Maybe you bite your fingernails when you’re nervous or binge-watch episodes of “Law & Order” when you should be mowing the lawn. Those bad habits might annoy your spouse, but they don’t jeopardize your writing career. However, if you occasionally (or chronically) engage in these bad writing habits, you’ve got bigger problems than missing your favorite Jerry Orbach moment.
1. Loving! All! The! Punctuation!
All punctuation marks exist for a reason. Some receive more criticism than others (Oxford comma, anyone?), but each deserves a place in your work. The challenge lies in choosing the right moment to employ each symbol.
In many circles, for example, exclamation points suggest an amateur writer at the helm (or a teenager on a texting frenzy). Punctuation marks used to create asides—such as em-dashes and parenthesis—work well, but only in moderation. Use strong punctuation marks when they strengthen your writing, but don’t depend on them as a crutch.
2. Enjoying Passive Voice Too Much
No, actually, you defaulted to the passive voice. The passive voice didn’t knock you upside the head and weaken your entire article of its own volition.
Sometimes you need the passive voice to effectively communicate an idea, but it should be avoided by you whenever possible. Use it only when you need it for clarity or when you want to emphasize the object of the sentence. Here are some examples of good and bad use of passive voice:
- “The paper was written by Daniel and Mark.” You could rewrite this sentence in the active voice, but it makes sense to leave it as-is if you want the sentence to focus on the paper itself rather than its authors.
- “The race was finished by Carol in record-breaking time.” Rewriting this sentence in active voice reduces the word count and places the emphasis on the subject: “Carol finished the race in record-breaking time.”
- “Some of the pyramids of ancient Egypt were built as early as 2686 B.C.” It makes sense to leave this sentence in the passive voice because history doesn’t reveal who specifically built the pyramids, so the sentence focuses on the fact of their existence.
- “All the accounting will be handled by Amy and Alex. Here, the passive voice makes the sentence unnecessarily complex. Reformatting it in the active voice simplifies it: “Amy and Alex will handle all the accounting.”
3. Being Reliant on “To-Be” Verbs
“To-be” verbs (am, is, are, etc.) weaken your writing. They lack specificity and movement; by contrast, action verbs paint a clear picture in the reader’s mind and convey a more specific idea.
For example, consider this sentence: “The book was good.” It tells the reader that the author enjoyed the book, but nothing else.
A revised version eliminates the “to-be” verb: “The book featured compelling characters, prodigious plot twists, and seductive settings.” This sentence uses complimentary adjectives to tell the reader that the author enjoyed the book, then further illustrates the reasons for that enjoyment.
4. Following the Tangential Trail (Or, at Least, Not Clearing the Trail Later)
How did you manage to fit an anecdote about musical theater into an article on the disposal of hazardous materials in waste management? I’m not inside your brain, so I don’t feel qualified to address that question specifically but take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone.
Every writer finds him or herself spiraling down the tangential tunnel from time to time. It’s human nature to indulge our curiosity and to make rapid-fire connections that we expect everyone else to understand.
If you can’t stop yourself from veering off course as you write an article or press release or other piece of copy, allow yourself that luxury—at first. Upon completion, return to the top with your virtual red pen and cut ruthlessly until every sentence contributes to the piece’s specific purpose.
Then dance around the kitchen to your favorite numbers from the “RENT” soundtrack. You earned it.
5. Failing to Listen to the Research
You start an article with a specific idea in your head. Armed with a snappy title and a unique angle, you dive into the actual writing, but your research doesn’t back up your original thesis.
Now your snappy title doesn’t work and your article’s direction doesn’t make sense. Still, you forge ahead, invested in your original opinions and unwilling to revise them.
This not only makes you look foolish, it prevents you from uncovering a fresh idea or a novel concept. Let the research guide you through your piece rather than the other way around.
6. Treating Deadlines as Suggestions
A deadline creates a contract between you and your client. Always respect your clients’ editorial calendars because, among other reasons, you’ll secure more work for the future.
Writers frequently cite the “creative spirit” as an excuse for turning in work later than agreed. That might fly for J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, but it makes you look like an amateur.
7. Believing Spell Check
It’s easy, right? You finish your article, then hit the ABC icon at the top of your screen and let spell check work its magic. Of course, spell check misses some of the more egregious errors. If you take the time to read over your work before you submit or publish it, you’ll catch those insidious mistakes and save yourself the red face.
These represent just a few of the common bad habits to which writers fall victim. Now it’s time to ‘fess up. What bad habits have you indulged over the years? How did you rid yourself of them?
I’ll go first: I constantly catch myself using the phrase “for example” and the word “therefore.” It’s like they’re on a loop in my brain. Your turn.