7 Simple Fixes for the Writing Mistakes that Brand You an Amateur

Businesswoman struggling to write presentation Often, writers ask me if I can recommend a course for improving your writing. Most of the ones I’ve seen are pretty pricey.

It seems like few writers want to use the method I employed to improve my writing — writing at least three articles a week on deadline for 12 years.

Fortunately, I’ve found a shortcut.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with writing professor Ben Yagoda, who’s put out a new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

In decades of teaching writing students, Yagoda finds the same writing errors occur over and over.

What are we doing wrong? Here’s a look at his ‘hit list’ of common writing errors:

  • Word repetition. Yagoda says this is the comment he writes most often on school papers. We all have little words we tend to overuse — mine’s “really” — so be on the lookout and cut them out.
  • Cut that out. Hunt and kill filler words such as “that.” If the sentence still makes sense without it, that’s a sign the word should go.
  • Extra prepositions. If your writing feels choppy, count the number of prepositions you’ve got in a sentence, and then try to cut the number nearly in half, Yagoda advises. Prepositions are a weak part of speech, and the more they clutter up the sentence, the duller it is to read.
  • Word use. There are a long list of these, such as affect/effect, like/such as, your/you’re, and whether it’s hearty or hardy, baby’s or babies. If you aren’t sure which it is, find out. These small gaffes tip off an editor that you’re not a pro.
  • Fake quotes. Quote marks have a way of popping up around phrases where they don’t belong, as in: Then it got “hot and heavy.” Remember, quotes belong around things people said.
  • Semicolons and parentheses. Particularly online, these punctuation marks don’t work very well. Sentences should be short, not strung together with semicolons, which many writers don’t even know how to use properly. “If you feel like using a semicolon,” Yagoda says, “lie down until the urge goes away.” And if you open a parenthetical phrase, be kind enough to remember to give us a closing parenthesis, too.
  • Comma confusion. You’d think we could master this simple piece of punctuation, but many writers will splice two sentences together with one, or insert commas where they don’t belong, sometimes changing the sentence’s meaning. Others omit commas where they’re needed. Apparently, relying on our gut instinct of when it feels right to use a comma isn’t working. Learn the rules — and when in doubt, ask an editor what their publication’s style demands.
  • Starting and ending sentences with prepositions. This is more acceptable than it used to be, particularly ending with a preposition, but don’t overuse. And if you start a sentence with a preposition like this one does, don’t put a comma after the initial preposition. That’s just silly.
  • Subject/verb disagreement. Remember, a singular noun needs a singular verb. Don’t let modifying clauses confuse you. You can’t say, “A bucket of worms were on top of the bench.”
  • Identity crisis. If you’re using a pronoun such as “he,” make sure there aren’t two men in the sentence and a confusion about which one you mean.
  • Misplaced modifiers. A favorite of mine from high school English is, “Running down the hall, my jacket caught on a locker.” Your jacket didn’t run down the hall by itself, so don’t do this.
  • Random capitalization. This is a particular plague in business writing, where marketers tend to start writing that they are Director of the Logistics Division. Of course, random all-caps words online denote yelling, though not everyone seems to know it.
  • Bold/underline/italics. These are overused by writers too lazy to build the emphasis into their prose. Yagoda’s rule is not to use bold unless it’s a heading. When you write online, be particularly aware that underline usually denotes a clickable link. Don’t use it for anything else — you’ll just confuse your readers.

Fixing the problems

How can you correct your bad writing habits? These writing gaffes are preventable if you follow these simple steps:

  1. Read. The more we read magazines, books, and newspapers, the more we intuitively soak up nuances of the language. You can iron out a lot of your writing errors fairly painlessly this way.
  2. Read it aloud. So many problems come to light when you read your own work out loud. Do you have to take a breath in the middle of a sentence? It’s probably too long.
  3. Look it up. If you aren’t sure whether you should be using affect or effect in a sentence, look up the definitions. Don’t be lazy.
  4. Clean it up. Read back through your writing to prune out excess verbiage and root out punctuation and word-usage problems.
  5. Do not rely on spell-check. Auto-correcting programs will insert errors or leave wrong words.
  6. Don’t be vague or wordy. Root out unclear verbiage and replace it with short, clear sentences.
  7. Use a style guide. Not sure if you should be writing the state name out or using an abbreviation, or whether to spell out ‘percent’? The Associated Press Stylebook is the most common for newspapers and magazines, while Chicago Manual of Style is the go-to for books.

What’s your pet peeve in writing? Leave a comment and add to this list.

 

  1. In one way, Carol, I’m not with Yagoda on this one – as I personally think rules are there to be broken. On the other hand, though, I kinda agree – because you need to know what the rules are in order to break them (without looking dumb that is).

    As it happens, I picked out a lot of my favourite howlers in a recent blog post of my own (see below). But if I did have to add to your list here, it would be the misspelling of the abbreviation Dr.

    I appreciate it may be totally different in the US, but in UK English a full stop at the end of an abbreviation represents further missing letters. So I really cringe whenever I see Dr. Smith or Dr. Jones over here – although it only really bothers me because I think doctors should know better.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..5 non-existent words that make YOU look a halfwit copywriter

    • Carol Tice says:

      I kinda agree with you (great example) – have to know the rules first, then you can start bending them around and breaking them.

      I loved your post on this. I was thinking of you when I recently got an email signed, “Thank you for your corporation.”

      • Thanks for the complement, sorry, I mean compliment Carol.

        You know how I always like to corporate [sic] by leaving comments on your blog.
        Kevin Carlton recently posted..Are your web directory listings one big waste of time?

      • Julie Anne says:

        Cutting down on extra words is a biggie for me. Also, this past Monday I spent all day reading aloud a press release to see just how bad it really was! (I want to get back into journalism after years of SEO writing for pennies.) And for the love of writing it would be nice if you have a blog post solely on word replacements for “really.” However, if you do, please do not add “very” to the list, as in when I incorrectly use really to mean very. :)

        You asked what my pet peeve is as a writer? Mine is paragraphs more than four sentences long. As far as commas, I swear I’ll never get that right even though I read over that section in my style guide over and over again.
        Julie Anne recently posted..Dad Disappeared, Sisters Apparently Safe — So I Hope

        • Carol Tice says:

          When I critique articles and query letters in the Den, I often end up rewriting a paragraph to take the fat out, to show them how much they need to tighten it up. Extra words, phrases and paragraphs must go!

  2. Lindsay Wilson says:

    I can’t pick only one pet peeve from this list. The entire list is a comprehensive editor’s rant! I’ve spent the last six years of my working life moaning about this sort of thing from writers. My cringe-favorite is the comma splice. Nothing says “lazy writer” better than a sentence strung together with this one overused, abused punctuation mark. However, if this whole list gets me wound up from an editorial standpoint, it means I I’ve got a good base from which to develop as a writer myself, right?

  3. Rohi Shetty says:

    Hi Carol,

    My biggest takeaway from your post: “It seems like few writers want to use the method I employed to improve my writing — writing at least three articles a week on deadline for 12 years.” :-)

    That said, the commonest mistake still seems to be in the use of “its” and “it’s.”
    Another mistake I particularly notice is the use of “loose” instead of “lose.”
    Rohi Shetty recently posted..The Best Thing You Can Do With Your Lips

  4. Incorrect word usage sends me right over the edge, e.g., “that’s a ‘mute’ point” or “I asked for a ‘pacific’ book.” Arghhh….

  5. Meyer Baron says:

    Proper choice of was/were can be tricky. There are occasions when “were” is correct, but target audience vernacular demands “was.” What’s a writer to do?

  6. John Detlefs says:

    hahahaha! I had someone use a ‘mute’ point on me as well. But ‘loose’ for ‘lose’ is my pet hate…

    I have been guilty of starting a sentence with ‘And’ followed by a comma however, so the pot is looking a little black right now…
    John Detlefs recently posted..The truth about cats and dogs (and monkeys and elephants… and iguanas)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I like to start sentences with “And” myself, but never with a comma. That would just be wrong. Probably a good example of bending a rule without teetering over into writing something that calls you out.

  7. John Coutts says:

    Ah, the Americans! Why do you think the only style guides in the world are the The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

    These are indeed fine style guides, but what about the Oxford Guide to Style, the Guardian Style Guide, the Times Style and Usage Guide or perhaps the The Modern Humanities Research Association Style Guide? And these are only for the UK.

    The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide is every bit as good as the Associated Press Stylebook for its own country, and if you happen to be Canadian, why not the Canadian Style Guide?

    The fact is, every country has its standard in style guides – not just the USA. Also, readers of this blog live in many different parts of the world – not just in the USA.

    John.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Just writing what I know, John, like they tell you to. Thanks for mentioning these interesting style guides for other lands! Many individual publications have their own style guides as well…when I wrote for CBS’s BNet (RIP) they had their own style guide.

  8. Marie Krebs says:

    My pet peeve is people who write articles telling other people how to write, and then make the exact mistake they are berating others about! Glad you didn’t do that in your article. That said, I always offer grace since we are flawed humans. I make my own share of errors when writing, but particularly if I hurry through a piece.
    Marie Krebs recently posted..3 important CONTENT tips for Real Estate Agents on LinkedIn

  9. My pet peeve in writing is people who make grammatical errors while pointing out the grammar errors made by others.

    “And if you start a sentence with a preposition like this one does…” That sentence doesn’t start with a preposition. “And” is a conjunction. As for whether to spell out ‘percent,’ the only time you use single quotes is inside double quotes, so it should be “percent.”

    Yeah, yeah, now you’ve got me doing what I hate. ;)

  10. Esther says:

    I have to lie down until the semi colon urge goes away. LOVE THIS! I am in Starbucks writing and had to laugh out loud. I love writing but HATE grammar. WHAT TO DO? I will write a blog post about this!!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Cool, well send us a link when you do!

      I happen to believe semicolons have no place in blogging or really online writing anywhere…think they just don’t work in online writing. But would love to hear others’ opinions. I think online writing is conversational when it’s done right, and there aren’t semicolons in conversations.

  11. Angela says:

    It probably speaks to my quirkiness, but I hate odd abbreviations of words that aren’t supposed to be abbreviated. “Temp” and “perm” are at the top of my worst-offender list. Gahh!! I just want to slap the person who uses those whenever I see them. It’s a carry-over from text-speak, and it just screams “Lazy!” to me. Just take the extra second to write the word out correctly. *end of short rant :)
    Angela recently posted..Learn to Podcast for Free From UC Berkeley

    • Angela says:

      I should clarify a bit: those two example words “temp” and “perm” used as adjectives, not nouns, make up my top writing pet peeve. Try substituting them in a sentence where you would normally describe something as “temporary” or “permanent.” The result is not pretty.
      Angela recently posted..Learn to Podcast for Free From UC Berkeley

    • Carol Tice says:

      My fave is people who send me PR releases with acronyms I don’t understand in the subject line. I delight in deleting them unread.

      Today’s entry: “How a Leading CISO Crowd-Sourced a Successful Business Case for GRC.” Buh-bye! If I don’t know what they mean, I feel confident the story isn’t for me. Don’t know when people will learn to get out of their jargon heads and speak English.

      • Lizz says:

        Oh, c’mon over to heathcare, where we make up our own acronyms on the fly despite all the experts warning that we should adhere to the agreed upon standards.

        (An aside…Loved LOVED LOVED yesterday’s Success Call, Carol. I think that was the piece I needed to move forward…YES.)

    • Michelle says:

      I hate “prego” for pregnant. There are still two syllables, therefore it didn’t shorten the usage time and, quite frankly, its a spaghetti sauce.

  12. I found the best way for me to improve my grammar and punctuation errors was to make a list of every one that was pointed out to me by my proofreader program. For example, everytime it highlighted a passive voice phrase I would copy it and add it to a list. I did the same for punctuation, sentence structure etc. After a while I noticed a pattern to my mistakes. I was simply using the same phrases over and over, which was probably engrained in my writing for years. By keeping error lists and going over them repeatedly, they began to sink into my brain and jump out at me if I tried to use them again – sort of like a writing coach leaning over my shoulder all the time.
    Joseph Rathjen recently posted..How To Utilize Blog Stats!

    • I think that should be “ingrained,” LOL. Does the subject of this post make it an exception to the rule that typos don’t count in blog replies?
      Katherine Swarts recently posted..Confused and Misused

    • Carol Tice says:

      Good technique! They might even have been ingrained, too. ;-)

    • Joseph, The use of the passive voice was a real issue when I was working as a technical writer at a government agency. At some point the agency decided we needed to use editing software which had lots of questionable rules and suggestions.

      One of them was that we should never use the passive voice, no matter how awkward it was to come up with a version in the active voice. My favorite example of using the passive voice clearly and correctly is “President Bush was elected by a very narrow margin.” Sometimes rules imposed by a company or an agency make language less clear than the language it replaces.
      Madeleine Kolb recently posted..What’s age got to do with it?

      • I suppose they’d require this sentence from a recent newspaper caption–

        “Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, carries her son, who was born Monday, into public view”–

        to be rewritten as,

        “Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, carries her son, whom she birthed Monday, into public view.”

        “Was born” is the best example I know of a concept where the passive voice is virtually required.
        Katherine Swarts recently posted..Confused and Misused

  13. Rob says:

    I agree and disagree. I’ve lost count of the number of experts (“experts”) who disagree with each other on some of these points. It’s fine to be aware of these things, but why slavishly follow the rules (“rules”) because someone says you should? When writing for others, I do follow their style guides, but when I’m writing for myself, I write as I see fit. I happen to love semicolons and nobody’s rejected my work because of them. So there.
    Rob recently posted..Writing in Longhand

  14. The thing that gets to me most is the misuse of then and than. I worked with an editor once who didn’t know the difference. Talk about banging my head on the desk.

  15. jordan clary says:

    Exclamation marks! I hate when every sentence ends with an exclamation! Really! It’s so irritating!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I love when writers do that on their own websites. “Let me write for you! I love writing about pets!” Looks like a note you passed your girlfriend in high school instead of compelling copy. Exclamations are the lazy writer’s way of adding energy to the line.

  16. I grind my teeth when I see nouns like “leverage” or “impact” used as verbs, though after years of business writing it doesn’t pain me as much as it used to.

    But the funniest linguistic screw-up I’ve ever seen came from a client who bewilderingly requested “irrelevant content” for his blog… turned out he wanted me to use an *irreverent* tone.
    Sophie Lizard recently posted..How Freelance Bloggers Land Book Deals [And You Can Too]

    • Carol Tice says:

      Completely lying on the floor sobbing with laughter…guess I need a new textspeak acronym for that! You get the prize for most irrelevant comment in this thread. ;-)

  17. I love to hate dangling modifiers: jar to a stop every time I suddenly meet one in the course of reading, but never get enough of the humorous implications. “Snarling, his grip tore loose from his opponent’s coat.” “Hurrying to work, her car shot past the stop sign without noticing it.”

    With word confusion, my personal pet hates include “it’s” for “its” and “affect” for “effect.” With punctuation, it’s the sight of a comma or period OUTSIDE the quotation marks: He promised he’d “be there in twenty minutes”. I think that may be another of those rules that are different across the Atlantic–and last time I looked, they still used *single* quotes. I don’t have a great deal of sympathy with those who include another country’s proper English among the “errors” that make them cringe–if that or any other aspect of someone else’s culture isn’t good enough for you, stay in your own culture. However, those who work for clients who speak different “brands” of English do need to learn the differences, just as they would in an entirely different language.

    Couple more things: many people hate to see “like” used as in “It seems like few writers want to use the method…” And I personally disagree with the “fake quotes” rule, at least if it’s used unequivocally to ban ALL calling attention to cliches and turns of phrase.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted..Confused and Misused

  18. I forgot about the use of “literal” for things that aren’t: “I was literally dead on my feet” (someone’s been watching too many zombie movies). Another popular peeve is the qualification of the word “unique”–”This is the most unique product ever”–how can anything be more one-of-a-kind than something else?

    Finally, a recent source of argument from one of my editors’ forums: does it matter whether someone writes, “It’s only an affair, just the price we pay for having the big house and social status,” or “It’s only an affair–just the price we pay for having the big house and social status”?

  19. I got the ‘a instead of the’ talk. One is general, the other specific.

    She walked to a park.

    She walked to the park.

    It’s still a problem for me, but not so bad. Thanks for including the hunt for too many ‘that’ uses.

    This post is a good poster for every writing room, but Write three articles a week for twelve years works too.
    David Gillaspie recently posted..NW Boomer Writing Process

  20. Bonnie Fox says:

    The ensure/insure thing bugs me. I know they’re considered somewhat interchangeable, but I personally prefer “insure” to be reserved for insurance agents. At the very least, it gives each word a clearer purpose.

    Split infinitives drive me batty, but after years of teaching English I’ve learned that most students think a “split infinitive” is something related to chemistry or nuclear physics.

    My personal favorite incorrect usage was a student who waxed eloquent about the “right to bare arms.” I was forced to tell him that the Constitution didn’t grant him the right to go sleeveless.
    Bonnie Fox recently posted..Words to Inspire: Oscar Wilde

  21. I love articles about editing/rules/how to break them. We all make errors and we all need editors. I’m really good at editing other people’s work, but mine–not so much.

    Every time I think about spell check, I laugh about my favorite error: I was writing a letter on a Macintosh. I left out the “M” in “Michael” and the spell check changed “ichael” to “asshole.” I hope it was done on purpose by some young programmer, but I learned a valuable lesson.

    What bothers me about many of the errors that you listed is that they aren’t merely typos, but errors caused by lack of knowledge. Singular/plural, subject/verb, those are just dumb errors.

    My pet peeve is underlining anything on line if it’s not a link. We need to remember that lines=links, please, I get tired of clicking around.
    Joanne Gruskin recently posted..Tweets Fly on Their Own Wings

  22. Brendan says:

    Because I’m a contrarian: I find it funny that down here in the comments it’s all about what makes us (the writers) cringe. This phenomenon makes me cringe. As both a novelist and a marketing writer, I am the last person that matters in the equation. I write for the story/client and often my desires must be quelled to make room for what the story/client really wants.

    Autobiographies are the only kind of writing that should be about “I” – and autobiographies are boring.

    Truth be told, I was expecting the mistakes that brand you an amateur would be more along the lines of forgetting to include a call-to-action, not researching your topic, not interviewing the client thoroughly, and not meeting deadlines. All of these mistakes will lose you jobs, yet they can be easily corrected.

    I hope there’s a lot less “I” on our websites and in our marketing materials!

    Love your blog!

    (Apologies to the literazzi whom I’m sure will find a myriad of mistakes in this comment. I’m going to triumph by getting off the internet and making some money!)

  23. Shan says:

    Hi Carol

    My pet peeve is when a statement ends with a question mark. My niece sent me a birthday card in which she’d written “Hope you have a lovely day?” followed by “We’re all fine?” Are you asking me or telling me?

    I learn a great deal from your posts but struggle with grammar. What the heck is a “dangling modifier”?

    Shan
    Shan recently posted..Fit for Dating

    • Carol Tice says:

      Shan, here’s a good resource for curing yourself of dangling modifier problems: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/597/1/

    • Jenni says:

      It should be said that the original post refers to this as a “misplaced modifier,” but the example that follows is not that of a misplaced modifier, but of a “dangling modifier.” I believe there is a distinction.

      This is an example of a misplaced modifier: We only had three textbooks for the five children in the classroom. Correctly written, the sentence would read as follows: We had only three textbooks for the five children in the classroom. The modifier “only” is describing the number of textbooks, not the act of having.

      Isn’t that a true “misplaced modifier” – and isn’t the example provided instead a “dangling modifier?”

  24. My biggest pet peeve is writing that shows no understanding of the audience or the style of the publication. For example, if you are writing an article for a serious print journal, you need to write more formally than you would a blog post on a lifestyle website.

    Sometimes, I see new writers subbing material to magazines they’ve never read, or so it seems. They have no sense of the audience, tone or style of the publication.
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted..Personal life as a metaphor

    • I second that. For years I’ve been editing grant proposals for my daughter, a medical researcher, and recently have been working with her on blog posts and a website. We’ve had some screaming fights about my writing style for the web articles. I guess as a scientist, she just can’t loosen up and suspend disbelief.
      Joanne Gruskin recently posted..Tweets Fly on Their Own Wings

  25. Ann Knowles says:

    My pet peeve is the person who wakes up one morning,decides to write a book and begins to write with no preparation. Doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, ministers, engineers—everyone has to learn their trade/career choice before
    they work in that field. Why doesn’t every aspiring writer understand that concept?

    Ann

  26. Dee says:

    “Per say” instead of per se — huge peeve of mine. And then errant use of the apostrophe that changes something from plural to possessive. I frequently write fairly casually but still believe in the basics of spelling and grammar and things like the above examples take away from the professionalism.
    Dee recently posted..Giveaway! Tickets to Bodies… the Exhibition and Titanic the Experience!

  27. Alex says:

    These are awesome tips and reminders! I do find the bold/underline/italics note a bit perplexing. I completely agree with not underlining text unless it is a link. When writing online, obviously SEO is a huge factor to consider. Google picks up on the bolded and italicized words, so it’s actually good practice to bold or italicize strategic keywords for which you are trying to optimize. Of course, this is only for online writing where you are trying to optimize for search. I love your tips and posts on here. They’re always great, and this one in particular reminds us of the basic fundamentals.

  28. Kevin Lull says:

    Personally, I find it annoying when people try too hard to avoid ending sentences with prepositions. I’ll end a sentence with a preposition on purpose from time to time just as a way of breaking that habit myself. I’m the type of writer who only really feels that gut-punch level of annoyance when I spot an error I myself am often guilty of.

    As Winston Churchill never actually said, “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”

    • Carol Tice says:

      When Ben and I talked live on the podcast, we both came down on the side of ending sentences with prepositions is OK today as long as you don’t do it too often, and when it avoids a more awkward construction.

  29. I disagree that starting and ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong for two reasons:

    1. The “rule” that states you can’t end a sentence with a preposition came into being because someone thought English needed to sound more like Latin. But it’s grammatically acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition in English because English is a Germanic language, not a Latin-based one. In fact, rewriting your sentences to avoid it actually weighs your sentence down, making it more difficult to read. (It certainly sounds more formal and impressive, though.)

    2. Starting a sentence with a preposition (or rather, a prepositional phrase) allows for sentence structure variety. “On my way to the game, I stopped to buy water” or “After the game, we all went out to eat” for example.

    Your example includes a conjunction (used to connect two clauses), not a preposition. Though traditional (read: academic) writing says that starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, or) is bad, doing so allows you to be more informal, which many blogs and sites look for. How you start your sentences should depend more on the tone you’re adopting.

  30. Muminur says:

    This article helped me to identify what mistakes I may do when writting. I will try to avoid them. Thanks so much for this post.
    Muminur recently posted..Difference Between DoFollow and NoFollow Backlinks in Search Engine Optimization

  31. Priya N says:

    I have gone through the list of the problems in writing & I find many of them applicable to me but thanks to your 7 fixes. I hope, it will improve my writing.
    Priya N recently posted..Planning to Buy or Invest in Gold? Read This Before!

  32. Azwan says:

    I am not new to writing, but writing in English is very very new to me. Any tip is a good tip even though others may think otherwise. Thanks for the post.
    Azwan recently posted..Transformers From My Son’s Collection

  33. Kay says:

    I know this post is super old but my pet peeves are Errant Capitalization Syndrome and random quotation marks. I think people capitalize when they think something is important. I’ve seen “I told my Mom to come over” and things of that nature.

    A bit off topic but I’m also not a big fan of smileys. Online? OK. But if you’re emailing or in any kind of professional setting (work, school, etc) I think they make you look unprofessional and childish.

    I particularly can’t stand when men use them. It’s a huge turn off.
    Kay recently posted..Erykah Badu Rocks A New Style

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