Common Writing Mistakes: A Cheat Sheet
I have compiled a list of common writing mistakes. I pulled these particular mistakes from an open-form class assignment I assigned to a class one year, but I have seen many of these issues in several kinds of writing, and beginning writers often have to fight to keep these errors out of their work.
1. Each speaker gets her own paragraph, her own return, and an indent.
I went to the story to get a loaf of bread, container of milk, and a stick of butter. On the way home I ran into my old teacher, Ms. Davies. We had a quick chat.
“What’s in the bag?” Ms. Davies asked.
“Nothing much,” I replied, though I thought she was nosy for asking. “It’s just a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter."
2. In American English, punctuation almost always goes inside the quotes. Exceptions are usually found in citations.
"My car is blue," said Betsy. Quotation mark, no space, dialogue, punctuation, no space, quotation mark, dialogue attribute no caps, punctuation.
Note: this also applies to direct quotes in other types of writing. It does not apply to indirect quotes.
Direct quote: Billiam said, "When I rang the doorbell, the dog started barking."
Indirect quote: Billaim said that when he rang the doorbell, the dog started barking.
This is true by default. Indirect quotes have no need for quotation marks.
When would you not use punctuation inside quotation marks in American English?
The chef listed three "secret ingredients": espresso, sugar, and peat moss. Note the colon outside of the quote here.
His favorite team is the "Rams"; he has never missed any of their games. Disregarding that I have no love for the semicolon and prefer to split a sentence into two rather than use one in my own writing, this is the proper way to use a semicolon with punctuation. End quote, then the semicolon.
She cackled and announced, "I don't think he will pass any of his classes" - then he came home with straight As on his report card.
These rules are complicated by the fact that you see all different types of use online, including flagrant misuse of quotes, commas and other punctuation in professional writing. If you want to see what makes me grind my teeth at night, check out this Instagram post. Yes, I post about grammar I find in ads.
3. Punctuation tags (he said, she replied, I asked) are linked by a comma, not a period.
Hey there have you seen my car keys Sarah asked. No Maddie said I have no idea where your keys are. If you see them let me know Sarah said looking worried. Absolutely Maddie said with a tone of concern.
Overlooking that this is bad writing, note that the correct way to format this follows the three rules above:
“Hey there, have you seen my car keys?” Sarah asked.
“No,” Maddie said. “I have no idea where your keys are.
“If you see them, let me know,” Sarah said, looking worried.
“Absolutely,” Maddie replied, with a tone of concern.
If you get confused, just open a page of dialogue written by a writer who uses quotation marks and follow the format while you are writing yours. Pay attention to every detail, including spacing after punctuation. You will eventually get the hang of it. Note: I am a fan of quotation marks and dialogue formatting when reading dialogue. Not all writers use them. Call me old school, but I believe it is easier for the eye to read, and you don't ever want to give your readers an impediment.
The Dreaded Comma
Commas exist to guide the reader through a sentence and prevent misreading. Some people use them freely, even indiscriminately, to mark wherever they would naturally pause in speaking, but this is not correct. These are two common crimes of omission I often see are:
1. Not using a comma when using a conjunction to join two sentences.
Remember the FANBOYS coordinate conjunction acronym:
For, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Use a comma when you use these conjunctions to join two sentences.
This is correct:
It is important to eat breakfast, but what you choose to eat for breakfast is also important.
This is incorrect:
Bacon, and eggs are my favorite breakfast foods.
And, but, and or do not need commas.
A Quick Note About Lists:
Bacon, eggs, and toast are my favorite breakfast foods. This is correct, for the comma is used here to separate three or more elements in a series.
I will refrain from talking about the Oxford comma, but here is a link if you want to read about it. If you want to know my grammatical political leanings, I am an unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. It never leaves you guessing.
2. Not using a comma when you introduce the main part of a sentence with a transitional work (first, a little later, suddenly, meanwhile, at the same time).
This is correct:
First, listen to your mother.
Suddenly, the cat leaped for the bird.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ms. Davies had fallen off her horse.
This is incorrect:
I practically fell asleep, I was literally bored out of my mind. I often notice rampant pocking of papers with commas when they are not needed, such as joining two perfectly decent solo sentences together. Each of these sentences is fine living on its own. They don't need to be united in one sentence.
For a more comprehensive tutorial on the comma, click here.
If you want to dive a little deeper:
For more on semicolons, go here:
For a look at the quagmire that is the apostrophe, check out this link .
Transition words are the compass of any good writing.You need them to orient your reader. Your readers should not have to work to know where in time they are. Your readers should never have to go back and re-read something you wrote because it wasn’t clear. Here are some transition words that work:
a little later
three hours later
Active Voice/Passive Voice
A passive verb tense can turn any piece of writing into a tepid piece of lily-livered fog. Passive verbs suck the energy out of otherwise good writing. Passive voice kills opportunity for action, it convoluted logical progression of chronology, and it sucks the joy from the souls of your readers.
The mailman was bitten by the dog. (tepidly passive)
The mailman had been bitten by the dog. (awkwardly passive)
My dog bit the mailman. (active)
Passive voice is not always bad. It’s just usually bad. There are times when you should use it, such as in journalism when you are reporting an action but you don’t know the identity of the person performing the action, but for the most part, stay hyper-vigilant about keeping it out of your work. Your future professors will thank you, and you can thank me. For a sweet little discussion on active vs. passive voice, check out this link here.
It is common for new-ish writers to feel that they should avoid simple-speak and write elaborate, detail-soaked prose at all times. Why write a five-word sentence when you can write a thirty-word sentence?
I walked across the room and picked up my poodle.
Uh-oh. What if that is too simple? Too dull? I’d better add some detail.
I walked angrily across the room, snatching my poodle quickly off the table.
Hmm, perhaps that is not conveying the emotion clearly. I should expand it.
I walked angrily across the sun-speckled floor of the dirt-riddled vet’s office, glaring at the vet tech and the medical instruments that littered the groaning counter tops as I snatched up my inky black female toy poodle from the cold, sterile, metal examination table that had stood menacingly in that very spot for years.
Is it descriptive? Yes. Is it full of concrete words? Yes. Is it overwritten? Absolutely. Sometimes a simple sentence is a better choice, especially when mirrored against other sentences around it in the same paragraph.
If you want to improve your skill in this area, read a lot. Write a lot. Practice.
Writing instructors often tell their students to “show, don’t tell.” Readers respond better to a piece of writing when they are shown the scene, not told about how the scene made the writer feel.
My grandfather was the one in my life who showed me how to live fearlessly. By living fearlessly, I have been able to face my fears in life, and not be afraid of them. I am so grateful to my grandfather for teaching me how to live a fearless life.
Cool idea. Not a single concrete thing in there, except for the fact that we know the writer has a grandfather. What does living fearlessly look like? How does this writer live fearlessly now? What are the lessons that the writer’s grandfather gave him to teach him about facing or ignoring fear. What did the grandfather do to illustrate this? We readers know nothing.
Be specific, but don’t overwrite. It's a balance that takes practice.
I often see writers start off using a particular verb tense, and then slip into another one without meaning to. It’s easy to do. The best way to check this is to go over each sentence to assure that your verbs stay in the same tense. Then you can check it twice by reading your work out loud.
I woke up early and decided that today would be the day that I would make the dreaded phone call. I hated to do it, but I knew that it was necessary. I locked myself in the bathroom with my cellphone, determined to not come out until I made the call. When I pick up the phone, my hand is shaking. I dial the number.
See the switch here? This is a colossal no-no in writing and the only way to fix it is to go over your writing carefully, looking at each verb tense.
You can find a delightfully simple page on English language verb tenses here.
Try to keep your words low on the scale of abstraction. Readers often struggle to connect with grandiose, universal phrases. As writers, we want our readers to be able to visualize what we are writing about. We want to give them an experience. It is hard to do that when we use words like this:
Then I had the idea. The frightening idea. The most horrifying idea I could ever imagine in my whole entire life.
My goodness, would you please just tell me what the idea is? What is the idea? What is frightening about it? How does it horrify you?
Here is a paragraph from Ray Bradbury’s novel, Farewell Summer, in which a group of boys look inside the display window of a candy shop. Note how well the concrete words work here:
"Inside, honey lay sheathed in warm African chocolate. Plunged and captured in the amber treasure lay fresh Brazil nuts, almonds, and glazed clusters of snowy coconut. June butter and August wheat were clothed in dark sugars. All were crinkled in folded tin foil, then wrapped in red and blue papers that told the weight, ingredients, and manufacturer. In bright bouquets the candies lay, caramels to glue the teeth, licorice to blacken the heart, chewy wax bottles filled with sickening mint and strawberry sap, Tootsie Rolls to hold like cigars, red-tipped chalk-mint cigarettes for chill mornings when your breath smoked on the air.
The boys, in the middle of the shop, saw diamonds to crunch, fabulous liquors to swig. Persimmon-colored pop bottles swam, clinking softly, in the Nile waters of the refrigerated box, its water cold enough to cut your skin. Above, on glass shelves, lay cord-wood piles of gingersnaps, macaroons, chocolate bits, vanilla wafers shaped like moons, and marshmallow dips, white surprises under black masquerades. All of this to coat the tongue, plaster the palate.”
Varying Sentence Structure and Length
It is easy to get into a pattern when the words start rolling off your fingertips, and sentences begin to resemble each other. When you are writing a rough draft, it is okay for this to happen, but when you are revising, think about your sentence structure in terms of each sentence within a single paragraph. You don’t want all sentences to be the same length or cadence. You don’t want them all to begin with a certain verb tense (I woke up early. I got out of bed. I walked to the toilet and used it. I shuffled downstairs to the kitchen. I prepared a pot of coffee. I cooked breakfast…etc.). Good writing offers readers a variety of sentence lengths and styles, often within a single paragraph. A short, sharp sentence packs a wallop when it is next to longer, more flowery sentences.
Purdue Owl has some good examples of how to revise this kind of issue.
Avoiding “Meh” Words and Phrases
I was very tired. I was so tired. I was really tired. I was extremely tired. There are hundred better ways to use language to evoke an emotion than using these vague words. If worse comes to worse, simply write, "I was tired." Use a well-placed idea after that short sentence to illustrate how tired you were.
Here is a short and painful list of "meh" words:
very, so, really, extremely, absolutely, entirely, always, literally, basically, honestly, amazing, stuff, irregardless…
If you are going to use “so,” make it pack a punch.
Use it to illustrate or even exaggerate:
I was so tired I was in danger of falling asleep at the wheel.
I was so tired that I imagined curling up by the fry machine during my shift.
I was so tired that I collapsed on my bed as if I had been shot.
Here are some helpful links that list some more of these uninspiring “meh” words. Strike them from your writing whenever possible and your writing will be more dynamic.
Good writing takes practice. Practice is painful, but it makes you a better thinker and a better writer. I urge everyone who writes using American English rules to either commit these rules to memory or promise yourselves to quadruple check your punctuation use before publishing anything. Keep at it, but remember: