In the first installment, I enumerated ten of the most common mistakes that I frequently see in my clients’ writing. Before I get to the next ten mistakes, it bears repeating that grammar rules are around for good reason – clarity and credibility. If your writing is poor, people won’t trust what you have to say (if they understand it in the first place)!
If you’re going to take the time to write something, you need to make sure it communicates what you’re trying to say. Otherwise, you’ve wasted your time. So here are the remaining ten of the top 20 mistakes that beginning writers make, with two bonus blunders.
Too many unnecessary words – I see a lot of needless words such as seek “out” or write “down.” All you need to say is “seek” or “write” – the extra words are implied. While these extra words may be colloquial, they muddy your meaning in the written word. Here’s another example: “similar interests as we have.” You don’t need “as we have” because, again, it’s implied.
Pronouns that don’t track – This is one of the most common problems for beginning writers. Do you see the problem with this sentence? “We all often have problems with organizational skills, and they can’t figure out what to do about them.” Wait a minute! Is “they” referring to organizational skills or the “we” who are having problems with those skills? Make sure you maintain the same pronoun throughout a sentence. You can vary your pronouns from sentence to sentence as long as it’s clear that you’re switching. For example, you could write: “We all have problems with organizational skills. So what can you do if organization is a challenge for you?” That was a seamless switch from “we” to “you.”
Over-use of “ing” – This is another issue I see a lot. Don’t say, “we are going” or “I’ve been wanting” unless you have a very good reason for it. Simply say, “we went” or “I’ve wanted.” Most of the time, the “ing” is unnecessary and sounds unprofessional in writing.
Too many clauses in one sentence – (This is an elaboration of one of the mistakes from the first article.) Be careful not to make your sentences too long or put too many clauses in one sentence. For example: “Mr. Smith, in his efforts to stay afloat, particularly in a suffering economy, made surprising financial mistakes, especially when you consider that, despite his extensive knowledge, he did exactly what he had always instructed others not to do.” Whoa! That’s hard to track, isn’t it? How about this instead? “In his efforts to stay afloat in a suffering economy, Mr. Smith made surprising financial mistakes. Despite his extensive knowledge, he did exactly what he had always instructed others not to do.” Keep it direct and simple, and divide your thoughts into two or three sentences, if necessary.
Don’t be a sesquipedalianist! – What’s that? It’s someone who uses a lot of big or long words that require the reader to have a dictionary at hand. You may feel smart if you do it, but your readers won’t appreciate it. Now, please forgive me for being a sesquipedalianist just this once.
Clauses that don’t track – The subject of the opening clause of your sentence must directly refer to the remainder of the sentence. Here’s an incorrect example. Can you see why it’s wrong? “Now a Starwood property, there are numerous museums within walking distance of the hotel.” The problem is that “there” doesn’t refer to the Starwood property. So this sentence becomes confusing. Here’s a fix: “Now a Starwood property, the hotel is within walking distance of numerous museums.” Do you see how that works? Now, it’s perfectly clear that the hotel is the Starwood property mentioned in the opening clause.
No rhythm in the writing – This is often the result of “children’s book syndrome”: “See Spot run. See Bill run after Spot. See Spot stop running.” To adult ears, that sounds choppy and boring, doesn’t it? That’s because all three sentences are short with the same rhythm. The opposite is also true, though. If you include lots of long sentences, the rhythm of your writing will sound equally strange. So take the time to make sure you have varied the rhythm with both long and short sentences.
Do you have too many sentences in succession that begin with “obviously,” “finally,” or “however”? Try not to put too many sentences in a row with the same structure. For example: “There are twelve museums in the city, and six of them are suitable for children. There are eight 5-star hotels, and there are seven 4-star hotels. There are only a few night clubs in the downtown area, and there are a few on the outskirts.” Do you see the problem? Three sentences in a row start with “there are” and end with an “and” clause. Find different ways to communicate so that you don’t have too many sentences – especially in a row – that sound the same.
Repetition – While it occasionally makes sense to repeat your most important points, don’t do it too much. I once edited a book that used the same famous quote in five different places. By the third time, I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time, I wanted to rip the pages. Make your points succinctly, and trust the reader to “get it.”
Wishy washy claims – There may be times when you need to qualify or soften a claim that you make in your writing, but most of the time, it’s better to make your claim with conviction. For example: Unless you have a good reason for saying, “Our skin cream helps minimize lines and wrinkles,” just say, “Our skin cream minimizes lines and wrinkles.” Using “helps” or some other qualifier weakens your points. It’s a way of saying, “Well, it sort of works, but not really all that well.” In this particular case, “minimizes” is already a qualifier; after all, you aren’t saying “eliminates.” Here’s a great (and funny) performance poem by Taylor Mali that illustrates this point about conviction.
Lists that don’t track – Click here for a perfect example of what I mean. I see this problem in many manuscripts and marketing copy. The sentence that you use at the top of a bulleted or numbered list must read properly with every item on your list. The example on the linked page essentially reads: “Give your child a chance to excel in hyperactivity.” Well, no one wants that! But this problem can be much subtler, so every time you create a list, read your opening sentence with each item to make sure it works in every case.
Bonus #1: Lose and loose – This misspelling has become an epidemic. The word “lose” is pronounced with a “z” sound, while “loose” is pronounced with an “s” sound. “Loose” refers to something that is not tight. “Lose” is the opposite of “win” or refers to when you have lost something.
Bonus #2: Couldn’t care less or could care less – For some reason that I can’t fathom, it has become commonplace to say, “She could care less” instead of “She couldn’t care less.” Think about this for a minute! If you’re trying to convey that someone doesn’t care, “she could care less” implies that she does indeed care – at least a little bit. The correct way to say it is: “She couldn’t care less.”