Three Common Mistakes Aspiring Writers Make

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.

woman in white long sleeved shirt holding a pen writing on a paper - illustration for common mistakes aspiring writers make
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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 clichĂ©s. It’s easy to see why: they provide stock language to express a basic idea.

The problem is that clichĂ©s 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 clichĂ©s 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”? ClichĂ©s 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:

Hedley Lamarr makes it clear: using clichés can be bad for your health (via ClipCafe)

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.

The rain fell softly on the newly-paved street, where just that morning, the last issue of the Herald had been tossed by the delivery man, now looking for work. Charlie looked up from his own newspaper and saw the car approaching in the rain. The car’s headlights reflected off the pavement because of the water on the street. Charlie thought to himself how odd it was that it was on a night just like this that he first met Charlotte. Of course, that night had also been his thirtieth birthday and had already had a few drinks from the bar around the corner. He wondered if he would ever see her again, especially since their last meeting had been marred by an argument over some trivial matter or other. They always argued over trivial matters.

This paragraph is marred by too many words and too much unnecessary detail. With good editing, this paragraph can be reduced:

The rain fell softly as Charlie looked up from his paper. The lights of an oncoming car reflected off the street, and the weather reminded Charlie of the first night he’d met Charlotte. But it was their last night that occupied his thoughts now, along with the argument—over something trivial, as always—that had caused them to part, perhaps forever.

photography of street during rainy day
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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.