Here are few common traps that ensnare many student writers and tips on how to avoid them. They are so simple, yet can make a huge difference in a paper or essay.
- Know your audience
I’ve written for many publications, and would never use the same style for Cosmopolitan, Parenting and Time.com. As a student writer, it’s important to find out what your teachers or professors expect of you. There are rules that apply to all writing, like subject verb agreement, but teachers also have preferences. One may like short, to-the-point, Ernest Hemingway-style sentences while another prefers something more elaborate. Some teachers may appreciate innovation and fresh perspectives, while others want a standard paper with lots of referenced secondary sources. Some teachers love adjectives, others hate them.
- Avoid “SAT word of the week” syndrome
You should be reading and developing your vocabulary, but don’t force the issue by employing complex words that you don’t really understand. NEVER use a word and expect a reader to know you meant its secondary or tertiary definition. Teachers, professors and college admission deans will be much more impressed if you express yourself clearly and simply.
- Don’t make common, sloppy errors
Don’t insert apostrophes in plurals. (You’ll see this all over Facebook and on signs around town – it looks like this “Don’t insert apostrophe’s in plural’s”.) Don’t confuse there, they’re and their. Remember that its is possessive and it’s a contraction. Avoid random capitalization James was Varsity Catcher on the baseball team). Remember subject verb agreement. These are some of the most common writing mistakes, and the easiest to avoid.
- Don’t trust spell check with your life
Spell check is a useful little tool, but it does not catch everything, and grammar check comes up with some odd choices. NEVER do a universal correction. In my novel, I decided to change a character’s name from Karen Baker to Karen Davis and hit “correct all”. My co-author was doing an edit and sent me a text saying “What the heck is a davisery????” It was a bakery, of course. Spell check does not recognize context.
- Know which style guide or manual you’re expected to use
Your teacher should make this clear at the beginning of class. If not, ask. There are differences. I used my trusty AP Stylebook to edit my novel, only to discover that novels are written using The Chicago Style Manual. In Chicago style, most numbers are written out, whereas in AP, all numbers over nine are written numerically. Correcting this took quite a bit of time.
In the case of college application essays, there is no one style manual. Choose the style that is easiest on the eye of the reader and doesn’t interrupt the flow of your narrative. If you have questions, ask an editor, whether a professional, parent or teacher, which style reads more smoothly.
- Differentiate between personal and academic writing
Humor and personal revelations may be appropriate in a college essay or in a personal essay for a creative writing class. This does not mean they are acceptable in a paper on Romeo and Juliet or World War I. Unless your teacher makes it clear she wants to know about your tragic breakup sophomore year, leave it out. The same goes for pop culture references. These can make wonderful additions to a paper IF THAT IS THE ASSIGNMENT. If not, your ability to quote Drake lyrics will probably not improve your grade.
- No text talk
OMG, IMHO I should not even have to write this. In fact, I’m LMFAO thinking about it. BTW, that last reference is particularly bad, because several of the letters stand for obscenities, although we don’t think about that when we text or post. That not only spells bad grade, but may mean detention or worse.
- Avoid passive voice
This may be the deadliest trap for student writers, because a passive sentence isn’t “wrong” in the same way a misplace apostrophe is. However, it weighs down your paper or essay and is awkward for the reader. Here’s the difference.
“The tide of the war was turned when the Normandy beaches were stormed by American and British troops.”
Either of the following is preferable: “American and British troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and turned the tide of the war.” Or “The tide of the war turned when American and British troops stormed the beaches of Normandy.”
In the first sentence, notice how the passive tense sucks all the excitement and action out of one of the most dramatic moments of twentieth century history. When you edit your papers, make sure the subject of your sentence is making things happen. The sentences you first learned in kindergarten can be your guide: Jack throws the ball, NOT the ball was thrown by Jack.
- Don’t think or feel
I don’t mean this literally, but try not to use the phrases “I think” “I feel” or “I believe”. If this is an opinion paper, it goes without saying these are your thoughts, beliefs and feelings. I believe can be used in moderation, but avoid the other two. Never use think or feel in reference to others. “Churchill felt” or “President Obama believes” indicates that you have inside information on the inner workings of their minds and emotions. Stick to what they said or did.
- Avoid people
Again, I don’t mean this literally. There is no need for you to hide in your basement. But try not to use the generic “people” in papers or essays. There is always another better, stronger word or words. Who are these people? American citizens? Researchers? Poets?
Here’s an example: “People flocked to Selma to march with Martin Luther King.” Instead try: “Thousands of civil rights activists, students and ordinary Americans of all races flocked to Selma to march with Martin Luther King.”
Writing isn’t rocket science. You want your writing style to highlight your ideas, not obscure them. These simple strategies will help you achieve that goal.