Top Ten Pitfalls of Writing
Common Pitfalls of Writing. . .
and how to avoid them.
Brought to You By the Tutors at the GW Writing Center
1. Attempting to appear scholarly and sacrificing clarity.
While it is fantastic that students try to have a scholarly tone in their paper, many use cop-outs to achieve this goal. The first is having overly long sentences. I will assume that because these students want to get as many ideas out as possible, they try to cram it into sentences, which will thereby make these sentences more scholarly. Unfortunately, these just become run-on sentences, which are immediately detected in the reading-out-loud process. The second method that these students use are utilizing a plethora of advanced diction that produces the illusion of intelligence and insight. However, using simpler words that convey the argument more clearly will always be superior. Ultimately, the argument is the most important factor, and it is better to have clear and concise sentences with words that don't have 38 syllables.
2. Having too much background information.
Unless the professor only wants a paper on background information, analysis is the most important element of any essay. There are too many papers that drone on for pages and pages with nothing more than the background of the issue at hand. By the time the student gets to the analysis section, the paper is so inundated with the history of the subject, that the analysis becomes unclear or underdeveloped. While it is important to give enough background information in order to provide context, the readers are usually intelligent enough to read between the lines.
3. Sounding more like speeches than scholarly essays.
These papers would be excellent as speeches due to their somewhat conversational style that sound great when read out loud. Unfortunately, the arguments are usually underdeveloped and border on populist. Furthermore, when presenting evidence, these essays will only give basic facts rather than really analyzing the topic at hand. The only way to really rectify this is to simply use diction and sentence structures that are not geared towards oratory, but essays.
Will someone ever cure writers of this for good? I don't know, but I think that the best way to avoid procrastination is either to start by simply writing the introductory paragraph or to write for at least 15 minutes at a time. Anyone can do either of those things, and who knows, they might give you the momentum you need. At the very least, writers should at least start to research and brainstorm some ideas for their paper sooner that 24 hours before their paper is due.
5. Becoming attached to your draft.
Sometimes, it's best to ditch the first draft and start fresh with the lessons you have learned since writing the first draft.
6. Writing without a clear thesis.
Sometimes this is not a pitfall, but this is only the case when you are aware that you are "writing to discover." If that's the case, treat it as preliminary writing/brainstorming rather than as a draft.
7. Over-use of "I think."
If it's an argumentative paper, the reader knows that it's your thoughts and assumes that you are aware that you might be wrong.
8. Being too wordy.
A good rule is that any word that does not add to your writing necessarily detracts from it.
When analyzing or interpreting any work of art you must say three things: what, how, and why. What is the author doing, or what is happening in the story/poem/etc.? How is the writing telling this part of the story or presenting this particular piece of information? And why is this important/meaningful/relevant, or why did the author say what he/she is saying in this particular way? Often, the student can identify the first two, but he or she simply assumes that it's obvious why this is important. It's amazing how much more vibrant and nuanced a student's writing becomes when this component is made explicit in their paper.
10. Lack of confidence.
I would say that students' number one problem is their lack of confidence. They are paralyzed by fear that they might be committing some mortal sin of writing at any given moment. I would say this too is somehow related to how we teach writing. The problem is that a lack of confidence drains writing from all the personality that any reader would desire. Of course, this is exactly what students want, as they think good academic writing should be without moxie. And more often than not, fear actually results in the self-censorship of the best ideas, while the most generic ideas make it to the page. As to how to solve this problem, just say what you think and don't say what you don't think.