Writing Tips (Part 2): 5 Writing Mistakes You Don't Realize You're Making
Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series featuring tips to improve your writing.
Words by Jenni Cannariato
In the first part of this series, I shared the five most common developmental errors I see as an editor. Once I’ve identified and corrected these errors, I’m able to focus on the nitty gritty of editing. Welcome, the #wordnerd. Here are five little errors that you might not realize you’re making:
Error #1: Point of view
Point of view refers to the standpoint from which the piece is being told. “I” is first-person point of view, told directly by the narrator or author. “We” is the plural first-person point of view. “You” is second-person point of view and directly addresses the audience. Third-person point of view includes “she,” “he,” “they,” “it,” etc. This point of view is used when the author or narrator is talking about people that are neither the author/narrator nor the audience.
In creative non-fiction, when we adopt a conversational tone, using first person (“I” and “we”) along with second person (“you”) is more common. We mimic a conversation, talking about ourselves some, talking about what we have in common, and then addressing our audience directly. Sometimes switching point of view is necessary.
However, this highly depends on the piece and what it is trying to communicate. In general, a piece should have one main point of view and only switch point of view when absolutely necessary. If the piece is being written in a manner that is more like fiction, the point of view should stay the same the entire way through.
Error #2: Commas
Oh, boy. I could say so many things about commas. And the thing about the English language is that for every rule I tell you, some exception exists somewhere. But here a few things about commas that are true *most of the time*:
Commas should be used to separate unnecessary information from necessary information. In other words, if the information set apart by commas was taken away, would the sentence still mean pretty much the same thing? For example, taking away “in other words” from the previous sentence would still preserve the meaning of the sentence, so a comma is used to set that phrase apart.
Subjects and verbs shouldn’t be separated by commas, unless some unnecessary modifying phrase comes between them. “The dog, licked his bowl” is incorrect; the subject “dog” should not be separated from the verb “licked” by a comma. However, if we wrote the sentence like this, “The dog, who just came in the door, licked his bowl,” then the use of commas is correct. “Who just came in the door” is not necessary to the meaning of this sentence (which is communicating that the dog licked the bowl), so it’s information that can be placed in commas.
“That” should almost never be proceeded by a comma, while “which” should almost always be proceeded by a comma. “This is my watch that my mom got me” does not require a comma, because “that” is used to communicate information that is necessary to understand. The narrator is pointing out that this specific watch was the one purchased by his or her mom, and the sentence implies that the narrator has other watches. However, “This is my watch, which my mom got me” has an entirely different meaning. “Which my mom got me” is now a side note about the watch but is not essential information. The narrator is simply identifying the watch he or she possesses.
Error #3: Apostrophes.
Possessive pronouns never have apostrophes (his, her, theirs). Therefore, “its,” referring to something that belongs to “it,” does not need an apostrophe (“its bowl”). Additionally, apostrophes are never used to pluralize words, especially acronyms (for example, the plural of MRI is MRIs, not MRI’s, which would indicate something possessed by an MRI).
Error #4: Redundancy.
A few examples of redundancy:
None of the adjectives are needed, since they are already part of the definition of each word (for example, you can’t have an open fist. A fist is closed, by definition). My recommendation for eliminating redundancy? Do a Google search for common redundancies in the English language. We use a lot of these in everyday speech, so it’s hard to catch them unless we are constantly familiarizing ourselves with common ones.
Error #5: Using “I” instead of “me.”
Everyone raise their hands who had a grandmother who corrected you every time you said, “My friends and me…” No? Just me? My grandma had bat ears when it came to this grammatical error. It didn’t matter if she was three rooms away, I would hear her yell back, “My friends and I! It’s my friends and I!”
I think we’ve all become afraid of using “me” incorrectly, so anytime we are referring to ourselves in a group, we say, “…and I.” But sometimes it’s appropriate to say “my friends and me.” It just depends on what part of the sentence the phrase is.
“Me” is used when the phrase is acting as the object, whether it be as the object of the sentence, an object of a preposition, etc. For example:
Object of the sentence: “Judy gave my friends and me a ride to the mall.” Here, “my friends and me” is the object of the action of the sentence (the indirect object, to be precise…#wordnerd). Another way to state this is that “my friends and me” received the action of the sentence, Judy giving a ride.
Object of a preposition: “Judy gave donuts to my friends and me.” Don’t you love Judy? Here, the preposition is “to.” To whom? To my friends and me.
So let’s say you don’t really want to go back to ninth-grade grammar and diagraming sentences. How can you tell when it’s appropriate to use “I” and when it’s appropriate to use “me”? My tip is to try out the sentence with just “I” or “me” (drop whatever group that “I” or “me” are part of). I promise, you will be able to tell which is correct. For example, you would never say, “Judy gave I a ride to the mall.” You would say, “Judy gave me a ride to the mall.” You instinctively know that “me” is correct in that sentence, just as you know that you would never say “Judy gave donuts to I,” or “Me am going to the mall today.”
Take heart. Grammatical errors are incredibly easy to make because (1) English is complicated, (2) if you think you know a rule there’ll be an exception, and (3) the rules are constantly changing. This is why editors are best friends with style guides and Merriam Webster. My absolute best tip for you to continue to polish your writing and avoid grammatical errors is to keep learning and to look up the things you aren’t sure about.
- Writing Tips (Part 1): 5 Common Developmental Errors in Nonfiction
About the Author:
When Jenni isn’t writing, editing, or gulping down the words of another great story, she can be found chasing her toddler, loving on her husband, stretching it out on a yoga mat, or hiking through the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. Her friendship can always be won with a good cup of coffee, some quality time and deep conversation, or a square of dark chocolate - preferably all three. Learn more here.