We all make mistakes; no one is perfect. What will set you apart is your ability to identify and fix those mistakes. As writers, we make the most fallible; our pieces are filled with grammatical errors, plot holes, contradictions, and wrong words. Even the best among us have to edit their pieces because no matter how experienced we are, new mistakes always come knocking.
A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit.
— Richard Bach
In this article, I am going to highlight a few common errors in writing that you can easily avoid.
1. Affect vs. effect
Affect and effect are homophones (similar sounding words) and lot of writers confuse their usage; interchanging them. It is one of the most common errors in writing that you can easily avoid it if you understand the basic grammar behind these two words.
Affect is a verb. It is used when someone or something is acting on something or someone to produce a result or change.
Example of Affect
The whole class was affected by his bad behavior.
Effect is a noun. It is used to convey the result or consequence of some action performed by someone or something.
Example of Effect
His rejection was an effect of his inexperience as a writer.
2. Its vs. it's
Its and it's are very easily confused due to their similar sound (and appearance).
Its is possessive (belonging to). It is used to represent ownership:
Example of Its
When he tried to get into the car, its door wouldn't open.
On the other hand, it's is a contraction of it has or it is (i.e. it is used in place of these).
Example of It's
It's going to be okay.
The trick to using them correctly is to replace the confusing words with it has or it is and see if it makes sense. If the sentence sounds correct use it's otherwise use its.
3. There's vs. theirs vs. they're
There, their and they're almost all sound exactly the same but they are used in very different contexts.
There refers to an idea or a place:
Example of There
There is my garage.
Their is possessive. It means something belonging to something or somebody:
Example of Their
Their cat keeps hiding in our store.
They're is a contraction like it's. It is used in place of they are:
Example of They're
They're a really nice people.
Commas (and other punctuation) are an essential part of writing. They help in improving readability and comprehensibility. A lot of new writers forget to learn the proper use of commas.
Sam who loved computer games was the first to arrive at the carnival.
If you read the above sentence, you will find it confusing. This is because "who loved computer games" is not important but it seems to be an important part of the sentence. The corrected version sounds much better:
Sam, who loved computer games, was the first to arrive at the carnival.
The clause "who loved computer games" can be taken out without affecting the meaning of the sentence: Sam was the first to arrive at the carnival. In such sentences, it is a good idea to use a comma before and after the clause.
Similarly in compound sentences in which two clauses are independent of each other, a comma should be included to indicate a pause:
Mary was good at teaching, and it was a holiday.
5. Sentence fragment
Another mistake writers make is to use sentences that don't make sense on their own. When a sentence does not make sense independently it becomes a fragment.
The war started between the two armies. And went on for a whole day.
In the above sentences, the second one does makes no sense on its own. It is better to make it part of the first sentence:
The war started between the two armies and went on for a whole day.
6. Use of semicolons
Semicolons are used when two sentences are related in such a way that the last sentences's meaning is not clear without the first one.
A lot writers are intimidated by semicolons but their proper use can make your sentences and paragraphs easier to read and understand.
The armies are near now; when they meet, the skies will burn.
In the above example, the second part makes no sense without the first part.
7. Weak introduction
When a reader starts reading your writing, his first impression is lasting. If you make a lousy introduction readers will lose interest. It is important that the start should be interesting and energetic.
You have to look at your writing and see what information you are giving the reader. If it does not give out anything then most probably your introduction is boring. Rewrite it.
8. Jumping about the bush
No one likes long explanations. Get to the point. You must not bore the reader. Get to the point then elaborate as necessary.
You might feel like giving context is important but it is not. The reader is not interested in knowing the reasons until after you tell them the actual thing.
9. Lack of research
No matter the length of your piece, do you research. I cannot stress on how important this is, and how a lot of writers avoid this extra work.
Writing is so fickle; one moment you are on the heights of inspiration and the other you seem to have forgotten the language. Aside from helping you get your facts straight, research gives a structure your piece. Consequently, this will filter out confusing or contradicting ideas, cliche and cringe descriptions, or in other words, content that no one wants to read.
Research also helps you figure out what is the best way to approach your audience. You do not want to blunder into the field having no idea how to take the next step. That is just inviting peril to feed on your brain.
10. Show don't tell
Actions speak louder than words. The less you show your audience the less they will know. Saying that your character is charismatic is just talk. How is he charismatic? Show the reader. Make it an immersive experience. Don't talk, show.
This mistake is, by far, the hardest to detect and fix. Many writers have tried to set some basic rules to avoid it; for example Stephen Kings tells you to not use adverbs. Why? Because adverbs are not descriptive. They tell what state the character is in but don't show.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
He was in a hurry.
He constantly looked at his watch, and every time his step would gain new energy as if Time propelled him towards his destination.
If you read the above sentences, the second one will immediately sound more intriguing. This is the power of show don't tell.
11. No editing
Editing is like cooking food. If you only put the ingredients into a pot and mix it, the result will be bland and boring. You must take the time to cook your writing, taste it after intervals and add spices or water as necessary, increase the heat, or you simply let it cook until the dish is ready.
Its a given that the first draft of anything is going to be full of mistakes. Do the revisions. Put in the extra work; it is worth the extra time. Even a quick skimming will help you fix grammatical mistakes and other obvious blunders.
12. Editing as you go
Editing is not writing. I see this mistake (and sometimes even make it) very often among writers. They will start a piece and after the first few lines they will have started editing. The result? The piece never gets written. If you are editing, you are not writing.
Writing is a continuous process and if you stop too much, your flow will break. You will lose the creativity and the freedom to express what you want.
Rule of Thumb
First write; then edit.
Call of Writing
We made an app to help writers focus more on their writing when writing. Be sure to check it out. It is available on web, iOS, and Android.
13. Wrong word
The right word at the right instance is better than a whole paragraph of explanation. It needs practice and patience to use the right word but once you get into the habit your writing will improve drastically. With the right words you can convey an idea in a sentence that, otherwise, you can't even in a whole paragraph.
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, Mark Twain
14. Writing like someone else
I often see writers aspiring to write like Jane Austen or Mark Twain or Shakespeare, and I am inspired by such ambition. However, in trying to be someone else they forget their own voice; their pieces lack genuineness and creativity because in effort to write like Shakespeare they end up writing Shakespeare.
You have to follow your own voice. You have to be yourself when you write. In effect, you have to announce, 'This is me, this is what I stand for, this is what you get when you read me. I'm doing the best I can—buy me or not—but this is who I am as a writer.
— David Morrell
Finding your own voice in writing is important. The message you have to convey cannot be conveyed by someone else.
It is okay to aspire to become someone else but it is very important that you do not forget who you are.