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Common Writing Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

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  • 0:01 Avoiding Pitfalls
  • 0:36 Provide Substance
  • 2:54 Don't Get Too Ornate
  • 4:36 Check Your Grammar
  • 6:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

In addition to all the other things you do while writing an academic essay, you'll need to think about how to avoid common pitfalls. This lesson discusses how to steer clear of some common problems.

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.

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