As a professional editor, I’ve edited many documents and learned a lot along the way. In my work, I’ve discovered that certain errors tend to crop up again and again.
I’ve fixed countless numbers of these errors to provide many writers with clean copy, which makes me so happy, because error-free writing is essential if a writer is to be successful.
Error-free writing is especially important for freelance writers, who face stiff competition and so must distinguish their work from that of others in quality and professionalism. Even the most original and interesting content can be dragged down by choppy copy.
If your writing is bogged down by too many errors, you might find it difficult to secure any work at all! Fortunately, the following common writing errors can be easily avoided if you know what to look for.
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1. Quotation mark inconsistencies
Did you know there are two kinds of quotation marks? Many people don’t! Straight quotation marks (” “) come to us from the typewriter, whereas curly quotation marks (“ ”) arrived with the computer and are in general usage today.
Whether straight or curly, what’s most important is consistency. Many writers accidentally switch between the two, which can be distracting for readers. However, careful proofreading will take care of this frequently overlooked error.
Quotation marks also follow certain conventions, depending on your flavor of English. Single quotation marks are typically used in British and Australian English, while U.S. and Canadian English use double quotation marks.
The conventions in other countries may vary, so be sure to check the appropriate style guides.
For quotes within quotes, a good memory trick is to simply use the opposite of whichever outside quotation mark you are using.
For example, in British English, your initial quote will be in single quotation marks, so the quotation within the quotation (quotation inception) should be enclosed by double quotation marks.
Again, careful proofreading and a quick bit of research should make avoiding quotation mark errors a simple task.
2. Formatting abuse
Writers often want to emphasize what they are saying. This is understandable and appropriate in some cases; how you emphasize your point, however, matters. Using formatting to emphasize a point, whether with bold, ALL CAPS, or “scare quotes,” can distract the reader and is therefore generally discouraged.
If you feel the need to emphasize your meaning with special formatting, you should first work on the text and consider how using different words might provide the emphasis you want. If it’s absolutely necessary, you can use italics to emphasize a word, but this should be used sparingly. (See what I did there?)
Headings are another formatting matter to watch out for. As with quotation marks, headings must be consistent in case, font, and size and should be in line with your client’s required platform or house style. Unsurprisingly, many style guides require the title case for titles, with all words capitalized except articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.
There are several variations of this convention. APA requires that Level 1 and Level 2 headings use title case, and all subsequent heading levels use sentence case. In contrast, MLA uses title case for all headings. Writers often switch between styles without realizing it, so, as with all elements of your writing, be sure to be consistent!
3. Comma errors
A very common error I come across in editing is the writer not knowing the difference between a dependent clause and an independent clause. If you can master the difference between the two, then you’ll be able to produce clear writing that flows well.
Think of it this way: An independent clause is like a cup of coffee, and a dependent clause is like a caffeine lover. Caffeine lovers are dependent on coffee, so they can be joined (quite happily) to form a cohesive unit (the sentence). Similarly, two cups of coffee, or two independent clauses, can be combined.
However, you cannot put two caffeine-dependent people together to form a working unit (the sentence). It just doesn’t work. They need caffeine. Both of these combinations come with different comma rules and common errors to be on the lookout for.
Another common error is inconsistent use of the serial, or Oxford, comma, which is used to separate three or more items in a series (e.g., “That girl is obsessed with quotation marks, formatting, and commas.”). The comma before “and” in the example is the serial comma.
The flavor of English you are using determines whether to use the serial comma. For example, while U.S. and Canadian English favor the use of a serial comma, British and Australian English do not. Again, consistency is key here. Make sure you use one or the other in accordance with the usage rules of the appropriate style guide.
4. Chunky blocks of text
Many readers simply scan through posts and articles to get to the good stuff. Whatever you’re writing, the point of the piece should be readily available to readers performing a quick scan. Even though you want your readers to stick around and read your whole piece, the reality is that readers may find another source of information if they can’t easily find what they’re looking for.
You can enhance the readability of your writing by ensuring that not only titles but also headings and subheadings separate your text. It should be easy for readers to tell where information is located and why it is separated.
You can further enhance the readability of your writing by keeping sentences concise. Long sentences can be difficult for the reader to follow.
Capturing a reader’s attention can be difficult, but it’s only half the battle; keeping the reader’s attention is the real challenge. Using short sentences helps readers more easily digest your writing. And if a reader is only scanning your article, short sentences will still get your point across.
5. Hyphen/dash confusion
I have come across some very creative—and very odd—hyphenation use over the years. But hyphens, as with all punctuation, come with rules. You can use a hyphen to make a two-word adjective (e.g., “two” and “word” are joined with a hyphen to describe “adjective”), with some compound nouns (e.g., “add-on,” “get-together”), and with some prefixes (e.g., “un-American,” “anti-Christian”).
However, hyphens should not be used to indicate ranges or a parenthetical thought. There are specific punctuation symbols for these purposes: the en dash and the em dash.
Let’s start with the en dash (–). An en dash should be used to indicate ranges (e.g., 15–20 patients; June–July; 1981–1999). It can also be used to contrast values or to illustrate a relationship between two things (e.g., a mother–daughter relationship).
If you want to express a parenthetical thought—one that doesn’t fit grammatically into the sentence you’re writing—you may use an em dash (—). The em dash is also used to indicate an interruption, usually in dialogue (e.g., “I never thought that we would—” “I don’t want to know what you thought!”).
Your knowledge of these more subtle writing techniques will set you apart in the professional world.
“What about Spelling and Grammar Errors? I See Plenty of Those.”
If this is what you’re thinking, you didn’t think we’d NOT mention that did you? Here’s a here’s a list of 240 of the most commonly misspelled words in English. And, there’s a handy test for you to take to see if you know them. FYI, the test consist of 10 questions.
Grammar Tip: Watch out for neither/either, nor/or and stationery/stationary. They’re some of the most common words that trip writers up.
Creating a reputation for returning high-quality, error-free writing to your clients will give you a significant competitive edge. Proofreading your writing for correct spelling and grammar is vital for achieving polished professionalism.
Luckily, anyone can write clean copy instead of choppy copy if he or she knows what to look for. Memorizing these common writing errors not only will help you avoid them but will also improve the overall quality of your writing.
Once you have a clean final draft that’s free of common errors, you can start looking for some fun freelance gigs to try out your new, polished writing skills.
What are Some of Your Most Common Writing Errors?
Tell me in the comments section below.
Author Bio: Jes is a magician and a mechanic; that is to say, she creates pieces of writing from thin air to share as a writer, and she cleans up the rust and grease of other pieces of writing as an editor at Scribendi.com. She knows there’s always something valuable to be pulled out of a blank page or something shiny to be uncovered in one that needs a little polishing.
Coming Next Wednesday: Freelance Writers: The Very First Thing You Need to Do to Start Making Money as an Affiliate Marketer. FYI, we’re always looking for great guest posts around here, so feel free to send one in.
P.S.: Besides Good Writing Skill, the #1 Thing You Need to Start a Successful Freelance Business? Your Own Blog. Learn why & how to start one here.