Writing isn’t easy, that’s for sure. Patterns have emerged in my years of working with clients — areas that people struggle with. I’m digging into those today and offering some hints that will, I hope, keep you from making these mistakes in your writing.
Keep your modifier and the clause it’s modifying near each other to avoid confusion.
After waiting in our seats on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the plane finally inched toward the runway for takeoff.
Who waited? As written, the plane waited, but the writer here means the people — we waited. Isn’t the following more clear?
After we waited in our seats on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the plane finally inched toward the runway for takeoff.
Here’s another example:
Having been to Wimbledon, the U.S. Open remains my favorite tennis tournament.
As written, the U.S. Open tournament visited Wimbledon, which isn’t possible. This rewrite works better:
I have been to Wimbledon, but the U.S. Open remains my favorite tennis tournament.
Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes it’s not. Your job as a writer is to make your readers’ job easy, and clear writing is one way to do that, so watch those modifiers!
Plural vs. Possessive
Apostrophes are misused all the time. An apostrophe indicates possession, not plural, except in special circumstances. If I’m going to my friends’ home for dinner and their names are Jen and John Smith, I’m going to the Smiths’ house. That’s both plural and possessive. Here are a few examples:
John and Jen are the Smiths.
I’m going to the Smiths’ house for dinner.
Bill and Maggie are the Churches.
I’m going to Maggie Church’s house for tea.
Sometimes you’ll see an apostrophe to indicate a plural (rather than a possessive) with numbers and letters, like in this example:
He received 2 A’s and 2 B’s on his report card.
That’s often a style issue, so you could also see As and Bs.
The “s” is added after an apostrophe with the singular to indicate possession — unless you’re writing about biblical or classical names, like Jesus, Achilees, or Moses.
I follow the story of Jesus’ faith.
I happily listened to Thomas’s story.
You’ve seen comma splices, whether you realize it or not. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are separated by a comma. The clauses need something more to connect them.
I was so tired, I couldn’t wait to get to bed.
That’s a comma splice because each clause can stand on its own as a sentence. When put together like this, though, they need to be joined.
I was so tired, and I couldn’t wait to get to bed.
I was so tired that I couldn’t wait to get to bed.
You may have also heard this called a run-on sentence, because the clauses run into one another.
Generally we write nonfiction in the present tense, unless talking about a specific story or case study that happened in the past. Sometimes writers switch between present and past even within the same paragraph. This can be confusing for readers. The easiest way I’ve found to catch and correct tense shifts is to read the draft after you’ve written. They tend to jump out, which doesn’t happen usually when you’re writing.
These examples are not exhaustive, obviously, and there are many other errors that I could’ve included here. I included just the most common ones I see, though, so this blog post didn’t morph into a middle school English lesson. Do you have any errors you see regularly?
If you need help polishing your writing, check out my editing services here.