Writing is easy; good writing is hard. Good writing requires more than a command of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, and good writers need to avoid some very common mistakes.
We’re going to look at three mistakes in particular. These mistakes are not over misuse of the serial comma or dangling participles or anything like that. Instead, these mistakes concern the style of writing and the way that style can affect the overall quality of the written text.
1. Using the Wrong Words
Here, I don’t mean using infer when you mean imply; I am referring to another kind of “wrong word”: the overly fancy word when a simple one will do.
One of the worst mistakes that aspiring writers make is thinking that using a large vocabulary is what constitutes “good writing.” After all, isn’t good writing full of big, fancy Latin words, huge rhetorical flourishes, and sweeping prose? No.
Those fancy Greek and Latin words have their uses, but often they can get in the way of clarity and make the text more inaccessible. Those words are often used by individuals who wish to communicate how smart they are. Sadly, that is all they communicate because their writing is difficult to understand.
Consider some of the most famous words in all of English literature: To be or not to be? Would Hamlet’s soliloquy have been improved if he’d asked, “Existence or non-existence?” Would the Lord’s Prayer be enhanced by asking, “Transfer to us our quotidian sustenance” instead of “give us our daily bread”?
Writers are often tempted to use words like utilize where use would do or inhabit instead of live in as a way of demonstrating sophistication or erudition. But what good is an education if you can’t even communicate with ordinary readers?
Centuries of invasion and conquest, followed by centuries of scientific inquiry, gave the English language a rich heritage of French, Latin, and Greek words—and they certainly have their uses. But often, clarity will be best achieved when sticking to simpler terms.
2. Using Clichés
From the dawn of time, writers have made the common mistake of relying on clichés. It’s easy to see why: they provide stock language to express a basic idea.
The problem is that clichés like from the dawn of time can be more distracting than they’re worth. Is it true that writers have been making this mistake since time began? No, of course not—writing itself has only existed for five thousand years. Many clichés become distracting because they’re stock phrases applied to a specific situation, and often inaccurately.
Further, using clichés is a mistake for writers because doing so makes the writing come off as lazy. Consider the following paragraph:
In the final analysis, you can’t win them all. At the end of the day, it’s been an uphill battle, and even after you’ve given everything 110%, you may find that the writing’s on the wall. It may have appeared to be low-hanging fruit at first, but you can’t judge a book by its cover; sometimes, you can fall flat on your face even when you play your cards right.
What does that paragraph even say? And is there any reason to have written so many trite phrases instead of simply saying, “It looked easy at first, but despite our best efforts, we failed”? Clichés rarely add anything to writing except length (which is probably why they’re so popular with college students).
Clichés can also be annoying to your audience:
So, when it comes to clichés and stock phrases, avoid them like the plague.
3. Writing Too Much
“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”Blaise Pascal
As counterintuitive as it might seem, it takes more effort to write concisely than it does to write verbosely. It is easy to pour out all your ideas into a mass of text—it takes a lot of work to trim that work down.
This paragraph is marred by too many words and too much unnecessary detail. With good editing, this paragraph can be reduced:
In this regard, less is more. The extraneous details do not enrich the setting; they muddle it. Trimming down the text improves the clarity of the passage and allows the reader to focus on what matters. It can be tempting to provide as much information as possible, but as George Singleton said, “You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
How to Avoid These Common Mistakes
The best way to avoid these common mistakes that writers make is to get someone else to read your text—ideally, an editor, but a friend or colleague will do. Because we know what we mean to say when we write, getting a second pair of eyes to look over what we’ve written can help us determine whether anyone else can figure out what we meant. If nothing else, put your work down for a while and come back to it when your ideas are not as fresh in your head—if you have trouble making sense of what you wrote, that’s a pretty good indication that other readers will as well.
Avoiding overly ornate language, clichés, and verbose language helps us to ensure that our writing is clear, which ensures that we have written the best work we can.