Common Writing Mistakes

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Many jokes about writing claim it’s simple: all writers have to do is sit down at the typewriter (this has been around for a while) and open a vein. Another version suggests they stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood appear on their foreheads. No one is entirely sure who gets the credit for these quips, but they are all pointing out the obvious: writing is tough. Anyone who decides to dive into this nuttiness should give the craft the respect it deserves, and learn to avoid common writing mistakes.

Okay, but first, is it true that if the plot is good, the mistakes don’t matter?

Let’s get that one out of the way right now. No.

Why even worry about mistakes?

All writing must be easy to understand, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether you’re writing from home for business or trying your hand at a short story. Mistakes make writing unclear and force readers to work hard to comprehend its meaning. Some readers will give up, which defeats the entire purpose of writing the paper, book, poem, instruction manual, annual report, or screenplay.

So, what are some common writing mistakes and how do authors fix them?

A quick search for “common writing mistakes” brings up hundreds of examples, all of them valid. Let’s start.


Language evolves constantly, and spellings change over time. Many words have alternate spellings that are both correct, such as ”doughnut” and “donut”—both refer to a sweet treat that we all eat too frequently. Adding to the confusion are the homophones, those words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”

The solution: There are a great many of those handy little things known as dictionaries available. They can be found online, and even in print. The interesting thing about these tools is they tell you not only how to spell a word, but what part of speech it is, which indicates how to use it.

You may also turn to the dictionary’s first cousin, the thesaurus. While not related to the Apatosaurus or the Tyrannosaurus, it has been around for a long time. This tool lists words and their synonyms, so if you find you’ve used the word “anxious” three times in one paragraph, a thesaurus will give you alternatives such as “uneasy” and “nervous.” Using the same word repeatedly within a few lines is noticeable to readers.

These tools exist to help you, so don’t be shy about using them. However, don’t rely on Grammarly or your computer’s built-in spell check. Remember, a human programmed them, and if the input is wrong, so is the advice they give you.

Misspellings’ first cousin: words that are easily confused

Many words in English sound the same but have different spellings and entirely different meanings. “Complimentary” and “complementary,” and “affect” and “effect” are only two examples of words that are often mixed up.

“Complimentary” comes from the word “compliment,” and means something flattering, often in regard to something someone says: “He made a complimentary remark about her design.”

“Complementary” is from the word “complete,” and indicates things that go together or reinforce each other. “The white wine was a complementary addition to the fish,” means that serving the wine enhanced the flavor of the dish.

“Affect” and “effect” are also frequently confused, as they sound very much alike and can be used as both nouns and verbs. The trick is to determine what the most common usage is for each.

“Affect” is most frequently used as a verb meaning “to make a change.” As an example, consider: “The new rules will affect the library’s opening hours.” That is, the hours will change because new rules have been put in place.

“Effect” is usually used as a noun, as in: “The rules had an unintended effect.” So, the rules had an unexpected result.

The problem: these are not absolute guidelines, because you can “effect a change,” that is, make one. However, if you are looking for a verb you probably need “affect,” but if you’re looking for an object or result, try “effect.”

The solution: check one of the countless references available to help determine which word is correct.

A special case: “imply” and “infer”

These two words have different meanings, but are often used incorrectly. When something is implied, it is hinted at, not stated directly.

When someone infers something, they are drawing a conclusion based on the limited information available.

Since both terms deal with information that is not explained clearly, writers often confuse them. Don’t do that.

Passive voice

This one irks everybody, as it’s often a way of avoiding responsibility. Instead of “I made a mistake,” someone may write “Mistakes were made.” Not only is this a way to weasel out of accepting accountability for the error, but it also raises additional questions, such as “What mistakes?” and “By whom?” Passive voice can make things unclear, the exact opposite of what you want. Also, passive voice tends to be unnecessarily wordy, which makes the writing seem weak.

The solution: when you find a sentence you’ve written in passive voice, rewrite it. Consider “The dog was walked by John” versus “John walked the dog.” Or “The students were scolded by the teacher” versus “The teacher scolded the students.” In both cases, the sentence written in active voice is shorter, clearer, and stronger.

Missing Commas

You can have a lot of fun with this one. The classic joke is:

“Let’s eat Grandma.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
“Commas save lives.”

Without the comma, Grandma becomes lunch. With the comma, she’s invited to share the meal.

Commas are also used to set off material that can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence. “The cat, who had one white paw, was a great mouser.” The point of the sentence is that the cat is a good hunter, so the sentence could simply be: “The cat was a great mouser.”

The solution: Learn to recognize when information is not necessary, and either delete it or set it off with commas. In the sentence about our feline friend, the fact the animal has a white paw is cute, but doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence and can be deleted. However, if you’re determined to keep this tidbit, set it off with commas.

Overusing commas

The evil twin of missing commas is overusing them: “The phrase, “herding cats,” has become a stale joke, on social media.” The excess commas chop it to bits and make it difficult to read and understand. In fact, there should be no commas at all: “The phrase “herding cats” has become a stale joke on social media.”

The solution: Comma errors are some of the most common writing mistakes, and unfortunately there’s no way to avoid them, except to do the hard work of learning when and when not to use them. Sorry.

Difficulties with verbs – tense problems

Verbs are action words that propel your sentences along, but they can be tricky. English verbs have twelve tenses in total, from simple present (“I sit”) to future perfect progressive (“I will have been sitting”). However, most non-fiction writing, such as letters and reports, will not need these elaborate constructions, but they will require that tenses match. That is, if you write in simple past, all your verbs must be in that tense.

As an example, consider: “As we hiked, the clouds grow thicker.” “Hiked” is past tense, but “grow” is present tense. This inconsistency can puzzle readers.

The solution: make sure your tenses align. The sentence can be either “As we hiked, the clouds grew thicker,” or “As we hike, the clouds grow thicker.”

You should decide whether you are writing in past or present before you begin the project.

Difficulties with verbs – inconsistent parallelism

Inconsistent parallelism is a fancy way of saying you want your verbs to be the same construction. “The cat’s aims include eating shrimp, and a new bed” is incorrect. Both parts of the sentence must be grammatically equal. Here, you would add a verb to the second half: “The cat’s aims include eating shrimp, and curling up in a new bed.”

The solution: look at the tenses carefully. If you use the -ing form (which can be both a gerund and a past participle), use it consistently.

Also, this construction can be a trap. Consider this: “Riding through the trees, the village comes into view.” The way this is written, it is the village that is riding through the trees. The correct usage is: “Riding through the trees, we see the village as it comes into view.” “We” are the ones riding, and we see the village appearing in the distance.

Don’t fragment sentences

Sentence fragments are what they sound like—incomplete sentences. They can be difficult to spot, because they may be missing only one word, the verb, and they can be lengthy. For example: “The CDC’s tests of the troll horde discovered by Legolas the elf revealed some anomalies. For instance, the gold from Minas Tirith.” The second phrase is a fragment. To correct the error, add a verb: “For instance, the gold appears to be from Minas Tirith.”

The solution: read your work carefully. Sentence fragments do have a place, but almost always in fiction, where they can be very powerful, as in: “She recognized him the moment she saw him. Her killer.” The shock to both the character and the reader in those two words immediately heightens the suspense. However, if you’re writing non-fiction, you want to avoid this construction as your work is not designed to shock or excite readers but to inform them.

Run-on sentences

Run-on sentences, as the name implies, are so long they become confusing. Look at this: “The cat show was scheduled for Friday, March 3, but an unexpected ice storm forced many participants to cancel, so it was rescheduled for the next week, when better weather was promised.” The sentence is grammatically correct, but clumsy.

The solution: when you run up against a monster like this, rewrite it: “The cat show, which had been scheduled for Friday, March 3, was rescheduled for a date with better weather when everyone could attend.” The revision is both clearer and shorter.

Comma splices

The use of comma splices is becoming more common, but it is still incorrect. The term refers to the practice of joining two independent clauses with a comma, rather than a comma and a conjunction.

A comma splice looks like this: “Dance competitions began in the early 1900s, by 1950 they were televised.”

The solution: rewrite the sentence and add a conjunction. “Dance competitions began in the early 1900s, and by 1950, they were televised.”

Point of view

Finally, this is one of the trickiest problems in writing, because it’s very subtle and one word can cause an error. Point of view is the angle or vantage point from which a story is told. There can be multiple points of view in a work, but the author must make sure the reader knows who is narrating at any given time.

This is an incorrect POV: “The explosion shattered the calm. She glanced at Dave and knew he was scared.” At first reading this seems to be fine, and plausible, as it makes sense everyone would be frightened. However, the catch is that she cannot truly know whether Dave is scared or not, because she’s not in his head. He may be excited, depressed, or even happy.

The solution: make sure the sentence reflects only what the narrator knows is true by direct observation. “The explosion shattered the calm. She glanced at Dave and saw that his face had gone white, and his hands were clenched. She assumed he was as terrified as she was.” Here, she is making a reasonable assumption based on what she sees.

Point of view problems are usually thought of in connection with fiction writing, but any writer will benefit by being aware of grammatical errors of all kinds.

If, after all this, you are confident in your writing abilities and would like to put them to use with a company that will provide you with interesting assignments, regular monthly pay, and solid editorial support, we want to hear from you. Contact Words of Worth today, and come join our team.