Freelancers, bloggers, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, novelists, creative writers… No matter what you call yourself, no writer wants to look like a beginner, even if you are.
But here’s the thing. Regardless of your expertise or experience level, writing mistakes don’t look good. Readers expect certain rules and conventions in quality writing, and if you’re not following them—or you’re not breaking the rules wisely—your writing might look sloppy or be difficult to read. Worse, readers will question your authority or credibility.
And the absolute worst thing that could happen? Nobody reads your writing.
Are you making any of these 15 writing mistakes?
1. That cute little symbol to replace “and.”
Sure, an ampersand (&) reduces your character count and looks great on Twitter. It saves time when texting or emailing your friends. Or it just looks cool, and everyone you know uses it.
But &s don’t look so cool in professional writing like articles, blog posts, cover letters & resumes, & you-name-it. They just make you look like a lazy twit.
Exceptions: Use ampersands when they’re part of the established style for a website or a company’s written material. If they’re part of an official business name, use them exactly as the company does; Ben & Jerry’s, Barnes & Noble, and Dolce & Gabbana are just a few examples.
2. It’s not that exciting!!! Really!!!
Exclamation points—even one—cannot replace well-chosen words that communicate excitement or urgency. In fact, your writing will never suffer from a lack of exclamation points. Overused, though, and you’ll sound like a bubbly, overexcited teenager.
They can be useful, but when to use one or not is tricky business.
Do use exclamation points in dialogue:
“Ship ahoy!” the sailor cried.
Don’t use them in long sentences because, by the time you get to the end, the exclamation point tells you to get excited about the information, but by then it’s just way too late! (See how that works?)
Do limit exclamation points to, say, one per 800-1000 words in articles and blog posts. That’s only if you must use one. No exact rule exists, but frequent use makes them lose power and draw attention to themselves.
Don’t use exclamation points in formal or academic writing. And use discretion for short stories or novels.
3. At least get the names right.
Is it Campbell’s Soup or Cambells Soup? You know, the company with the red and white cans of condensed soup. I had to look it up (to be sure) even though I worked in Campbell’s PR department years ago. And you never know—things change. The full, correct name is Campbell Soup Company.
The same goes for companies like Price, Waterhouse, Coopers, which is spelled PricewaterhouseCoopers and known as PwC. And though you might have seen Ernst & Young spelled out, the correct name is EY (not E&Y).
As for names, even The New York Times makes mistakes.
Yes, a great newspaper has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, “If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?”
Always check spellings online, but as the NYT article says, don’t be “misled by other people’s misspellings.” Read more about researching and reputable sources. (Scroll down for the bit on sources.)
4. You know, it’s like . . .
Even though lots of people use “like” as slang while talking—I do—using “like” when you mean “about” or “around” doesn’t work in writing.
The stipend is like $5,400 – $6,000.
No, no, no.
If you have a range, indicate it.
The stipend ranges from $5,400 to $6,000.
Without a comparison, use around, about, or approximately.
The stipend is about $5,700.
5. Et cetera, etcetera, etc., and (please, no) ect. or exetera.
Etc. is short for the Latin expression et cetera (two words), which means “and the rest.”
Don’t use it. It only gives an impression of being rushed or too lazy to complete the list.
The company produces a wide range of snack products including soup, specialty chocolates, cookies, etc.
In this case, the sentence states that the company makes “a wide range of snack products,” so there’s no need to add etc. Plus, the word “including” here means “these things among others,” which also eliminates any need for “etc.” since it indicates an incomplete list.
The company produces a wide range of snack products including soup, specialty chocolates, and cookies.
That says it all. No need for etc.
You could also skip “including” and restructure the sentence.
The company produces soup, specialty chocolates, cookies, and much more.
The company produces soup, specialty chocolates, cookies, and many other snack items.
And whatever you do, don’t use “and etc.” That means “and and the rest” since “et” means “and.”
6. Would it really be?
The price would be $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit.
“Would,” in this case, is a type of subjunctive which means what could or might happen if (something else is present or there’s an element of uncertainty).
Here’s the sentence with “would” used correctly:
The price would be $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit if it’s located on the first floor.
Without additional information, however, stick with “is” or another indicative verb form.
The price is $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit.
7. This writing mistake is a capital offense.
Avoid capitalizing for emphasis or because you think certain words are important—it’s just not done. Sure, the German language capitalizes all nouns, and English did at one time, too. A good example is the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But that ended in British English by the end of the 19th century, and in the U.S. around the time of the Civil War in the 1860s.
Don’t capitalize any word unless there’s a reason for it.
You know you should capitalize names of people, places, and organizations plus things like days of the week and months. But what else? Here’s a helpful list.
8. What the hell are you talking about?
Think about the meaning of your writing. Seriously. I saw this not long ago.
These companies also offer cool benefits like snacks, restrooms, etc. making your job a fun-filled experience.
Last I heard, restrooms aren’t a benefit or particularly fun. Well, maybe they’re fun if you like hanging out with your coworkers and the snacks, etc. and don’t mind odd smells or noises. (See also #5 above.)
Here’s another example from an article offering writing advice.
Most non-fiction writing is indirect in some way—passive voice, jargon, multiple clauses, heavy use of adjectives and adverbs.
The context is pointing out problems, but what is this writer referring to? The non-fiction of Joan Didion, Edward Said, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, and so many more prize-winning, famous non-fiction writers? From the context, I think he meant beginner blog posts, but nowhere is that mentioned.
Make sure your writing makes sense.
9. But your readers don’t talk like that.
If you don’t have native fluency—or if you don’t know the difference between a regional dialect and standard English—be careful. Don’t translate directly from your native language or pick random words from a thesaurus; think and write in English as a native would so that any English-speaking (or reading) person will understand.
Slang and idioms can be tricky, so use them sparingly. If you’re not 100% sure of an expression, Google it, and see how it’s used it in reputable articles.
Non-native English writers can ask for help in an ESL forum like this one:
Above all, know what you don’t know. Even experienced writers have to look things up. I do.
10. Make them eat cake.
If you want your target audience to appreciate and benefit from your writing, get out of your bubble, respect global diversity, and do your research accordingly. Give them the bread they’re used to, not a few crumbs of your favorite cake.
For example, if you’re an American writer writing for an Australian readership, remember that spellings, punctuation, and slang aren’t the only differences. Customs vary, too: How things are done in education, business, career, sports, and almost any area of life might be different.
In this case, research Australian publications, not American. Or an Indian or British company might target a primarily American readership, so writing for your readers (or who you want your readers to be) is critical.
It’s all about writing so readers understand and gain something useful. And if the information doesn’t apply to them, they’ll find something else.
11. Just tell me how to do it, please.
In articles or blog posts, readers want practical steps when you promise to explain a process. Even if background information is an important part of your article, make specific steps clear by using bullet points or a numbered list.
Lists within lists are also helpful. If one step is “Assemble the materials,” you might want a bullet list of the recommended items.
Start each step with an action verb that states specifically what the reader should do. Words like select, generate, design, format, arrange, search, and combine are a few examples. You might want to check out this article as an example.
12. What’s a format?
As an editor, I see a lot of … let’s call it writing mistakes you don’t want to make.
Whether you’re submitting your writing to a company, a website owner, an editor, or a literary agent, format makes the first impression. Make sure it’s good.
If you can’t find formatting rules online, ask for them, if possible. (Don’t try it with a literary agent, though.) If you’re told it doesn’t matter, you should still stick to convention, since the business or website owner might not be happy with your pink whirlygigs and League Gothic or Goudy Stout font style choice.
Here are the basics for almost any kind of writing:
- 1-inch margins all around.
- 12-point, standard font (type) like Times New Roman. Courier or Ariel can also be fine. Don’t use anything fancy or non-standard, and don’t mix fonts.
- Black font color. Not gray, not charcoal. Black.
- Left alignment with ragged right margins. Don’t use “justify” (both sides even). It causes gaps between words, it’s hard to read, and it’s impossible for editors to work with.
- Use one space between sentences, after the final punctuation.
13. Walls of text or single lines in blog posts.
Long paragraphs in blog posts aren’t fun, but they don’t make me cringe like a series of single sentences do.
Seems a popular blogger took “short paragraphs” to an extreme, and the trend spread. Now I often see blog posts that look like truly awful, free-form poetry.
Granted, a slew of single sentences—each presenting innovative ideas, thoughts, or information—doesn’t have the same effect on mobile as it does on a laptop or desktop PC. But with few exceptions, I can’t read them.
Long paragraphs are challenging, too, because they tackle too many ideas. Readers need a break and a transition to the next new idea.
Short paragraphs of 2-5 sentences are best for blog posts and most online articles.
14. Dictionaries exist for a reason.
As with slang and idioms, check the spelling and definition of words you don’t often use. For example, “discrete” isn’t a common word in American English. But “discreet,” which has a different meaning, isn’t unusual at all.
Discrete means separate or detached, and it’s often used in scientific, academic, and business literature. “Discrete manufacturing is an industry term for the manufacturing of finished products that are distinct items capable of being easily counted, touched or seen.”
Discreet, on the other hand, means in secret, quiet, or unobtrusive. “She thought her affair was discreet, but her husband soon found out.”
If you write “prepare the sauce and the vegetables discretely,” readers might think you mean discreetly and wonder why it’s a hush-hush thing. It’s a funny writing mistake, but use “separately” instead.
I use Merriam-Webster online.
15. That nasty cliché habit.
One of the most overused clichés is “in today’s world.” Variations include in this modern world, in this modern era, in this day and age, in today’s technical world, these days, nowadays, and in these times. Related expressions include when I was a kid and back in the day (whatever that means).
Please stop. Now. Avoid old, worn-out expressions that we use habitually and choose a more precise expression or skip it entirely.
Clichés are overused expressions that were once catchy or clever, but now they have little meaning, and readers gloss right over them or roll their eyes. Read more about cliches here.
In this day and age, kids spend far more time on the phone than they did when I was a kid.
As I read that sentence, I picture a lady in a “house dress” (a thin, baggy cotton thing with little sprays of flowers printed on it) her thinning gray hair in curlers, hanging clothes on a backyard clothesline. Must be a childhood memory. Try something like this instead:
In the last decade, kids spend far more time on the phone than they did fifty years ago.
And if you must use in this day and age, at least use it correctly. Hint: It’s not in this day in age.
More examples of cliches.
I’ll bet you’re guilty of at least one of these writing mistakes. I know I am. I’m not immune to clichés, and I’ve misspelled and misused words, too. Like the time I used “morale” instead of “moral”—in a headline, no less! The editor didn’t catch it either. Big oops and some embarrassment since a reader pointed it out.
No matter what mistakes you tend to make, awareness is the first step. Then practice not making them and, before you know it, it’ll be something you used to do back in the day (see #15).
Comments are always welcome!