Common Writing Mistakes and Some Easy Fixes

Below are some of the most common writing mistakes I see in student work. Many are mistakes that are relatively minor but can have a major (negative) impact on the overall quality of the writing. Luckily, these mistakes often have easy and fast fixes. So, before you turn in your next paper, check to see if you’ve made any of this errors. Fixing these small problems can lead to higher grades!

Mistake #1: Not specifying what “this” is

The Mistake: This mistake is the most common mistake I read in student writing–and it’s a mistake that I made myself until my undergraduate advisor brought it to my attention with a series of large red circles all over my papers. In short, students will often use the word “this” as the sole subject of the sentence. This is bad.

The Problem: If you write “This is bad” the question is what? What is bad? “This” is imprecise and unspecified. It makes your writing open to interpretation–it makes the reader have to guess at what specifically you are getting at.

The Fix: Put a noun after the word “this.” Instead of writing “This is bad,” write “This sentence is bad.” Anytime you see the word “this” in your paper–make sure it’s followed by another noun. You will sound more confident and your argument will automatically be improved.

Mistake #2: Leaving a hanging dependent clause

The Mistake: So often, I see students leave dependent clauses out to stand alone like it’s a full sentence on its own. An example of such a hanging clause: “While I love to teach.” If you read this phrase, you should immediately ask: why? While you love to teach, but what? The idea is incomplete on its own. It implies that something is to follow it.

The Problem: It’s a problem because the grammar is wrong and your primary school grammar teacher will haunt you for making such an elementary mistake. But seriously, this is a problem because dependent clauses cannot act as independent sentences (thus they are dependent on another thought or idea).

The Fix: Read your paper through before turning it in–bonus points for reading it aloud. Reading your paper through should allow you to notice those “but what” or “and what” questions when you encounter a dependent clause. This will work better if you give yourself a few hours in between the writing and the final review.

Mistake #3: Using jargon from class because you think you should

The Mistake: Using jargon–or buzzwords–from a course in your paper just because you had to learn the terms in class. Many students throw key class terms into their papers to show that they “payed attention/learned/did the reading.”

The Problem: If you do this without actually understanding what these terms mean AND how they are used in the context of the subject, you aren’t going to slip under the radar. Instead, your paper is going to light up like a beacon of “I am bullsh*ting this writing assignment.” If you use words wrong–your professors can tell.

The Fix: Most obviously, make sure you do the readings and pay attention. Beyond taking this step, make sure you also follow up with any terms you don’t understand. Ask the question in class or after class or even send your professor an email. A simple “Dr. B, I want to make sure I am using the term hegemony right. If I say: ‘The United States has achieved hegemony after the Cold War because it was the most powerful state in the world’ does this work?” Is a quick, easy email for me to reply “yes!” to. But the fail safe fix here is to avoid using the word if you don’t know what it means and don’t have the ability to check on it.

Mistake #4: Not reading over your paper before turning it in

The Mistake: This is another HUGE mistake I see students make all the time. The mistake here is not failing to revise, but rather failing to review–as in grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc. I have literally had students turn in their paper with incomplete sentences: they obviously walked away from their computer mid thought, and returned later beginning afresh.

The Problem: Hopefully, the problem here should be fairly obvious: you’ve left your paper vulnerable to any number of copy editing mistakes. It makes you seem lazy/sloppy.

The Fix: Read over your paper before turning it in. You can do this any number of ways: print it an read it aloud to yourself; put it into google translate and have google read it to you; the newest versions of Microsoft word will actually read you the text on the paper. However you do it, DO IT! I cannot stress this enough.

Mistake #5: Trying to “sound smart”

The Mistake: Frequently, students think that they need to “sound smarter” by using overly long sentences and/or using extra words to communicate their ideas. They end up with paragraphs that run over multiple pages, or sentences that are as long as an entire paragraph.

The Problem: Making your writing more complicated doesn’t actually make you sound smarter. Rather, it makes it more difficult for the reader to truly understand your ideas. All writing should be written for an audience, and if your reader has to re-read the paragraph (or sentence) multiple times in order to make sense of what’s on the page, you’ve got a problem.

The Fix: Keep. It. Simple. Follow the KISS Method is the #1 piece of advice I give my students about their writing. The simplest way to communicate your idea if often the best way to communicate it. It also makes your ideas and your arguments really stand out and it makes them clearer and stronger.

These are five of the smaller, more common errors I often run into in student writing. Double check your next writing assignme


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