All of us have to write, at least once in a while.
Maybe you need to whip up an email, an Instagram post, or a work report … or maybe you want to craft a whole novel. No matter what the medium, conveying your message in a clear and concise way is a critical skill. Obviously, typos and grammatical errors can leave your writing lackluster (at best) and downright confusing (at worst), but there are other, more nuanced tweaks that will make outsized improvements in your writing.
Let’s take a look at five of the most common writing mistakes (beyond the basic typo) — and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Filler words
“Well, it’s like…”
Those are filler words: words, phrases, or sounds that don’t carry much (if any) meaning.
In our speech, they buy us time to think and let the people around us know we’re still talking. In our writing, they’re often used to fill space, soften our message, or add intensity.
Common filler words used in writing include:
- In other words
- In order to
- Needless to say
- At the end of the day
While filler words can serve a purpose, they often bog the reader down.
The solution: Review your writing, keeping an eye out for these fillers. Chances are, you’ll notice at least one or two popping up again and again. Once you spot them, get out your metaphorical red pen and edit away.
Mistake #2: Inadvertent homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Some of the most common examples include:
- There, their, and they’re
- It’s and its
- To, too, and two
- You’re and your
- Whether and weather
- Who’s and whose
Unfortunately, because their correct use often relies on context, homophones frequently slip by spellcheck, but not by the eyes of your readers.
The solution: Remember the most common homophones — and know the correct versions of each word. If you aren’t sure, a quick Google search should provide clarity. Weeding out homophones is one of the easiest ways to keep your writing looking professional.
Mistake #3: Passive voice
Whether you remember this from English class or you’ve repressed it, here’s a refresher on the definitions:
- In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. For example: The author wrote the book.
- In passive voice, the subject receives the sentence’s action. For example: The book was written by the author.
Passive voice always includes a form of the verb “be.”
While writing in passive voice is not technically a mistake — in some cases it’s a good choice — passive construction can make your sentences feel clunky. A simple switch to active voice strengthens your message and improves readability.
The solution: Learn the differences between passive and active voice (great job, you already did this part!), then keep an eye out for words like is, was, and were sitting before another verb — a good indicator you’ve fallen into passive voice.
You can also try the “by zombies” hack. While this isn’t 100% foolproof, if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, it’s likely you’ve just identified a passive sentence.
For example: The book was written [by zombies].
Entertaining and effective, right?
Mistake #4: Faulty parallelism
Parallel structure means applying the same grammatical pattern across coordinating parts of a sentence.
Take this sentence, for example: The audiobook I’m listening to is entertaining, compelling, and spellbinding.
Entertaining, compelling, and spellbinding are all adjectives — that sentence uses parallel construction.
But imagine we edited it to read: The audiobook I’m listening to is entertaining, compelling, and I’m spellbound.
Suddenly, we’ve lost our three-adjective repetition, and the sentence doesn’t read quite as smoothly. This is the kind of thing readers stumble over, if they aren’t sure exactly what’s gone wrong.
The solution: When you’re writing lists, double-check you’ve used the same grammatical pattern for each list item. Let’s look at another example to help clarify this.
- Incorrect: When I’m on vacation, I like to read, relax, sunbathe, and to sleep in.
- Correct: When I’m on vacation, I like to read, relax, sunbathe, and sleep in.
- Also correct: When I’m on vacation, I like to read, to relax, to sunbathe, and to sleep in.
Note that parallel structure can take different forms; the key is using repetition of whatever form you choose to create clearer sentences and smoother pacing.
Mistake #5. Awkward phrasing
Good writing flows. It’s clear, smooth, and easy to comprehend.
Awkward writing, on the other hand, feels off. Most people can recognize when a sentence feels awkward, even if they can’t identify why.
While awkward phrasing is pretty easy to spot as a reader, it can be harder to see in our own writing.
When we write something, we know what message we’re trying to convey. After all, we’re doing the writing. But that means when we read it back to ourselves, our brains often fill in holes and massage away the lingual knots. This can leave us with partially communicated ideas that will trip a reader up, even if the message makes sense in our own head.
The solution: Read your writing out loud. Whether it’s an email or a book chapter, reading aloud shifts you into an auditory processing mode — and you might be surprised by the number of glitchy areas that can be smoothed out.
Bonus: Reading out loud also helps you catch issues like typos, faulty parallelism, and passive voice.
Now that you’ve got the tools, it’s time to write.
About the Author: Kelsey Fritts
Kelsey is a writer, editor, anthropologist, and bookworm. She's also the author of two young adult fantasy novels. When she's not out exploring in nature or playing with her ridiculously spoiled dog, you can find Kelsey curled up with a mug of hot cocoa and a novel—likely one by Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, N.K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, or Ursula K. Le Guin.