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Avoiding Common Writing Pitfalls

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Mar 15, 2006   #1
In the first part of this article, you can find several steps that you can take to improve your academic writing. In this article, I present several problems that I have seen over and over in students' essay writing. If you avoid these pitfalls, your writing will be a lot stronger.

- Using Passive versus Active Voice. Thanks to modern spell-checkers on word processing programs, these will usually be identified when you run a spell-check. But if you don't know what it is, you may not see any reason to change it. In general terms, you want to use the active voice as much as possible, unless the action is clearly being "done to" something else. For example, "the teacher was given a book by the student" is the passive voice. Said in the active voice, the sentence would read, "The student gave the teacher a book." It is generally considered to be stronger and also less heavy when written in the active voice.

- Writing Unparallel Sentences. Parallel sentences or sentences fragments are usually found when listing items or a series. The following is a parallel sentence: "The President gives speeches to the public, visits with foreign dignitaries, and attempts to influence Congress." Notice how these are items in a list of what the President does, so the verb needs to always be in the same tense, same person. (In this example it is in the 3rd person singular). The sections in a series would not be parallel if the verbs were in different forms. For example, the sentence would not be parallel if it read, "The President gives speeches to the public, visiting with foreign dignitaries, and attempts to influence Congress" because visiting is the wrong form of the verb.

- Switching Verb Tenses throughout the Paper or Using the Wrong Verb Tense for the Subject of the Paper or Paragraph. If you are writing an historical narratie, make sure you continue to explain in the past tense, and don't switch back and forth. If you are describing something current, then keep your description in the same verb tense. In general, don't switch back and forth for it is confusing to the reader.

- Failing to do a Complete or the Correct Assignment. Make sure you are answering all questions of the assignment. This is an obvious tip, but one that students often ignore, choosing instead to go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the topic of the assignment. This is where good preparation and all the hard work on that outline pay off.

- Failing to Manage Your Time Wisely. Make sure to avoid the most common pitfall-not giving yourself enough time to do the assignment. Good organizational skills come with time, but you will always sacrifice quality when you rush your work, especially if you run into trouble. Always assume that for the first several assignments, you will need more time than you think, as you get used to college-level work and your professor's expectations.

Don't forget to use what you already know! Many college students make the mistake of entering college thinking that what they have already learned is irrelevant and they are starting over. This is not true for the majority of students! Most students have learned how to write essays and research papers in college, and it is simply fine-tuning these skills and applying them at a deeper level that is necessary in college. Don't be intimidated by the fact that it is college, but ask for help when necessary and consult your references and your professor when you get stuck.


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