Avoiding Common Writing Problems
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.
Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible -
Good writing skills are vital to your future career success, as we have discussed in class. To
assist you in improving your writing skills, I recommend studying the little book by Jan Venolia,
Write Right (2001, 4th ed., Ten Speed Press). She also has published an excellent
companion volume, ReWrite Right (2000, 2nd ed., Ten Speed Press). Note especially the
following list of common writing problem areas:
- Possessives & plurals - especially "its" rather than it's (see Venolia section
- Punctuation (section 3), especially:
- Use of commas, including their use to set off certain phrases and clauses
- Contrasting words or phrases, e.g., Advice is judged, not by intentions, but by
- Parenthetical phrases (as though contained in parentheses), e.g., Great blunders are
often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibers. (Victor Hugo)
- Semicolon vs. dash vs. comma (section 3), including:
- Normally, separate independent clauses with semicolons (with some exceptions
- Reserve the dash for occasional attention-getters and informal writing.
- Parentheses have the effect of an aside or example; avoid overusing them.
- Agreement of subject and verb, and agreement of subject and pronoun (section
- Confused and abused words (section 5) especially:
- all right (not alright)
- criterion/criteria (be clear on which is plural)
- data (always plural)
- irregardless (never use it, just drop the 1st two letters)
- "Reverse Rules" (3rd ed appendix, but not in 4th ed.) provide some tongue-in-cheek
examples of major problems to avoid:
- Avoid overuse, of commas.
- Never let a colon separate: the main parts of the sentence.
- Put the apostrophe where its needed.
- Reserve the dash -- which is often overused -- for emphasis.
- Avoid un-necessary hyphens; divide words only between sy-llables.
- Use a semicolon where needed, use it properly; and never where not called for.
- Avoid run-on sentences they seem to go on forever.
- In general, don't abbrev.
- Have a good reason for Capitalizing a word.
- In formal writing, don't use contractions.
- Consult a dictionery for correct spelling.
- Observe the rule that verbs has to agree with their subjects.
- Make each subject and pronoun agree in their number, too.
- Use parallel construction in writing sentences, forming paragraphs, and to emphasize
- After studying these rules, dangling modifiers will be easy to correct.
- Omit unnecessary, excess words that aren't needed.
- Generally, writing should be in the active voice.
- Don't use trendy words whose parameters are not viable.
- Avoid verbing a noun.
- The careful writer avoids bias in his words.
- Watch out for irregular verbs that have crope into your language.
- Eschew archaic words.
- Proofread carefully in case you any words out.
- When a writer has chosen a point of view, you should stick to it.
- Mixing metaphors can be a real stroke of lightning.
- No matter,how hard you try, typos often silp by.
- No double negatives are seldom inappropriate.
In addition to the items above, you should read the Style section (# 6) in Venolia several
times before writing your case reports. Your reports should be a competent business report from
you, as a consultant, to an important CEO client. This includes the expectation that you will take
the time to write a solid, concise report, rather than stop with a rambling, lengthy draft.
We all deserve some empathy in trying to master English, given its many irregularities. Here
are a few examples of why the English language is hard to learn:
- The bandage was wound around the wound.
- The farm was used to produce produce.
- The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
- We must polish the Polish furniture.
- He could lead if he would get the lead out.
- The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
- Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
- A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
- When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
- I did not object to the object.
- The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
- There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
- They were too close to the door to close it.
- The buck does funny things when the does are present.
- A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
- To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
- The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
- After a number of injections my jaw got number.
- Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
- I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
- How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
To make our words count for as much as possible is surely the simplest
as well as the hardest secret of style. (Wilson Follett)
He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever
met. (Abraham Lincoln)
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|Last modified March 30, 2009
||Copyright 1984-2009 Rex Mitchell