Self-editing a piece slated for publishing goes beyond spell-checking your work. These writing mistakes should also be addressed to ensure your writing is clear, vibrant, and effective.
There is nothing worse than reading your published work and finding a huge, glaring mistake you should have caught in editing. (Ask me how I know!)
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blog post, a personal essay, or a novel: there are some mistakes we don’t always catch when we edit our own work.
Sure, we all know to check for spelling and grammar. But there is so much more to editing your writing than a quick proofread. Some of these mistakes might not have even occurred to you. Here are five things you should check before you hit “publish.”
Writing Mistake #1: Repeated sentence starts
If you’re almost ready to publish, you’ve probably crafted beautiful, grammatically perfect sentences. Alone, these sentences might make you sound like the next Shakespeare, but together… they can sound very off. There are several reasons this might occur, but one culprit is repeated sentence starts.
If you start three or more sentences in a row — even split between different paragraphs — with the same word, your prose will start to sound redundant and choppy. The repeated sentence start can be a name, a pronoun, or really any word. Here’s an example:
The Met Gala’s theme in 2019 was “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”
The Met Gala’s theme allowed some of our favorite celebrities to think outside of the box and make a powerful statement.
The Met Gala is often considered the pinnacle of fashion outside of Fashion Week.
That’s a lot of “The Met Galas.” Check your writing for repeated sentence starts and read your work out loud. It will help you catch any issues with the flow from repeated words.
Repeated sentence starts aren’t always bad, however. Anaphora is a literary device that involves repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence for emphasis. It can be quite powerful (think: “I have a dream…”) but, like all literary devices, it should be used methodically and sparingly.
Writing Mistake #2: Lack of variety in sentence lengths
It’s not just the start of your sentences that you need to check. The length of your sentences is extremely important.
Sentence length variation serves many purposes in writing, including establishing pacing. Long sentences slow the pacing while short sentences speed things up. Short sentences can also provide emphasis, while long sentences can help elevate the tone of your story.
Sentence length also affects the overall flow of your writing. Too many short sentences in a row will sound like a primary school reader, à la Go, Dog, Go. Too many long sentences will remind readers of the verbose Romantic-era language of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Effective writing strikes a balance.
One easy way to check for variety in your sentence lengths is to look at the actual structure of your sentences. There are four main types of sentences: simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex. Be sure to use a mix of these structures. There are also editing programs, like ProWritingAid, that show a visual representation of your sentence lengths, whether through highlighting or a graph.
Writing Mistake #3: Misusing (or over-using) passive voice
While passive voice isn’t always a bad thing, it can bog down your writing, making it less clear and less poignant. Passive voice occurs when the object of an action is used as the subject in a sentence. It can be difficult to identify passive voice in your own writing.
Consider these examples of passive voice:
- A decision was made by the committee.
- The package will be delivered on Tuesday.
- The cookies were eaten by the children.
If we rewrite those sentences in active voice, we focus more on the action rather than the object.
- The committee made a decision.
- My assistant will deliver the package on Tuesday.
- The children ate the cookies.
How do you edit for passive voice? You can look for keywords like am, is, was, and were, especially if they are tied to the words be, being, or been. But just because those words show up doesn’t mean you have a case of passive voice. It might just be another verb tense. Another key is to look for the word by followed by a noun, but many passive voice sentences don’t have that.
I enjoy the zombie hack to help root out passive voice. If you can place the phrase “by zombies” after the verb or verb phrase, and it still makes sense, the sentence is passive. For example, A decision was made by zombies. The cookies were eaten by zombies.
Writing Mistake #4: Inconsistency
We all know the adage, “consistency is key.” It applies to writing, too! There are many spelling and grammar rules that are arbitrary in English and, as writers, we get to take many creative liberties. But you want your writing style to be consistent across your piece, whether it’s an article or a book.
Do you forget to use the Oxford comma half the time? Do you use the UK spelling for grey in the first a paragraph but use the US spelling gray in the conclusion? Or what about the dreaded tense shifts that occur mid-sentence?
Consistent writing is important for clarity and professionalism. Before you publish, check for consistency in tense, acronyms, dates, punctuation, and spelling.
Writing Mistake #5: Using clichés and idioms
I’ve lumped clichés and idioms together because idioms often become clichés when they’re overused. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with these two types of phrases, but they should be used appropriately and sparingly. Everything in moderation, you know. (See what I did there?)
Clichés and idioms can make your writing relatable, especially if you are trying to sound informal. If you struggle with sounding conversational, try throwing in some idioms. “My hands are tied” is much easier to understand than “I am unable to accommodate your request for aid.”
But clichés and idioms can also alienate readers. For example, for non-native English speakers, idioms do not usually translate well. You must know your audience.
Edit for phrases that might not be universal or translate well. Recently, a friend in my writing group used a euphemism for a certain body part in her story. Our non-native English speaker and our two older members did not understand what was meant at all, which caused confusion for the entire piece.
Self-edit (with a little help)
Because many of these writing mistakes are difficult to edit for, especially in our own writing, I always use editing software like ProWritingAid to flag these kinds of errors. It has a “Style Report” to highlight your repeated sentence starts and the “Length Report” gives you a graphic representation of your sentence lengths. The “Style Report” also points out possible instances of passive voice. The “Consistency Report” checks all your acronyms, British versus American spellings, and more while the “Clichés Report” points out possible clichés and idioms that might inhibit clarity.
As a writer, you use words to put your best face forward. Always check for these mistakes to ensure your writing is clear, vibrant, and effective before you publish!
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