Nine of the 11 items on today’s post from Copyblogger, “11 Common Blogging Mistakes That Are Wasting Your Audience’s Time“, have become a list I will share with my writing students every term. Here they are (replacing “Blogging”” with ““Writing” and reframing them for the writing classroom) as I will share them with my students:
9 Common Writing Mistakes That You Can’t Ignore
Writing Mistake #1: You love complexity (or better yet, you think your reader loves complexity)
This is directed at my composition students most. You believe, based on the academic texts you read, that the more complicated and convoluted a sentence is the smarter I think you are. Wrong. Give it to me plain, man. I don’t have time to try to dig through your muddy, preposition-filled, reverse-structured sentence—that you’re only using because you think that’s what I want.
I’d much rather read something that sounds like you wrote it, than something you think fits the academic bill. I know you can present thoughts clearly because I can understand you in class. You’ve got good ideas. Share them in your writing without all the extra stuff thrown in.
Writing Mistake #2: You’re self-indulgent
I recently read Ann Berthoff’s text Forming, Thinking, Writing. In it, she talks about how students try to see writing topics through a lens they know best—themselves. She uses the example of telling your teacher your uncle went to space camp as an intro to a paper about the cuts to space exploration spending. Yes, I love getting to know you, but why do I need to know this particular thing about you in relationship to your topic? Make that connection significant. Don’t just share for sharing’s sake.
Writing Mistake #3: You focus on word count
Now, I take some responsibility for this as a composition teacher because you’re told you need to hit a page count (and for some, even word count). As a professional writer, the word count requirement makes me cringe.
Tell me what I need to know in whatever amount of words it takes to fully explain and support your argument. The second part here is the key—and why we put those requirements on you. You have to support what you say.
Think about it this way. Imagine a body of research is a tree. Your paper topic is one stick on that tree. You probably can’t expect to go pull your stick off of the tree—even if the tree is very rich and healthy and well-established—and have that stick stand up straight all by itself. It needs a few of those little branches around it to support it. You can tack on all kinds of leafy fluff, but you gotta’ have the support branches. Instead of the fluffy leaves that do nothing to hold up the stick, and in fact, probably weigh it down, just use the support branches. No fluff. Just support.
Writing Mistake #4: You don’t write in plain English
This one applies to my tech writers. Jargon, while you think it might make you sound like an expert, only makes your text difficult to slog through. As a reader, I want to be able to quickly read through (definitely not doing so word for word) and understand your meaning. Again, I’m probably not going to give your text the time it would take to try to decipher your overly-complicated words. Give it to me plain and simple.
Writing Mistake #5: Your conclusions are stale
I just held a writing workshop today with my students and one bravely shared her conclusion that she thought was too bland. And, it was. Conclusions are incredibly difficult to write no matter how advanced you are. But, think about the lasting impression you want me to have. After I’ve spent time reading your text, what can you say that would make me think, “Huh…I need to give this text some more thinking” or “Wow, that is a great point.” The conclusion cannot be a slow walk off into oblivion or a short jump off a cliff. What do you think about your topic now that you’ve written it? Share that with me. Give me something more than just a repetition of ideas.
Writing Mistake #6: You don’t know who you’re writing for
We love to tell you students, “Think about your audience.” You then stare back at us like, “I would, but I have no idea who that is.” In composition classes, you often—and I can’t say I blame you—think the audience is just me. Know that your text is part of a larger conversation. Who in that conversation are you talking to? Those that support you? Those that don’t? Who do you see on the other side of the text?
Some teachers try to combat this with organizing a class around an article submission or publication. Maybe integrating more opportunities in my composition classes to have an internal blog would help. At least then, the audience is defined for you instead of this nebulous “person” you’re trying to imagine.
Writing Mistake #7: You don’t care about your topic
I’m not sure if I’d really classify this as a mistake, so let’s call it “Writing Factor”. Most of you don’t care about the random topics we assign. And, even when we allow you to pick it, let’s face it, most will never touch the topic again after our class—unless you have to write a paper for the same purpose down the road.
So, our job is to try to convince you what it’s like to read boring texts. We have all read something that it was clear the writer had no vested interest in the topic (usually they are policy from our workplace). Reading that content is painful. I need you to know that it’s not pleasurable for me to read a paper when I can clearly tell you didn’t care about the topic. Just because I’m a writing teacher doesn’t mean I like reading boring papers, so shake things up. Find an interesting angle. Make a connection to the content. Please get interested, and spare me from another boring read.
Writing Mistake #8: You edit your writing in less than five minutes
Five minutes? Some of you might be thinking that’s even a stretch. For the love of Mike, please run spell check. Read your paper after you’re finished revising. If you press Ctrl + V even once, re-read the entire text again. Read the paper out loud. I can’t stress how helpful this is. Sure, you sound crazy, but I guarantee you will catch those pesky mistakes that reading with our eyes alone hides. You have to present your best self in your writing, so take the time to edit.
Writing Mistake #9: You don’t show your personality
There is no grading more enjoyable than reading a paper that sounds so much like you I can imagine you reading it to me. You all have such interesting personalities, and that should show in your writing. Your writing is an extension of your voice. Let it be heard. Don’t bury it under piles of words and sentences that you would never say. I want some of you in the text. That’s what makes great writing great—and grading enjoyable.
This is the list I want you to live by…in my writing class. I guarantee that if you think about each of these before you turn in another paper, your grade will improve. Life, in our writing class, will be better for both of us, and you might just learn a thing or two.