4 Mistakes That Ruin Your Writings but Make You Feel Like a Pro Writer

Everything you need to know if you’re an amateur writer to take your writing to the next level

Soroush Rafiei
May 10, 2020 · 4 min read
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Image by Florian Klauer from Unsplash — Edited by Author

As new writers, we are often tempted to use an overblown, bombastic, and exaggerated language to show off our linguistic abilities instead of learning the dos and don’ts of writing; a habit that not only doesn’t add value to our prose but makes it cumbersome to read.

This is even more true for non-native English speakers, including me. I used to write in the same style for two years or so until I was introduced to my current favorite writer and linguist, Charles Harrington Elster.

In his books about vocabulary building and writing, Charles, who is also a New York Times writer, always emphasizes that writing has to be simple and easy to follow, otherwise it would take much longer than necessary to read if the reader doesn’t give up half-way through it.

There are four main mistakes commonly committed by new writers that overcomplicate our pieces, making up what’s known as ‘abusage’:

  • Overwriting
  • Overusing adverbs
  • Redundancy
  • Lazy phrases

Now let’s see what each one means in plain English and how to avoid it.

Overwriting

‘When it comes to writing, one word is always better than two.’

- Charles Harrington Elster -

Yeah, I know. It’s cool to write long, overwritten sentences, but that’s only attractive to you. You should know that this is a typical temptation after you’ve just learned what complex structures are, while in fact, the more advanced the English grammar gets, the more words get deleted simply because it gets more readily understandable. Here is an example:

INTERMEDIATE ENGLISH: Despite the fact that the children who have disabilities are often deemed as losers, they tend to achieve a lot more than society expects them to.

ADVANCED ENGLISH: despite being deemed losers, children with disabilities tend to achieve much more than expected.

Unfortunately, writing more words than necessary is considered formal in some languages; this is not the case in English.

However, there are several ways you can address this problem.

First, cut words out ruthlessly until your point wouldn’t get across if one more word gets deleted.

Second, use noun phrases instead of noun clauses. For example, saying ‘children with disabilities’ says the same thing as ‘children who have disabilities’ in fewer words.

Third, use a preposition with a noun phrase and leave ‘the fact that’ out, or just simply use conjunction as illustrated in the examples above.

Fourth, omit ‘that’ wherever possible. When ‘that’ is followed by a subject, it can get deleted.

e.g. I think (that) living in a megacity is…

Overusing adverbs

‘Delete wherever possible and first words to go are always adverbs.’

- Charles Harrington Elster -

According to Charles, there is nothing inherently wrong with adverbs, as you can see my pointed use of ‘inherently’, but what you need to be sensitive about is whether your adverb adds anything to your point or it is superfluous. In my experience, almost all adverbs that suggest emphasis are unnecessary. In the sentence ‘the house was completely destroyed’, the adverb ‘completely’ has no active role, so ‘the house was destroyed’ is enough.

Adverbs like completely, thoroughly, perfectly, truly, basically, and really often carry little or no meaning, so in writing, they should be either used with caution or avoided.

Redundancy

Read the following statement:

In this day and age, the media inform the general public about the new innovations every day, which reflects how rapidly technology is advancing.

What can you delete from this horrendous sentence?

Redundancy means using two or more words that mean the same thing, so ‘new innovation’ and ‘general public’ are both redundant. This is a problem that is typical of even native writers because sometimes the repetition is not obvious, or it is so commonly used that no one thinks twice about it. Some of these redundant phrases are known to us non-native English users as ‘collocations’ and we’re often advised to use them to make our writing and speech more natural. However, when it comes to writing, not only do they not make our pieces natural, but they reflect a lack of linguistic knowledge.

Common English redundancies include:

- Repeat (again)

- (New) innovation

- (New) invention

- (Free) gift

- (Final) outcome

- (End) result

- (General) public

- (Future) plan

- (Past) memories

- (Past) experiences

- (Past) history

- (Brief) summary

- Combine (together)

- Compete (with each other)

- Incredible (to believe)

- Gather (together)

- Emergency (situation)

- Weather (condition)

In all of the instances above, the word or phrase in the parentheses must be removed.

Lazy phrases

how often have you been told to use the following phrases?

It is undeniable that…

There’s no secret that…

I subscribe to the view that…

What do you think they do? Do they make you sound intelligent? Do they show you are good at English? The answer is a big NO.

All they do is to remind the reader that you didn’t bother to improve your English, but resorted to these phrases to make them believe you’re good at language. In other words, they are signs of laziness!

Trust me, there is nothing wrong with ‘I think’. It is more honest, direct, and friendly. Don’t waste your time memorizing these things. Use them only when what follows adheres to them. When you say ‘it is undeniable that’, what comes after it must be undeniable, otherwise your writing is exaggerated.

In the end, you need to be aware that if what you are saying in 100 words can be said in 60 words, you’re bad at writing. Instead of trying to impress your reader with your grandiloquence, learn to be simple and minimalistic with words, because it is more powerful, less boring, and always professional.

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Soroush Rafiei

Written by

I’m an IELTS teacher and a designer with a passion for writing. I write about English, lifestyle, and productivity to help you go after the life you want.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

Soroush Rafiei

Written by

I’m an IELTS teacher and a designer with a passion for writing. I write about English, lifestyle, and productivity to help you go after the life you want.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

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