August 2, 2014

5 Mistakes That Weaken Your Writing

I’ll be the first to say that being a successful freelance writer requires more marketing and business savvy than writing skill. Writing beautiful, flowing prose won’t make you much money unless you know how to market yourself, negotiate fee structures and contracts, and keep your editors happy. That’s why this blog usually focuses on business strategies for freelancers.
However, avoiding common writer’s pitfalls certainly helps. Here are several ways in which you may be weakening your writing.
  1. Incorrect word usage.
    I see this all the time in blog posts: the writer uses affect when she means effect or whether when she means weather. It’s even worse when someone mixes up words that don’t sound the same but share a few common letters. Guest blogger Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen wrote a piece on commonly misused words and phrases. Grammar Girl is another good resource for grammar and usage questions.
  2. Poor use of quotes.
    I used to insert lots of quotes into my articles even when it would be simpler to paraphrase the person’s insights. But too many quotes can interrupt the flow of your article, so I’ve since learned to focus on quotes that add color. Usually the writer should summarize background material instead of directly quoting a source for every statement (though you can use phrases like “According to Jane Smith” or “Smith says that …” to attribute this background information). Michelle Rafter offers more insights on the correct use of quotes.
  3. Lack of sentence variety.
    Are you using the same tired structure for every single sentence? Do you overwhelm the reader with too many long, detailed sentences in a row? Do you see the point I’m trying to make by using a series of rhetorical questions? I bet you do! Now I’m changing things up to show you how much more interesting that is. Although starting a sentence with a dependent clause can sound intelligent, this syntax shouldn’t be used too often or it can sound repetitive. Vary your sentence structure. Throw in a short, punchy sentence to break up a series of longer ones. Use rhetorical questions sparingly.
  4. Passive voice.
    I don’t agree with everything that English teachers say (“Never use sentence fragments!” “Never end a sentence with a preposition!”), but in most cases, passive voice does complicate and weaken your writing. Why say “this blog was updated by Susan” when you could say “Susan updated her blog”? Grammar Girl offers even more information on the passive voice.
  5. Over-writing.
    Lively language can keep the reader interested, but over-using alliteration or metaphor or other devices can fall as flat as a day-old pancake at a roadside diner. If a metaphor makes sense and supports the point you’re trying to make, go for it! But if you’re including a clever aside or an impressive SAT word to show off, that usually detracts from your writing and obscures your message. Ditto on the adverbs and adjectives. Often you can find a more interesting verb or noun to eliminate the need for modifiers.
What do you think? Are there other ways in which we undermine our writing? Do tell!
Flickr photo courtesy of Nic’s events

Comments

  1. Great tips! I totally agree with all of them, particularly numbers two and three combined. I see a lot of the summarize-quote-summarize structure used over and over (and only recently got out of the habit myself), even when the quote is something not particularly compelling, like, "Ice cream is great!" I always try to find the interesting or funny quotes and paraphrase everything else.

  2. I LOATHE the "then/than" switch, and feel embarrassed when someone uses "leary" when they mean "weary."

    Drives me up a freakin' wall!

  3. briannelise says:

    i don't really find grammargirl to be a good source for usage, re: folksy use of "good" as adverb and some other contentious opinions. see: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2538

  4. The Red Angel says:

    Argh, I am a grammar freak, and it REALLY bugs me when people have #1 in their writing.

    Incorrect grammar can often lead to a reader's attention towards your grammatical errors rather
    than the article/piece of writing itself. It's important to use good spelling and grammar rules
    so that the piece of work maintains its flow.

    I do have to admit, though, that for me it's hard to remember to use passive voice. :/ I'm not sure why.

    Thanks for the links, they're helpful! :)

    ~TRA

    http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

  5. Eva / Sycamore Street Press says:

    Great advice! I definitely need to sharpen up my grammar skills.

  6. Cheryl Lynn says:

    I received a copy of a friend of mine's book and couldn't get through the first page because it was riddled with errors.

    Number 1 is a real problem with writers today. Number 5 is something I have to work on in my own writing.

    Thanks for the tips.

  7. red presence wordpress says:

    Quotes are like poems, grab a thought bite and write it. I reread my writing aloud and that is a fast way to pick up passive voice, not so smart with the spelling.
    Printing the piece helps as no matter how many computer edits the paper version will show more flaws.

  8. I agree. And a lot of the time, we limit our vocabulary to four-letter words.

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