Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Avoiding Pitfalls

So far, we’ve worked on prewriting, developing a thesis statement, outlining and drafting a body paragraph. Those are, of course, some of the major stages of writing an academic essay. But what should we do to ensure that the quality of our writing is actually good? What makes for a good sentence? How do we make sure that our reader won’t be bored or confused?

In this lesson, we’ll learn about some common mistakes that students make when writing essays. We’ll walk through writing a body paragraph in a persuasive essay to see what approaches will leave you with a happy reader (and, hopefully, an A on your paper) and which techniques will leave your reader cold.

Provide Substance

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing papers is being vague. In other words, students will sometimes end up saying things without really saying anything.

Let’s see how we can turn vague sentences into specific ones by taking a look at our sample essay, in which we’re arguing that our state should completely ban all cell phone use for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles. The topic sentence for our third body paragraph is, ‘Making calls can be just as distracting as texting.’ We’ll need to follow that sentence, which provides the main idea for the paragraph, with specific details and examples as support. Let’s take a look at some sample sentences that a student might write to support that topic sentence:

‘A driver’s cell phone use while driving is distracting. It can be difficult for drivers to pay attention to the road while using their cell phone, even if they aren’t texting. There are a lot of things that a driver can use a phone for, and all of those things can be distracting and dangerous.’

It’s true that these sentences are on topic; they’re related to the main idea expressed in our topic sentence. But have we really said anything, or have we just more or less vaguely repeated the main idea? As you review the sentences in a body paragraph, you should consider whether they’ve actually communicated anything of substance that hasn’t already been expressed in the topic sentence. In our body sentences here, we’ve basically just repeated the idea that cell phone use other than texting can be distracting without getting into specifics.

Instead, we might write the following sentences in support of our main idea:

‘Some may argue that texting is the real danger, as it’s more involved than simply talking on a cell phone. It is true that simply carrying on a conversation while driving may not be terribly distracting. However, anyone who has taken a second while driving to place a call, queue up a song in a play list or check email on a smartphone knows that any cell phone use while driving is dangerous. Even though actually talking on a phone might not be that problematic, it is clear that picking up a phone to answer it or looking up a contact number in a list to make a call would be just as distracting as any other use of a cell phone. For that reason, all cell phone use should be banned for drivers, not just texting.’

This version of the paragraph is much better. It offers specifics instead of vague repetition, and it actively argues our main point about the cell phone ban. Always remember to ask yourself with each sentence if you’ve supported your main point and if you’ve actually said anything of substance.

Don’t Get Too Ornate

The flip side of being too vague is being overly ornate or flowery with one’s writing. You’ve probably seen people walking around with too many accessories, right? Someone might be wearing a big necklace, big earrings, an eye-catching headband and a bunch of loud, clanking bracelets, and you might be tempted to tell that person to tone it down a bit.

Writers can fall into the same trap of over-accessorizing their sentences. An ornate sentence is one that is overly wordy or embellished. Here’s a sample of some flowery, or ornate, versions of sentences from our previous paragraph:

‘Some people may take it upon themselves to argue that texting is, and surely can be, far more dangerous to life and limb than simply endeavoring to communicate with one’s acquaintances on a cell phone. I will admit to the truth of the matter that conversing with colleagues while in the midst of driving may not in and of itself be a great cause of distraction.’

Students sometimes get the idea that a goal when writing a paper is to be as wordy as possible or to use big, two-dollar words when a simpler word would be fine. Note, for example, that it’s much cleaner to say, ‘Some may argue that’ rather than ‘Some people may take it upon themselves to argue that.’ Similarly, it’s better and more straightforward to refer to something as a ‘danger’ rather than calling it ‘far more dangerous to life and limb.’ Try to avoid clichés like this one because they don’t really communicate anything of meaning and they tend to clutter up essays.

As you write sentences in your essays, try to be as direct as you can be with your language, and during the editing process, try to weed out any overly ornate wording. Overly ornate sentences are often unclear and tough to read. Your argument will be easier to read and more convincing if you’re not being too flowery.

Check Your Grammar

We all know that we should proofread and edit our papers after writing them, but a lot of times we’re in such a rush we don’t make the time to do it. You can prevent losing a lot of points, though, if you just read through your paper once you’ve completed your first draft. Often, we wind up with careless typos and problematic sentence structures simply because we wrote too quickly or became distracted while writing. These types of errors are very easy to catch upon a simple read-through.

One useful method – if you’re not taking a formal, timed exam in a classroom – is to read your paper aloud to yourself. You can often catch a problematic sentence structure this way. For example, you might be more likely to notice a sentence like this:

‘Because it is true that simply carrying on a conversation while driving may not be terribly distracting, but actually placing a call takes too much of a driver’s attention.’

This sentence suffers from mixed sentence structure, meaning that the writer starts off structuring the sentence one way but switches to a different structure halfway through. We don’t need both the ‘because’ and the ‘but’ in this sentence. With careful proofreading, we can pretty quickly see that the word ‘because’ in this sentence can be edited out to make for a correct sentence.

During the proofreading and editing stage, you may also notice that you have an incomplete sentence – or sentence fragment – like the following:

‘For that reason, banning all cell phone use for drivers, not just texting.’

Note that this sentence breaks the rule that each sentence must have a subject and a verb to be complete. Here, we’re missing a subject, and we have a problematic verb form.

By reading back through each sentence carefully, we can easily turn fragments like this one into complete sentences, like this:

‘For that reason, all cell phone use should be banned for drivers, not just texting.’

When you’re taking a timed writing exam, be sure to set aside a few minutes at the end of your allotted time to proofread and edit your paper. If you’re working on a term paper for class, no matter how late at night it might be when you finish the drafting process, take some time to read carefully back through what you’ve written; you’ll be almost guaranteed to catch at least a mistake or two, saving yourself valuable points.

Lesson Summary

Teachers often end up writing the comment, ‘Be specific’ on students’ papers. That’s because one of the most common errors in academic writing is writing vague, empty sentences that don’t really communicate anything. Always check your writing to ensure that you’ve made specific, concrete points. You also don’t want to weigh your sentences down with overly flowery, clunky language and clichéd phrases. Being direct with your language will help you be clearer and more persuasive.

Be sure to proofread and edit your papers after you’ve finished drafting them in order to catch both careless errors, as well as more complicated problems. During the proofreading process, you can catch mistakes like sentence fragments and mixed structure sentences.

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