Thursday, April 19, 2007

Common Writing Mistakes: Don't Make Them!

writing light, originally uploaded by kalieye.

I've been teaching writing for about two years. On the first day of any class most students look a little scared. This is not because I'm large and imposing, it's because as a general rule, writing scares people. This is curious, considering writing involves nothing more than sitting and being quiet. So why all the looks of terror?

I find that most people have trouble with writing because they don't do it everyday. By that, I don't mean e-mail. E-mail isn't exactly writing. For the most part it's stream of conciousness on a computer screen. Most people don't sit and write for at least 20 minutes everyday, and over time the mental muscles needed to write well get flabby. Yes, even if you were an English major.

As a teacher I've noticed a few other common mistakes that students, both undergrads and adults, makes time and time again. I made up a worksheet for my current class, but I like it so much that I posted it below.

Long Sentences:
It’s quite simple: You are not William Faulkner. Don’t think that you can get away with long sentences and not completely lose your reader. Instead, try to be Ernest Hemingway. Keep your sentences short. The period is your friend. The semi colon only confuses people because no one uses it correctly. If you’ve used it five times in your life, you’ve hit your limit.

Filler Words:
Avoid starting sentences with words such as:


A lot of people think that developing your voice as a writer means writing the way you speak. This is not so. If good writing depended on writing the way we talk, the English language would be in a lot of trouble. Cut the filler words and your writing will sound a lot more polished.

On that same note: If your favorite example of a great writing voice is the narrator in Catcher in the Rye, you need to read a lot more. A lot.

Let It Bake:
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, good writing doesn’t come from a twenty minute brain dump. Whenever you write something, close the file when you’re done and come back to it in a few days. Chances are you will see things you want to change and places where you can tighten, etc.

On that same note, try reading your work out loud before you think it’s done. Like music, good writing has a cadence and a rhythm to it. Hearing it out loud may identify areas that need work.

Don’t Abuse the Exclamation Point:
The only time an exclamation point is needed is when you want to convey that someone is shouting, or something on that level of intensity. When you over use it, the exclamation point loses its punch and will make your writing look like it was created by a 13-year-old girl. There are few things I loathe more than an exclamation point abuser. If it gets extreme, I may have to arrange an intervention.