Wonder how to fix your writing? Want to start writing letters and proposals that don’t sound juvenile?

I’ve been teaching writing for 26 years, and I’ve noticed that people make the same kinds of mistakes, whether they are writing a paragraph, a story, or a research paper. Age doesn’t matter, either, because most people were never taught how to write well.

You probably muddled through school and convinced yourself you’d never need to write again once you graduated from high school or college. Basic writing skills would be good enough.

Now you know better. Since then, you have found yourself attempting to craft newsletters, emails, job applications, presentations, summaries, thank you notes, recommendations, and critiques. You know that writing well can make the difference in getting a promotion, helping your child land a scholarship, or making an important contact. And if you go back to graduate school–well, just forget about being a mediocre writer. Mediocre is not good enough.

Is it too late to improve your writing?

Never. I’m confident that anyone can improve. I have witnessed countless terrible writers become good writers by incorporating the following advice. Here are the most common, simple mistakes I see in adult and teen writing:

Too many “be” verbs or passive verbs. Use action verbs instead. Limit passive and “be” verbs to 3 per page. Instead of saying He was really tired or Joe had become tired by working for 12 hours, write Joe worked for 12 hours before falling asleep on the couch.

Run-on sentences. If your complete thoughts are connected with and without a comma before the and, you have a run-on. For example, Rhonda made her bed and then she hung up her clothes. (Put a comma after bed.)

Lack of a thesis statement or main idea. Tell the reader your purpose for writing in the first paragraph (main idea). You are writing to persuade, inform, critique, complain, define, compare, etc. Express up front what you intend to communicate and clarify how you will present your perspective. That’s how people understand. Example: We can make the necessary staffing decisions by addressing the applicants’ qualifications, recommendations, and personal goals.

Disorganized thoughts. Always make a quick outline before you present information or reasons, and make sure everything you say supports your thesis. If your information is not presented logically, others will not follow your train of thought.

Misspelled words. In case you didn’t know, spell-check doesn’t catch all your mistakes. Look up any word you’re unsure about. Spelling does matter in the real world.

Confusing or missing antecedents. Don’t use a pronoun (like I, they, those, that, he, it) if the noun it’s replacing (called the antecedent) is not obvious. Also make sure the pronoun is the same number as the noun it refers to (they should not replace America, for instance, because they is plural, and America is singular).

Incorrect pronoun usage. Every personal pronoun has a case, either possessive, nominative/subjective, or objective. Its usage in a sentence depends on its case. Subjective pronouns are subjects; objective pronouns are objects (DO, IO, OP). For instance, “Me and Ben are going” is incorrect, just like “come with Ben and I” is also incorrect.

Trite words. Many words have been so over-used in English that they should never be used in writing. Examples are very, really, too, so, awesome, perhaps, maybe. 

Delayed subjects. Sentences are most clear when the subject and verb occur together, early in the sentence. But if the subject and verb are preceded by a long or confusing phrase or clause, comprehension is also confused. (Did you see what just happened there? You had to wait until the end of the sentence to find out the point.) Also, don’t start a sentence with Here is or There are. Both scenarios necessitate that the subject follows a be verb later in the sentence.

Apostrophe errors. The pronouns its, yours, his, hers, and theirs NEVER take apostrophes. They are already possessive without the apostrophe. The pronoun it’s is a contraction for it is, so make sure you use it correctly.

Start fixing these problems, and your writing will improve immediately. Good luck! Your comments and questions are also appreciated–I’m also happy to give more examples to help you understand! In future posts, I’ll address how to improve style and structure. Leave comments and questions in the box below.

Enjoy writing!

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