don’t try to impress anyone with vocabulary. Impress them with clear writing. Use the word that works best. If that is a small word, great. Also I’m amazed by how many college freshman don’t know the difference between "There, Their, and They’re," "To, Too," and "Its, It’s" I once had a student tell me in an essay that when she saw her boyfriend with another woman, “it tortured her sole.” I had to ask her after class how the other woman was able to hurt her feet from across the room.

6) Shifting in Number.

Shifting in number is going from plural to singular or from singular to plural. An example would be: "A student is responsible for their grades." "A student" is singular, and "their" is plural. Students do this because they want to avoid writing sexist sentences, and they also want to avoid writing "he or she, his or her" all the time. I would much rather have a student write a sentence that is grammatically correct than write one that is politically correct. So instead of writing the "his or her, he or she," just make everything feminine. "A student is responsible for her grades." and that should satisfy most people.

7) Sentence Variety.

Good sentence variety is vital to good writing, and it also helps to keep college professors sane. To illustrate, let me make the following metaphor. Imagine a toolbox for writing. If all the tool box contains is a flathead screwdriver, then the things that can be built are a bit limited. The screwdriver may work as a chisel, a hammer, and a knife, but it doesn’t do those things very well. The more tools available in the writer’s tool box, the better the project will be. Using the right type of sentence is as vital as using the right type of tool. The wrong type of sentence may get the job done, but it is inefficient, clunky, and amateurish. Not unlike trying to build a grandfather clock with only a flathead screwdriver. The finished result would not make anyone proud. Most students enter class only understanding how to write a simple sentence. This makes grading their first essays about as much fun as a trip to the dentist, and it doesn’t do anything to increase their grades.

8) Weak Organization.

The best way to develop organization in writing is to outline. Students often resist my attempts to teach them to outline, and they end up paying for that the rest of the time they are in college. It is not uncommon for a former student of mine to approach me and either thank me for teaching her to outline, or to admit that she wished she had taken it more seriously. Outlining allows the writer to plan the length a writing project, develop a thesis statement, and organize the material. Doing the outline is often the most difficult step in the writing process, but it is also the most vital.

9) Dead Words.

English is filled with meaningless words and phrases that do nothing but take up space in writing. These words include: certain, I believe, I think, etc, just, a matter of fact, the plain and simple truth, I thought in my head, and we began to _______ . These words and phrases add nothing to writing except words. Another group of dead words are words that have meaning, but are abused. These words include: always, never, and continuously. For example a student wrote in her essay "My mother always comes into my room and says ‘rise and shine.’" That means that student’s mother is standing in her doorway saying "rise and shine" twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of time. The student exaggerated.

10) Procrastination.

Technically, procrastination isn’t a writing mistake; however, it is a mistake that effects a student’s writing. Students must think of college as a part-time job. For each hour spent in class, plan to spend two hours outside of class studying. The best way to find time to study is to divorce yourself from television. The problem with television is it’s sneaky. A student may sit down intending to watch half an hour of television while she eats, and end up spending two hours. In that same two hours she could have read her assignment and composed an outline for her next essay. My advice to her is to only watch videotaped television. That way she can skip the commercials, saving fifteen minutes on the hour, and watch it at a time when she doesn’t have an assignment due. If it isn’t important enough to videotape, it isn’t important enough to watch. Writing is probably one of the most time consuming tasks a student will undertake while in college. Finding the time to research, plan, and write a college paper is difficult especially for the working student. Don’t try to write a literary paper the night before. Do assignments early whenever possible. That way the student has time to reflect upon the writing and make corrections and changes if necessary. Also if the student does the work early, and a traumatic event occurs, the paper is completed, and the traumatic event need not affect the student’s GPA.


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