Below are some common things I’ve come across in people’s writing that can really slow it down. We’ve probably all made these mistakes and this is not an article to judge, merely a tool to help people communicate more effectively through the written word. It is by no means an exhaustive list but I hope that it is in some way helpful.
Using filler words means you’re writing without really saying anything. We need to say more in less words. One of my university professors said that each word needs to fight for a place on the page. Can it defend its spot? If not, you should axe it. To practice keeping it short and sharp, do some sentence condensing exercises. You could either Google some or find a crazy-long sentence in your own work and try to halve the word limit without losing any of the meaning (you can change the actual words and sentence construction as much as you like).
- Vague writing
One of the first questions I ask the students that I tutor is: Do you ever use words in your essays that you don’t know the meaning of? If the answer is yes, you need to break that habit right now. Using fancy-sounding words or big sentences just to sound smart actually has the opposite effect. A good writer is clear and concise—don’t make the reader work hard for no reason. Don’t be mysterious in lieu of an actual plot. Don’t be vague to compensate for the fact that you don’t know your content well enough. Suspense has to be building towards something and your writing has to say something.
- Incomplete sentences
Every sentence needs a subject and a predicate. Without these two things you have a phrase, or a fragment.
For example: “The horse jumped over the fence,” is a sentence while, “Then jumped over the fence,” is a fragment.
The subject is what (or whom) the sentence is about; the predicate tells something about the subject. The best question to ask yourself if you’re unsure if it is a sentence is: can it stand alone?
- Slipping between tenses and perspectives
If you start off with “she said” and end up with “I say” you have committed both a tense change and perspective change. If you are going to change either during your writing, make sure that it is for a reason, and to have an effect on the story. Consistency is key and you can’t just cut back and forth from one to the other at random. If it doesn’t have a point, pick a tense and perspective and stick with them. As with a lot of writing mistakes, the remedy for this is attentive proof reading (spellcheck is not advanced enough to pick that up).
- Incorrect spelling
This one is pretty simple. We have dictionaries, autocorrect and spellcheck. Spelling things correctly should be easy to get right. The best way to spell correctly in the first place is to read like a librarian (I assume they read a ton). Beware of homophones (words that sound similar/the same but have different meanings and/or spellings). Common ones are: right and wright, lead/led, seam/seem and my personal favourite … there/their/they’re.
- Confusing similar words
People commonly misspell words that are similar, or use the wrong word when two words (like ‘then’ and ‘than’) seem similar. If you know either the meaning of the word or type of word they are, it is easy to logically figure out which one to use where. For example, ‘then’ is measuring time while ‘than’ is comparing size. Other common pairs of words to mix up are ‘brought’ and ‘bought’, as well as ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.
Over-explaining is a big trap to fall into when writing. We think we need to flesh a paragraph out so we repeat ourselves, not to any purpose, but because we’ve got nothing else to say. Repetition can be used very effectively but if it is not intentional it can easily make your writing appear clumsy, or like you don’t really know what you’re talking about.
- Grammar mistakes
Grammar mistakes are everywhere—nowhere funnier than a business’s billboard where the mistake changes the meaning of the words. You’ve probably all had a teacher tell you that grammar can save lives and then use the example of the two following similar sentences, differing only by one comma.
Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma! (the cannibal version)
A few very common grammar mistakes:
-Comma splices (a comma is not strong enough to link two different ideas without a ‘joining’ word—you should instead use a semi-colon or just split it into two sentences with a full stop)
-Unnecessary commas and apostrophes (i.e. a plural does not need an apostrophe)
-Punctuation on the outside of quotation marks
-Using quotation marks to add emphasis
- Telling rather than showing
How many times has your teacher emphasised, “Show, don’t tell!”? It is so stressed by teachers because it is rife throughout writing. Why keep readers out of the action with second hand accounts of stories? You are writing so that you can place them smack bang in the middle of the scene. Showing is the best way to make readers feel engaged and want to keep reading. They don’t like being kept at arm’s length.
- Active vs. passive
Explained simply, active voice is when the subject of a sentence performs the action, as opposed to passive voice when the action happens to the subject. Take these two similar sentences.
Passive: The car was driven by Sally yesterday and a fence was crashed into.
Active: Yesterday Sally drove her car and crashed into a fence.
Which one flows faster and is more exciting? While there are times when passive writing is appropriate, active is generally more exciting, involving and fast-paced. Are you keen for your writing to be all of these things?
- Abstract vs. Concrete
Abstract language confuses the reader while concrete language paints a vivid mental picture. Take the words ‘love’ and ‘table’. I help my students define abstract versus concrete by asking things like, “Can you sit on it? Can you pick it up? Can you throw it at your classmate?” If the answer is no, then you are most likely using abstract language. Consider these two sentences.
In many cases the authorities that be consider it highly advantageous to know the outcomes of predicted studies, therefore it is recommended with high probability that we study the content with vigour.
Yesterday as I walked across my living room floor I tripped over the pink rag rug and got carpet burn on my knee, ripping a hole in my light blue jeans.
Which one is easier to visualise?
That’s it from me today. There are many things that can improve your writing but I hope these 11 keys helped. Keep practising and I’m sure you will see improvement!
References (sourced 30 August 2017)
Image (sourced 3 September 2017): https://www.writing.com/