At one of the publishing companies I worked for many years ago, the copyeditors had a list of common and funny mistakes, which they passed around. I stumbled across that piece of paper lately and had a good laugh: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m editing for a couple of different places these days, and I’m seeing a lot of the same types of mistakes, especially on articles written for the Web.
I’m not necessarily talking about black and white grammar issues, although I do discuss a few of those in this article. Nor am I talking about AP style or MLA style or U of C style: how to footnote, when to use bold versus italics. I’m talking mostly about WRITING: That hard to define area where a sentence might be correct, yet still feel wrong. It’s this aspect of writing that makes editors say, “No way,” “Ho hum,” or “I’ve got a live one here!”
I know some people think, “Hey, it’s only the Internet, I’m barely getting paid; I want to just post the article and move on.” I know some people think, “Who cares about quality, it’s all relative anyway, and my writing is good enough.” Or they think, “I’m an informal kind of guy (gal) and I don’t need to know all this stuff to share a recipe on line.” If that’s you, then stop reading now. I’m just going to get you mad.
But if you, like me, think that ANYTHING with your name on it is part of your brand, and can be seen and judged by someone who might want to pay you real money, read on. Correcting the mistakes I cover can help you kick your writing up a notch – and can help you get gigs that pay professional rates.
Getting Started on the Path to Good Writing
Before we get started with the specifics, let’s look at five broad-brush things we can all do to improve our writing right out of the gate:
- Read a grammar book from cover to cover. Yes, I know all about the recent revisionist views on the iconic Strunk and White (Elements of Style). I don’t care. The point isn’t to do what they say; it’s to understand what they say. Read it, and think about it. Or read something else: Something — anything — that makes you think about how you choose and use your words.
- Use spell check and grammar check as a starting point, not an ending point. Use them, but use them carefully. Spell check doesn’t catch homonyms (there, they’re, their). “But I used spell check” is never an excuse. Similarly, I ran some abominable syntax through Word’s grammar check, and the tortured sentences sailed through. The grammar check seems more concerned with contractions and passive voice than with much more serious (but less computer-identifiable) issues.
- Read aloud. The mistakes and awkward syntax pop up like Mexican jumping beans.
- Ask for help. I often suggest this to writers who have certain kinds of problems, and I fear many of them take it as an insult, no matter how gently I put it. But *I* ask for help — from fellow writers, from editors, from readers I respect. Why shouldn’t you? The editing on the Internet tends to be cursory; we ALL need ALL the help we can get.
- Understand the rules. The better you understand the rules, the more effectively you can break them. I use an informal voice: That means *I* address *you.* I use contractions and split infinitives (which I beg my editors to keep in place in informal how-to writing). I start the occasional sentence with “and” or “but.” I use sentence fragments for effect (although not as much as Annie Proulx did in The Shipping News; at one point, her fragments made me throw the book across the room.) I use too many parentheses, and my editors sometimes have to rein me in like a runaway racehorse. The rule for breaking rules is this: You have to know the rule you’re breaking, and you have to have a reason for breaking it.
Unless you’re a prodigal genius, in which case you are free to leave the classroom.
Everyone still here? Good.
What do We Mean by Good Writing?
Good writing is about good thinking: direct, honest, orderly, creative, original. It can be dry, straight, funny, quirky. Above all, it is about clarity. What is the intent of your piece? Who is it for? Is it clear? Do your words help get the message across or do they bury it so deeply under grammatical problems and stylistic tics that no one even knows what you are saying?
The following examples are representative of writing mistakes I’ve encountered as an editor. Some of them, such the passive voice, technically are not mistakes, but they are style issues that need to be considered and managed with intent. Others are writing problems that render the article awkward: Reading articles with these problems feels like you’re riding in the back of a pick-up truck on a bumpy dirt road. Sometime syntax is so tangled it obliterates the meaning completely.
Note: My sentences are taken from various writing problems I’ve seen over the last 30 years. But they are all in the literary equivalent of the Witness Protection Program. For example, if a sample bad sentence reads “The cats and dogs being fed, it was a good day to go for a walk” the original sentence probably read something like “The children being lulled to sleep, it was a nice evening to talk about the future.” Both sentences are equally nonsensical in the same way, but I don’t think anyone, even the author of the original sentence would recognize herself or himself, especially since some of these examples are many years old and come from a variety of jobs. (And PS: I made that one up.)
Ready? Here we go.
Avoid Passive Voice — or Use it Very Carefully
- “There are varying strategies that can be employed to build up the strength of a runner’s muscles.”
This sentence is an example of using the passive voice unnecessarily and poorly.
Compare this less wordy, more active alternative (12 words instead of 17): “Runners can use several different strategies to build strength in their muscles.”
That’s much, much better because it gets right to the point. And the point doesn’t need to be surrounded by all those extra words.
Use the passive voice carefully and sparingly: Yes, it is not incorrect. Yes, it can be useful. Yes, some elegant, wonderful, skilled, literate, lauded, award-winning writers use it. But those people are not reading this article to help them get published; you are. And unless all those adjectives apply to you, or you can explain why your use of the passive voice makes your sentence stronger, avoid it. For one thing, it is frequently badly used and over-used by less skilled writers. And for another, the passive voice is a known editor-irritant, especially in consumer publications. Many editors will dismiss a writer out of hand who uses passive voice badly, or who over-uses it… and deciding where the line is between “use” and “over-use” is at the discretion of the editor. As writers, we have no say in the matter of an editor’s preference, especially when we are querying them and asking for work.
The passive voice is beloved by academics (who are allergic to first person). Passive voice avoids telling us who did what to whom. Often, it’s weasel-words. Active sentences don’t have the luxury of obfuscation. (Love that word: it seems to do what it talks about!)
It’s true that sometimes the passive voice is the only effective way to write a sentence. Sometimes, the most important piece of information in the sentence is what was done, not who did it. Sometimes we don’t want to say who did it, or we don’t know who did it. In those cases, the passive voice works. There will still be plenty of times where you have to, or feel you need to, use the passive voice. Being judicious and sparing with this technique will make your writing tighter — and more appealing to most editors, especially of consumer publications.
Use “There Is” and “There Are” Correctly
- “There’s much more information in the second sentence than in the first one…”
Okay, that sentence isn’t in the witness protection program. I wrote that one (it originally appeared later in the first draft of this article). It’s not technically incorrect, but I changed it to “The second sentence contains more information than the first.” Isn’t that spiffier?
Avoiding the various forms of the verb “to be” almost always strengthens a sentence. Overusing “there is” can be flabby and repetitive. There are plenty of times you’ll need to use “there is” or “there are” in a sentence, so save them for those occasions.
- “There’s lots of reasons why….”
If you must use “There is” and “there are,” use them correctly.
I don’t know how or when “there’s lots of….” or “There ‘s many ways to…” snuck into the language, but it drives me nuts. I’ve even seen editors use it. Repeatedly. (Note: I am not complaining about the use of contractions here; that’s a given in informal writing. I’m complaining about the use of the wrong contraction.)
“There’s” refers to one thing: “There’s a tree on my lawn.”
“There ARE” refers to more than one thing. “There are many trees on my lawn.”
You wouldn’t say, “There is many trees on my lawn” would you? Jeez, I hope not. If you would, there is many careers you could consider other than writing.
Be Authoritative. Take a Stand. Say What You Mean.
- “Most people would probably agree that inflation usually decreases the value of money.” (footnoted)
This sentence was in a book proposal I read 30 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Someone who is THAT insecure about a subject or who is THAT afraid to take a stand should not be writing about it. If something isn’t always true, SAY it isn’t always true, and give an example. I’m no economist, but just off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example of when inflation DOESN’T decrease the value of money. Can you???
Avoid Empty, Non-Specific Words
- “Many amusement parks are often offering free babysitting for infants these days.”
You need either the “many” or the “often,” but you don’t need both, and you don’t need the “these days” at all.
Not only that, but imprecise words like “many” and “often” are weak. It would be stronger to say, “According to Amusement Today, the newest trend among amusement parks is to offer babysitting services for infants during peak family-travel times.” The second sentence contains a lot more information than the first, including a reason for the trend, when those “often” times are, and a source.
Some more examples:
- “I have been to every single country in Europe.” As opposed to “every country in Europe”? What does the word “single” contribute to the sentence? Nothing? Then ditch it.
- “Each and every student will follow the rules.” If each student is following the rules, then every student is following the rules. If every student is following the rules, each is following the rules. You could simply say “All students will follow the rules.” You MIGHT have a reason for “each and every” – but you should know what it is before you use an overused but usually unnecessary phrase.
- “For adults and children alike…” Is the word “alike” necessary? Be sure the answer is yes.
Untangle Mangled Syntax
- “European vacations have come down to an affordable choice for most people.”
This sentence has so many problems I don’t know where to start. First of all European vacations haven’t come down to anything. The PRICE of European vacations may have come down. But a price is not a choice. And European vacations is an awfully big category.
I‘d be a lot more comfortable hearing that “The price of the average seven-day European family holiday package has decreased from $xxxx to $xxxx in the last three years, making dream vacations in cities like Rome, Madrid, or even Paris a more affordable option.” (You could easily break that into two sentences, by the way; I’d make that decision based on the length and complexity of the surrounding sentences.)
I’d skip the “for most people” especially if you are writing for Americans: Most Americans don’t have a passport, and most can’t afford a European vacation.
- “What is the story about this knight and the country where he comes from?”
Here’s another syntactically challenged sentence. Think about your words and how they sound parsed together. This sentence isn’t a criminal assault against grammar, but it’s flat. First of all, “country where he comes from” is juvenile and awkward. Grammar check isn’t flagging it (to my never-ending disgust) but we could do so much better. Second, do we really want the knight and his country in the same sentence?
Wouldn’t it be better to say, “So what is the story of this tragic knight? And what do we really know about Avalon, that misty, mystical, misunderstood land where he spent his childhood?” Note how we can get some actual WRITING into our question, not to mention a heck of a lot more information.
Use Correct Parallel Construction
- “Caravanning can be an awesome way of seeing the world, as well as being a nightmare.”
Parallel verb forms must match. This should read “Caravanning can be an awesome way to see the world; it can also be a nightmare.”
More nits to pick in this sentence: I’d ditch the word “awesome:” Awesome in what way? Decide whether it’s educational, relaxing, comfortable, luxurious — then use THAT word. And you better give us some examples of how it can be nightmare, as well.
- “In hiking, the trick is to know what kind of things will be happening, as well as not having too many high hopes.”
Oh, dear. I don’t even think I can begin to fix this. There’s the verb problem (The phrase “to know what kinds of things will be happening” doesn’t match the phrase “not having too many…”)
But in addition, what kinds of “things” are we talking about? Good things, bad things, daily routines? The “high hopes” business makes me a little worried. Why can’t I have high hopes? Why will they be dashed? (The next sentence in this example didn’t tell me. The author just wanted me not to hope too hard.)
Another problem with this sentence is the use of “The trick is.” It’s an overused phrase. But more importantly, in this case, it overpromises. Does this sentence really deliver on its promise to share a “trick” with the reader?
Avoid Poor and Clichéd Word Choices
- “Whether it be a guided adventure in Thailand, Turkey, or Tonga, there is a tour for everyone.”
First of all, we have the parallel construction problem here: “Whether it be” doesn’t parse with “there is a.” Better to say: “Whether it be elephant trekking in Thailand, digging in ancient ruins in Turkey, or scuba diving Tonga, an adventure tour offers fun for everyone.” See how much more info you get in there?
But I still don’t like it: “Whether it be” is one of those oft-used phrases that sounds kinda sorta elevated and “smart” but adds nothing. What is wrong with plain old “whether you choose an adventure tour in …”?
I’m also not wild about the gratuitous alliteration. Anyone can think of three words in a row that start with the same letter. There are clever, poetic ways to do this that tie in with the content, and there are clunky ways. I came up with the alliteration in that sentence, so I get to be the judge: My use of alliteration here is gratuitous and unnecessary and it doesn’t add anything.
In contrast, I used alliteration in a previous example: “misty, mystical, misunderstood land.” In that case, I chose the words for the poetic way they merged together, the rhythm of the sentence, and the meaning of the words. I also liked that they not only began with “M,” but with “mis,” which emphasized the word “mist,” which I always associate with Avalon. And I liked that the most important word — misty — came first. Even better, “misty” has two syllables; it was followed by “mystical” (three syllables), then “misunderstood” (four syllables). That created a kind of internal crescendo in the sentence as we moved from a tangible fog (mist) to the intangible fog of incomprehension (misunderstood). In contrast, in the example above, I just randomly picked the first three places I could think of that began with “T.” That is not a good reason. (P.S: We are all occasionally guilty of using an alliteration that doesn’t add much, me included, so the best thing to do is NOT over-do it, okay? Once in a while, fine. If it’s clever, by all means put it in there. It’s a judgment call, so use some judgment.)
- “The food is amazing”
(Or worse: “The food amazes.” Amazes whom? The lack of an object here is just plain pretentious.)
Even worse is the use of “amazing” in the first place. Or “awesome” Or “really beautiful.” Or “beyond compare” Come on, you’re a writer! What’s amazing? The presentation? What about it? The decor? What about that? The flavors? The fusion? Describe it so WE – your readers – say “Wow! That sounds like it must have been amazing!”
Make Language Level Consistent
- “The perpetrator emerged from the edifice and gunned down the snitches.”
Okay, so I made this one up. The first half of the sentence is elevated bureaucracy-speak. We’ve all heard cops with working-class accents being interviewed on television (or on TV cop shows) using words that sound like they were written by a committee in the public relations department. The second part of the sentence – “gunned down the snitches” — is informal. A better-balanced sentence would be “The suspect left the building and fired his weapon at the informants.” Language level problems are often caused by poorly using complex forms of words with Latin origins (words that came to English via the romance languages). These words are perceived as more formal, somehow “higher-class,” and when you add prefixes and suffixes to these words — “ized” or “ated” or “atory” or “tion” – you make the tone more elevated, academic, and formal (not to mention, hard to read). Words with Germanic origins are shorter, blunter, harsher, more direct and plainspoken, and easier to understand. In writing, you need to choose your level based on audience and topic. Then stay reasonably consistent, except when you deliberately use a contrasting level for effect. Your suspect can emerge from the edifice, or he can gun down the snitches, but he can’t do both.
Got a writing pet peeve? A suggestion? A correction I need to make in the above article? (Judging from my record with typos, I’m betting there are at least a dozen.) Please use the comment box!