It’s that time of the year again – that time when everyone starts caring about GP. Because if you fail it, you re-take the A-levels. Such joy.
To deny Cambridge a little extra revenue, here’s ten common mistakes students make when writing, and how you could instantly improve your exam scores by fixing them.
Or, if you’re the example kind of guy, we’ll be exploring how you could turn this:
At the outset, it is crucial and perhaps pertinent to note the fact that, due to the presence of a variety of reasons behind why students tend to make a plethora of errors and indeed miscalculations in their writing efforts, such as unchecked misconceptions about writing left unrectified by their educational instructors, the average or mean standard of communication, written or otherwise, seems to have fallen to a level that is definitely worrying and truly alarming.
Misconceptions about writing cause students to write badly.
By the way, the first sentence is grammatically correct. I’ve checked. Thrice. Only, the first thing you’ll notice is how it’s…
1. Using empty words.
There are about 100000 words in the English language (not including those Shakespeare made). Actually, there are probably more, but that doesn’t mean you have to use every single one.
The Enemy: Glue words that have no meaning on their own.
The point is that depending on the situation, some words are more equal than others. I’m not being wordist here, only - the right word at the right place is always better than a lawyer in an emergency room, or a librarian in an ice hockey rink.
For you see, words like table and swim have meaning. When I say flying pink bananas, I make images of aerodynamic, discoloured fruit appear in your mind. These words, usually nouns, verbs and adjectives, are full. They’re the workhorses of the English language.
But when I say “and” or “the”, or “those”, I’m pretty sure nothing appears in your head. If something does, I’d really like to hear from you.
The Solution: Reduce and rephrase.
These words are just there to hold all the other words together. They have no meaning in themselves. So the right thing to do is to avoid them where possible. I don’t mean stop using them completely, only that a sentence like:
It was decided by Henry that he would go and swim.
Could be better expressed as:
Henry decided to swim.
And while we’re here, I’d like to draw your attention to a particular class of empty words, which frequently occur if you’re…
2. Calling a spade a manual entrenchment establishment device.
The Enemy: Euphemisms, Technicalities and Jargon.
These are the words you use when you have no real point to make, can’t convince, so you confuse. Big as these words can get, you can’t hide behind syllables and letters. To any examiner’s trained, tired and cynical eye, such ‘waffling’ gets you nowhere. In fact, using a complex word out of its place may draw unwanted attention to the weaknesses in your writing.
And big words often betray. Sometimes we’re not sure what they mean, and we use them to act smart. But only those who aren’t smart need to act like they are. For starters, here’re some greatly overused words in a hugely misused phrase:
The advent of technology causes a plethora of issues and concerns.
NEWFLASH: “Advent” really means arrival, and has nothing to do with development or growth. So strictly speaking, the advent of technology was around 500, 000 B.C., when we discovered fire and knives. Does your introduction still make sense?
NEWFLASH II: “Plethora” really means an excessive amount of something. IT ISN'T A HIGH-CLASS SUBSTITUTE FOR “VARIETY”. Varieties are neutral. Plethoras are bad. So if you’re saying you have a plethora of reasons why I should believe you, you’re really saying I shouldn’t.
The Solution: Stick with your trusty childhood friends.
Words you learn are like friends you make. The earlier you get to know them, the more you can trust them. Soon you’ll learn that you pretty much stop making good friends once you’re over 18, but that’s a sad story for another sad day. Suffice to say, words like right, wrong, good, bad, because, and also are never gonna let you down. They’ll never turn around and tell you “you thought I was this? Ha! I am actually that!”
When in doubt, saying: “The writer is wrong because he does not consider how things will play out in the long run”, may be better than saying “the writer is erroneous due to the simple reason that he omits to calculate the extended efficacies of these extraneous factors.”
Anyway, there are another group of words which you should entirely avoid. They typically appear when you’re...
3. Pointing out that what’s obvious is obviously obvious.
The Enemy: “Clearly”, “definitely”, “truly”and other rhetorical fluff
This clearly happens a lot and is definitely a mistake students frequently make which truly reduces their exam scores.
If you’re with me on this, you’ll realise I could have omitted all those words in the above sentence, and it would actually be better. That’s because if something is so clear, such definite, or very true, it usually speaks for itself. You don’t have to emphasise that it’s clear. Doing so only makes the reader wonder why you’re pushing the point so much, and question if it’s as ‘clear’ as you’re making it out to be. In other words, overdoing it makes your sentence sound like salesman pitch, which doesn’t help if you’re trying to be reliable.
The Solution: Avoid using these words unless you’re sure it helps.
Take for example a common sentence where this mistake occurs:
Project XYZ was a truly enriching experience and I definitely learnt a lot in the process.
I’m not sure about you, but when I read this, I get the idea that whatever that project was really wasn’t very much, and you’re trying to make up for that using stronger words. Which are empty. So save yourself time and ink by simply saying this:
Project XYZ was an enriching experience and I learnt a lot in the process.
This sounds more confident, direct, and is more persuasive because it doesn’t seem like you’re hiding something.
Now we’re done with individual words, it’s also a good idea to stop…
4. Using empty phrases.
There are about 10 million phrases in the English language. Ok, no, but you get the point. Some phrases are less equal than others.
The Enemy: Placeholders and Distancers
Distancers isn’t actually a word, but I’m using it to refer to that class of phrases we use to bring something further from the reader. Instead of saying problems, we say “the presence of” problems. Instead of saying factors, we say “the existence of” factors. And instead of saying technology, we say “the advent of” technology.
The Solution: Omit, omit, omit.
Unless you’re really trying to highlight the mere presence of something as the key to whatever it is you’re trying to say, it’s likely you could just not write anything at all. A meaningless phrase that always appears is “the presence of a variety of reasons”. That says nothing. Better to simply state what those reasons are. Hence…
Due to the presence of a variety of reasons, Singapore’s grass is growing. Among these reasons are strong sunlight and rain.
Can be better expressed as
Singapore’s grass is growing because of strong sunlight and frequent rain.
Indeed, one problem related to empty phrases is…
5. Cruel, Heartless Objectification.
It is very unfashionable now to be misogynistic, so we should generally avoid objectifying things. Even if we do, we should at least be aware.
The Enemy: ‘-ions’, ‘-ments’, ‘-isms’ and other suffixes merely there to lengthen words.
For those who don’t know, a suffix is something you attach to the end of the word, like “-ment” in “argument”. In the spirit of unnecessarily complicating things, we often subconsciously objectify verbs to make them sound nicer. Here are some examples:
The realization that he was going to fail put him in a crippled state.
His ideas possess a great degree of liberalism.
The generation of ideas is a painful process every student goes through in the creation of projects.
The agreement on the formalization of their relationship was decided between Mary and John.
The Solution: Rephrase and Simplify. Look out for phrases that go “the (something) of”.
In these cases, things which didn’t need to be objectified were mercilessly objectified, dressed up in bloat, and denied of their rights as individual words. For a fairer world, we should really be writing as such:
Realising he was going to fail crippled him.
His ideas are liberal.
Every student generates ideas to create projects.
Mary and John formalized their relationship.
For best results, avoid using phrases like “the … of”, and start your sentences with nouns and verbs.
In fact, doing so helps you avoid…
6. Ambiguity and vagueness.
For the record, they’re different concepts altogether.
The Enemy: Phrases with dual meanings, or overly general phrases
Ambiguity arises when it isn’t clear whether something is this or that. Consider this phrase: "The shopkeeper had many tricks in store". We don’t know if the shopkeeper was particularly cunning, or recently restocked his magic shop.
Vagueness is when something is too general to say anything important. For example: Various studies and numerous research methods have shown that too much homework is bad for health. Nice try there, but that puff of smoke known as “various studies and numerous research methods” isn’t going to convince anyone.
In short, ambiguity and vagueness is for politicians and diplomats who have to comment without commenting and still appear smart. Not for essay writers trying to score points and convince.
The Solution: Be Specific. Re-read your work, and get to the point.
An essay is basically a set of directions pointing the reader toward the conclusion you want. You don’t want to leave him at a fork in a road. The only remedy to ambiguity is to directly avoid it altogether by re-drafting your sentences so no doubt remains about what you mean. Hence, try: The shopkeeper had an ingenious plan up his sleeve.
Vagueness, on the other hand, can only be tackled when you’re sure of what you’re talking about. It’s always convenient to rely on “various reasons” when we can’t think of anything specific. But that really doesn’t help. The key is to know your stuff. So you could write something like: “A study of 100 students in the University of Fairytopia found that a majority of students given more than 10 kilograms of homework per week suffered from kidney illnesses later in life.”
Also, throw away the word “various”. Stop using it. Lock it in your closet. Chain it up. And discard it into the nearest incinerator. Then spray your entire house with anti-Various.
And while you’re trying to be specific, also make sure you’re not throwing out lots of…
7. Irrelevance and Redundancy.
I know what you’re thinking. I just made that error myself because the word ‘redundant’ was redundant after I already used ‘irrelevant’. Right? Wrong.
The difference between the two’s relevant here. Something’s relevant when it’s so closely connected to the point that it’s appropriate to discuss. Let’s make sure you get that. To be relevant, it must be:
- Related to the point
- Suitable to talk about
Or, to make things very clear, relevant = connection + suitability. Why am I harping on this? Because what’s related isn’t always appropriate. Let’s say you’re writing an essay on the benefits of extreme sports on the economy. Stuff about extreme sports is probably related. But that doesn’t mean you have to list every extreme sport out there, or devote an entire paragraph into the origins and development of extreme ironing.
Further, what’s relevant could still be redundant. Redundancy means something that’s not needed or superfluous. The word is needed. That means what you’re saying should be a necessity, like oxygen, water, and Wi-Fi. So ask yourself this: If I leave this word/phrase/sentence out, would my essay die?
The Enemy: Putting stuff in just because, for word count, and to ensure the marker knows you have a great memory.
And saying the same thing with different words, to make sure the marker knows your vocabulary is has more colour than Dennis Rodman’s hair.
As in this paragraph:
Extreme sports like mountain-climbing, ice-skating, mountain-skating, ice-climbing, roller-blading, snowboarding and competitive Youtubing are beneficial to the economy because they promote tourism, especially in countries like Switzerland, France, Okinawa and Lichtenstein. By the way, did you know that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, and that no cats have made it to the top? Anyway, the point is that people travel to Nepal to climb, scale, surmount, and summit that mountain. That’s a lot of or, can I say, a plethora of, people, which stimulates the local economy.
Here’s a more insidious example:
Every player was mostly tired after the exhausting game.
The better sentence is simply: "Everyone was tired after the game". See? Even the word “player” was redundant.
The Solution: Don’t. Just don’t.
Common sense tells us writing nothing should be infinitely easier than writing something. But after years and years of writing to hit word counts, we learn that words = reward. And that association’s really hard to break. But like world records, bad habits we get from the system are meant to be broken.
To help you, here’s a simple thought process:
1 - Is this even remotely related to the issue?
2 - Only if Yes: should I write it?
3 - Only if Yes - do I really need this?
4 - If still Yes - Have I already said the same thing earlier?
5 - If very certain Yes, write and repeat.
I’m not saying you have to consciously do this for every single thing, only that you should subconsciously do this for every single thing. And if something’s somewhat related to the main point, but not so much to the smaller point you’re currently discussing, consider leaving it for later. Or admit that it’s unrelated. On an unrelated note, you should also avoid…
8. Putting everything far, far away.
This one’s a small problem run wild.
The Enemy: The words “have” and “had”, amongst others
For some reason, we like to needlessly put everything we say in past participle. As if doing so makes what we say authoritative. For example, I had wanted to write this entire paragraph having used unnecessary past participles in every sentence I had written, but I have decided only to do so in his sentence had.
There’s really no reason for these words. In fact placing them in distances what you’re saying from the reader – first by pushing everything further into the past, and second by literally adding distance between the subject of the sentence and its point. Similarly for words like “could” and “would” compared to “can” and “will”
The Solution: Whenever you write “had” or “have”, ask yourself whether the simple past tense would work is better.
For the grammatically-challenged reader, this means asking if “I had wanted to run away” is worse or better than simply “I wanted to run away”. Or if “I would be interested in your proposal which could make us a lot of money” is better than “I am interested in your profitable proposal.
The last pair of issues are related, and if you’re following me so far you’d have guessed as much, but your essay should never…
9. Have more qualifiers than the World Cup.
Behold the mighty Clause. It knows when you are sleeping. It seeps into your words. Its cousin only works once a year, but it loves attention. When you’re not looking, it sneaks into your sentence. And multiplies.
Clauses, of course, are the basic building blocks of sentences. Like phrases, only more technical. You don’t have to know them very well to know that this next sentence is hugely confusing:
Primarily, at least from an economic perspective, and where Asian countries are concerned, cultural barriers, except those which are not firmly entrenched, are difficult to break through unless one makes a strong, determined effort, both consciously and subconsciously, to integrate himself into the community, provided this community accepts his entrance.
The Enemy: Subordinate Clauses (basically, the stuff that usually goes between two commas or in brackets and can actually form separate sentences).
Assuming you understood what I wrote above, you probably think I made sense. Only it took you so long to make sure you understood that you either gave up trying or hate me now.
I hope it is self-evident why shortening that sentence would make it better. Each clause adds a little tidbit of information into fray, which is supposed to shape how the reader understands its main point. Almost literally, the reader must juggle every little bit while trying to stay focused on the main thread of the sentence, all the while keeping track of grammar. So every time you throw a clause into the mix, you’re asking the reader to juggle one more thing. If you’ve ever tried juggling, you’ll know that juggling one ball is easy, juggling two is slightly harder, and juggling three is $@!#%.
The Solution: Divide and Convince
Unless you’re Dan Brown, you don’t want your reader working harder than you. So the right thing to do is to break them up into smaller, bite-sized chunks. And if some chunks can be combined into one, do that. I recommended a maximum of three clauses in any one sentence.
Primarily, from an economic perspective, Asian cultural barriers are difficult to break through. Unless these barriers are not firmly entrenched, one has to consciously and subconsciously make a determined effort to integrate. Even then, the community must accept his entrance.
For the grammar junkies (ie. None of you), here’s a detailed page on the wonders of Subordinate Clauses.
Finally, if you’re cutting down on qualifiers, you should also be able to stop…
10. Dragging sentences on and on.
The Enemy: Needlessly long sentences
Long sentence bad. Short sentence good. I over-simplify. But school is about over-simplifying anyway.
For some reason, students sometimes think writing long sentences is the best demonstration language ability. Perhaps because you’ve read academic articles comprising some of the longest beauties you’ve ever seen. Thing is, academic research articles aren’t always the hallmark of clarity in expression, because they’re commonly written to express very complex ideas to very complex people, by people whose main specialties are in scientific research rather than literature and communication. And trust me, the misconception that longer sentences = better work still exists in the mythical echelons of university writing.
Of course if you’re really good enough, and you can successfully write in long, flowing sentences which best express your point (like Nobel writer Jose Saramago), then fine and good. But most of us aren’t Nobel writers and many of us will never be. As your sentences get longer, you find yourself losing track of grammar and forgetting what you were really trying to say anyway. Because you’re also trying to juggle lots of things when you’re doing it.
The Solution: See #9 above.
Or as a simple guide, when using a comma, always ask:
Is this the 10th comma in this sentence?
Could I use a full stop instead?
Should I use a full stop instead?
Do I really want to say this?
And there you have it, the top ten errors you can rectify almost immediately.
Avoid words that are empty, vague, ambiguous, redundant, overly complex, and/or needlessly distance the point you’re making. Pay special attention to words like “advent”, “various”, “had”, “definitely”, “could”, and objectifications.
Avoid phrases that are empty, crafted just because, meaningless, ambiguous, irrelevant, and/or overly qualify or lengthen a sentence. Special mention goes to phrases like “the <something> of”, and subordinate clauses.
Finally, here’s one for the road. If you’ve been following me so far, you’d realize all of these errors can be avoided if we simply write simply, try not to act too smart and bite off more than we can handle, and actually think about the words and phrases we use. That’s really all there is to good writing – conscious effort coupled with an appreciation of what works well.
If you know other mistakes students commonly make, share them in the comments.
Till next time!