Before you hire an editor or submit work to publications, agents, or publishers, edit your work. Editing your nonfiction writing projects improves your submissions and writing craft. Indeed, revision makes you a better nonfiction writer.
Not only that, there will be situations in which you don’t have time or money for an editor, like when you publish a blog post or submit an article to a publication. Especially when you start your career, you depend on your own editing skills—and maybe the assistance provided by Grammerly.com or prowritingaid.com. Even as you gain experience and get published, your ability to revise your own work remains essential.
That’s why this month, I want to challenge you to improve your nonfiction writing. Do so by editing your work with an eye for 11 common writing errors. When you avoid or fix these mistakes, your nonfiction writing becomes stronger, cleaner, and more intelligible.
August Nonfiction Writer’s Challenge
To complete this month’s challenge, edit a piece of your writing with an eye for fixing the following 11 common nonfiction writing errors.
1. Passive Sentences
Passive sentences are a pet peeve of mine. Without going into a huge essay on this topic, I’ll offer this bit of advice: avoid any form of the verb “to be” or verbs ending in “ing.” That means you don’t write: “He was running” or “That ice cream is amazing.” Instead, try: “He ran” or “That ice cream tastes amazing.” You’ll find your writing more interesting because it’s “active.” For more information on passive sentences and how to correct them, read this. Or analyze a block of content here.
2. Unnecessary Words
Most writers tend toward verbosity. For readers, less is more. Examine each sentence you write carefully for unnecessary words. Reduce the number of words used whenever possible. One word might suffice for the three you initially chose. Or perhaps you use “that” often when, in most cases, it can be cut without compromising reader comprehension. If you beat around the bush, rather than say what you mean, get to the point faster. Cut words wherever possible, and your writing will be more compelling and powerful. (Here’s a very old post I wrote on this topic.)
3. Subject-Verb Agreement
In every case, the subject and verb of your sentences must agree with one another in number. Singular or plural—the rule remains the same. If the subject is singular, its verb must also be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb must be plural as well. The [subject-verb error]*https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-subject-verb-agreement.html) is easy to make and just as easy to fix. For example, this is incorrect: “The struggles the man experiences at work is intense.” This is correct: “The struggles the man experiences at work are intense.” (“Struggles” is plural. Therefore, the verb must be plural as well—“were” vs. “is.”
4. Sentence Fragments
Sentences must have a subject, verb, and object. Read each sentence carefully to ensure you completed your thought and included all three of these elements. Incomplete sentences leave readers hanging, unsure of the point you wanted to make. This is an incomplete sentence: “Went to the beach.” This is a complete sentence: “We went to the beach.” Be aware that texting and social media have inspired abbreviated communication methods inappropriate in nonfiction writing.
5. Misused Commas
Study comma usage. More often than not, writers misuse them. You may use too many or too few commas. You may put them in the wrong places. So bone up on comma-related grammar rules, and then reread your work. Here’s another of my pet peeves: commas used outside quotation marks. (“They go inside,” like this.) While you are at it, brush up on colon and semicolon usage as well.
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause separated from the word it modifies or describes. This error makes sentences sound awkward, ridiculous, or confusing, like “Grandma cooked the kids for dinner.” A dangling modifier, on the other hand, is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. For example, “Hungry, the spaghetti was devoured.” In the first case, you need only find the correct modifier and move a word or two. (“Grandma cooked dinner for the kids.”) In the second, you must rewrite the sentence. (“Hungry, we devoured the spaghetti.”)
7. Vague Pronouns
Here’s something Grammarly taught me. Vague pronouns, like “it,” “that, “which,” and “this,” leave your readers wondering what or to whom the pronoun refers. Be specific. For example, “that” vs. “that cat.” Vague pronouns show up when you have made reference to something or someone in one sentence, and, in the next sentence, assume your reader knows to what you have referred. For example: “I went to a fabulous Paul Simon concert. This made me happy.” Be specific—“Hearing him sing made me happy.”
8. Incorrect Word Usage
I’m sure you know this one… The mistake: You use the word “its” instead of “it’s,” “principle” rather than “principal,” or “there” instead of “their.” Tons of words get misused even by the best of writers. If you are unsure of the correct usage, look up the word in an online dictionary. If you want to acquaint yourself with some commonly misspelled words, click here.
9. Run-on Sentences
When your thoughts run away with you, you end up with run-on sentences. These sentences occur when you write a sentence with two main clauses but fail to use no punctuation between them. For example: “She sat at the computer and stared no words appeared in her head or on the screen.” Here’s the corrected version: “She sat at the computer and stared. No words appeared in her head or on the screen.” If you piece together too many clauses or thoughts in one sentence—especially without punctuation, your writing becomes less understandable.
10. Split Infinitives
An infinitive is the word “to” coupled with a verb—“to write,” “to run,” or “to go,” for instance. A split infinitive occurs when you separate the word “to” and the verb with another word (often an adverb). No grammar rules exist that prohibit split infinitives. Yet, many grammar experts recommend avoiding splitting infinitives whenever possible. That said, correcting a split infinitive can make a sentence awkward. (For example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” would sound awkward and less potent as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Plus, it lacks punch.) In general, though, correct a split infinitive—“She tried to quickly cook the meal before she had to leave”—like this—“She tried to cook the meal quickly before she had to leave.”
11. Lack of Parallel Structure
Parallel structure occurs when two or more parts of a sentence are similar in meaning but not grammatically similar (parallel) in form. You might find this mistake happens when you place items in a series. For example: “She wants to explore careers as a dancer, engineering, and scenic design.” Notice that the three items listed are not parallel in structure. The correct way to write the sentence is: “She wants to explore careers in dance, engineering, and scenic design.” If you create a numbered or bulleted list, the structure of each time must be the same as well.
While I could list many more writing mistakes, these 11 are some of the most common. Correcting them consistently will serve you and your writing well.
Before you deem any piece of nonfiction writing “done,” carefully search for the errors I’ve mentioned, and correct them. Eventually, you’ll discover your writing rarely includes these mistakes. Then you can focus on other aspects of grammar and continue to improve your nonfiction writing skill.
Take this nonfiction writing challenge! Then, in a comment below, tell me what writing error you make most often and how correcting them improved your writing.
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