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How to Write a Paper Without Making Common Mistakes

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Want A Better Grade?

Many things have changed in the 23 years I've taught College English, but one thing has not. Students still make the same common errors on their papers. I guarantee that if you follow my instructions to eliminate these errors on your paper, you will get a better grade. Not much time? My suggestions are ordered with the most important ones first.

Make your instructor happy by turning in an error-free essay.

Make your instructor happy by turning in an error-free essay.

Spelling and Grammar

The Problem: Students rush to finish their papers and don't take the time to find and fix errors that they could easily correct.

The Solution:

  1. Spell-check your essay using your word processing program.
  2. Use Grammarly to help check for errors (Google "Grammarly' to download the free version). After using this myself for a year, I finally require my students use it too because it does catch many common word choice errors and comma errors.
  3. Re-read your essay slowly (out loud is best) from start to finish. That helps you find a lot of mistakes and typos that might be missed by your spellchecker.
  4. Ask someone else to read your essay to look for errors. Sometimes a friend can see something you can't.

Why Fix? Misspelled words and typos tell your teacher that you don't care. More importantly, these sorts of errors on the job tell your boss that you are a sloppy worker, and that can make you get passed over for a promotion (but no one will tell you it is because you don't spell check!). So learn to be a careful proofreader.

Making an effort counts when your instructor gives grades.

Making an effort counts when your instructor gives grades.

Check Word Useage

The Problem: Students write the way they talk, making their writing too informal.

The Solution: Check your essay to see that you are not using these common words and phrases that are either:

  • incorrect grammar
  • confused words
  • poor word choices
  • not appropriate for an academic piece

To Solve this Forever: Keep a list of the word errors that you find in your papers, or that your instructor has marked on graded essays. Try to learn the rules. Double check those words when you use them or else when you proofread.

Why Fix? The rules on most of these words are taught in elementary school. Maybe you missed those lessons, didn't understand, or have a couple of these you don't remember. Since these are lessons taught to young kids, it should be a breeze for you to learn them now. Do yourself a favor and discover your standard errors so that you can significantly improve your writing for the future.

Common Word Errors

A spell-checker will not usually find these incorrect words. Therefore, you need to learn the words that you sometimes confuse, so that you can double check that you have them correct. While not an exhaustive list, these are the most common word err

Wrong WordCorrect UseWhy it is wrong

Being as, being that, due to the fact that

Because or Since

slang

alright, alot

all right, a lot

wrong spelling

your, you're

your=belongs to you, you're=you are

confused

amongst

among

British use or old fashioned

anyways, anywheres

anyway, anywhere

slang

fixing to

intend to

slang

should of, could of, would of

should have, could have, would have

wrong verb

its, it's

its=belongs to it, it's=it is

confused use

lots, lots of

a great many, a large number

slang

OK, O.K., okay

all spellings are correct but only use if recording a conversation

too informal for an essay

previous to, prior to

before

wordy

question of whether, question as to whether

whether

wordy

with regard to, relating to, with respect of

about

wordy

But, And, So, at the beginning of a sentence

However, Additionally, Therefore

these are conjunctions to use to join 2 parts of a sentence

suppose to, use to

supposed to, used to

spelling like you hear it

than, then

than=compared to, then=what time

confused words

there, their, they're

there=place, their=belongs to them, they're=they are

confused use

to, two, too

to=preposition, too=also or very, two=2

confused, avoid using "too" if possible

affect, effect

affect=to influence, effect=result

confused words

passed, past

passed=he passed by, past=in the past

confused words

cite, site, sight

cite=to quote, site=a place or web site, sight=to see

confused words

When You Fix Grammar Errors..

You cut away the cobwebs!

You cut away the cobwebs!

Revise Boring, Short and Repetitive Sentences

Problem: Sentences are wordy, boring, and sound the same.

Original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people. People wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus. People don't trust government sources that assure us the Ebola virus is contained.

The Fix:

  1. Circle every word that you use to start a sentence.
  2. Look for sentences that have the same first words, especially if they are in the same paragraph and change them in one of the following ways:

Add a transition word or phrase to start the sentence (however, even though, moreover, in addition, also, consequently). See my "transition words" chart for more examples.

Use different sentence types, like questions, interjections and commands.

  • Which is really the most important way to help stop Ebola?
  • We need to act now!
  • Don't forget that as our world shrinks, what happens in Africa and elsewhere has great importance for everyone.

Re-arrange the sentence with an Introductory Element. Introductory elements are phrases that come before the subject of the sentence. Often you can take the end of a sentence and move it to the front to make a more interesting sentence. Don't forget a comma after the Introductory Element.

West Africa is the place where the deadly Ebola virus first hit. Wondering if the deadly virus will spread, many people are frightened by Ebola. Not trusting government sources, citizens in hard-hit countries are wondering if they or someone they love will be the next victim.

  • Combine short sentences and eliminate repetitive words.

Original: The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa. The Ebola virus is deadly. The Ebola virus is frightening to many people.

Re-write: The deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is frightening to many people.

The frightening and deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa causes people to wonder who will be the next victim; moreover, many people don't trust the government sources that say the virus is contained.

Why changing sentence structure works: When you have sentences starting with the same word, you are probably using the "subject-verb-object" type of sentence that English speakers use when we talk. When you write, you don't have to always keep the subject as the first word in the sentence. So when you revise the first word, your writing automatically seems more professional and intelligent.

Sample Revisions: Even though government sources assure us the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will be contained, many people are frightened that they may become the next victims of this deadly virus.

Not trusting government sources which assure us that the Ebola virus is contained, many people are frightened and wonder if they will become the next victims of this deadly virus which comes from West Africa.

Transition Words

Taken from my full list of: Easy Words to Use as Sentence Starters on Letterpile.com

ContrastAddingSequence

however

moreover

first, second, third

nevertheless

in addition

subsequently

conversely

also

consequently

on the one hand...on the other hand

furthermore

after

in contrast

as well as

as a result

on the contrary

likewise

meanwhile

Check Commas, Semicolons and Colons

The Problem: Commas appear when they aren't needed or are missing when they are required. Your instructor may write "comma splice," "run-on sentence" or "no comma needed."

The Solution: Proofread your paper while looking at the Rules for Using Commas, and Easy Rules for Semicolon and Colon.

Here are the Basic Comma Rules:

  1. Use a comma in a list. Example: James loves bananas, apples, peaches, and strawberries.
  2. Use a comma before a conjunction (and, but, or, so, for, yet, nor) if there is a full sentence (subject and verb) before and after the conjunction. Example: James loves bananas that are ripe, but he does not eat any fruit that has brown spots.
  3. Use a comma after an Introductory Element (word or phrase) that comes before the subject in a sentence. Example: In spite of eating a whole bowl full of fruit at lunch, James was still hungry.
  4. Use commas to mark off unimportant information. If you aren't sure if it needs a comma, then try saying the sentence without that phrase. If the sentence still makes sense, then you should probably use commas. Example: James, who loves all sorts of fruit, always tries to come with me when I'm shopping at the Farmer's Market, which is only open on Saturday mornings.

2 Ways to Use a Semicolon

  1. Use a Semicolon instead of a period to put two sentences together. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; we always argue over whether to get green, red, or black seedless grapes.
  2. Use a Semicolon with a transition word + comma. Example: James always goes with me to the grocery store; however, we usually spend most of our time arguing over which sort of grapes to buy.

How to Use a Colon

A colon is used before a list, an explanation or example. Example: James and I always argue about which grapes are the best: red, green or black.

Check Your Quotes and Sources

The Problem: Students don't always use quotation marks correctly or tell where they got information.

The Solution: 1. Check for where you need sources. As you read your paper over, mark the parts that were ideas that came from someone else. Have you told the reader where you got that information? You especially need to cite your source for facts, statistics, quotations or other information that isn't general knowledge.

2. Put your sources in your paper. The easiest way to make sure you aren't in trouble for not including your sources is to mention where you got the information in your writing. Here are some sample formats:

  • In Damian Reed's article, "Where Birds Fly South," he states that....
  • According to Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South," the hummingbird doesn't migrate...
  • Hummingbirds don't migrate as soon as expected, notes Damian Reed in "Where Birds Fly South" (Reed 24).

The last example uses MLA citation format. See here for APA format.

3. Make a Bibliography (see the style guides above) or "Works Cited" page.

4. Check to see if you've done your quotation marks correctly. Remember that the quotation marks come after the punctuation. Examples:

....completely an utterly true."

....completely and utterly false!"

....completely and utterly confused?"

....completely and utterly my own opinion" (James 44).

Reader Poll

Comments

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 30, 2019:

Hi Kelly! So glad to know my articles can help even a mature writer. I also don’t like a double “s” for possessive even though I can understand why many people use it to make sure the meaning is clear. When I face that situation in writing, I tend to reword the sentence entirely to try to avoid a possessive in a word ending in “s”.

Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on December 30, 2019:

Hello again Virginia. I have a doctorate, but I still try to go back from time to time and refresh myself. Spending 25 years around lawyers will ruining a portion of any proper written use of the English language! lol Also, as I guess you have noticed over the years, some rules change over time.

Currently, it is about to drive me up the wall, the use of "s's" at the end of words. It has always been the rule that when the word ends with an "s" you do not add another "s" at the end.

Thanks for another clear, concise, informative article.

Taylor Thompson on August 30, 2017:

This has been a very helpful article. A lot of these common mistakes still come up when writing in college, and a refresher is always needed. I am looking forward to your ENG 1304 02 class this semester.

DianaHamza on August 29, 2017:

Very helpful! I have definitely made one or two of these mistakes in the past.

(I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11:00 TR)

nathanbarker98 on August 25, 2017:

Great article Professor Kearney, I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11 this semester.

Ryan Carr on August 23, 2017:

Hi Professor Kearney! The suggestions offered in this article will definitely help me cut down on the number of common errors in my writing.

Bailey Goyette on August 23, 2017:

I have a tendency to write overly long sentences and really appreciated the points you made on that. Great article! I'm in your ENG 1304 class at 11:00 TR.

Alex McMillan on August 22, 2017:

Hello Professor Kearney! I am in your 1304 English class this semester. This article offered great tips for fixing common writing errors that I will definitely use during this semester as well as other English classes in the future!

Danayla on January 14, 2017:

The word chart was very helpful in correcting my word choice.

Joanna Disch on January 11, 2017:

I like the tip of circling the first word in every sentence to make sure that you aren't using the same one over and over again. That is something I find myself doing in my writing a lot.

Kylie Besly on August 23, 2016:

This is super interesting as I start your class this semester. Thank you!

Daniel on August 26, 2015:

These are some great tips that I will definitely utilize.

Braden Bailey on August 26, 2015:

I found this article very informative and easy to follow. It gives me simple rules to follow on every paper I write. I make some of these mistakes without even realizing it. I will definitely refer back to this article as I revise my essays.

Bradley Nelson on August 26, 2015:

I honestly hadn't thought of some of the words not to use. Wish my previous teachers had mentioned some of those along the way. Others, I did learn from my elementary school teacher, but not until she helped me revise my college scholarship essays.

v on August 26, 2015:

Great article

Janie Contreras on August 26, 2015:

I wish I read this article before I wrote out my homework. I have already spotted many mistakes I made. Next time I will use this!

Brian Sacks on August 25, 2015:

I will definitely be using this throughout the year!!

C E Clark from North Texas on June 19, 2015:

Never hurts for a person to review these rules regularly. Less and fewer is something that always irritates me when I see them used incorrectly. Even the people who want to edit our hubs on here don't seem to know the correct way to use these words.

This is an excellent article for everyone to bookmark for reference.

Charlyn June from Philippines on April 21, 2015:

That was really useful.. For beginner writers like me, I will be bookmarking this page for future reference. Thanks!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 20, 2015:

I find that msword spell checker is very useful

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on February 19, 2015:

Thank you for the helpful hints. Jamie

RTalloni on February 19, 2015:

Far too common and familiar… :) Thanks for good reminders and a great guide for students. Pinning to my Home Education/Schooling board.

tzwrites on January 22, 2015:

What a useful article! Thanks for sharing this. I've seen so many of the errors you listed in the essays I proofread.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 18, 2014:

js--absolutely right--I'm writing this for American students who are actually using the "British use" as slang. However, I also think it is useful for those who are writing for an American audience to know what will sound "correct" to an American ear.

js on November 18, 2014:

Good points!

But why is "the British use" wrong?

What about the non Americans amongst us?

Is this web-site meant only for the American people?

Greetings from a European non English speaker.

Eduardo Amando Jusino from Horsham, PA. on November 16, 2014:

Hi Virginia Lynne. Why all the words in the tittle have capital letters? Is that correct? Do not worry, i do it all the time too. Great job!

Shamim Rajabali from Texas on November 16, 2014:

Thanks for sharing. Having someone else read a hard copy of your essay definitely helps in pointing out the errors.

biblicaliving from U.S.A. on November 16, 2014:

Extremely well written hub! Writers of all types can benefit from your advice. Your correct in your assertion that keeping track of which mistakes your instructors mark off for can greatly increase your skill as a writer.

Marcelle Bell on November 16, 2014:

Nice hub! I studied Journalism in college but was originally an English major so I know what you are talking about with all the grammatical errors. I'm trying to educate my high schooler now on all the grammar pitfalls and how to write a quality paper. Congratulations on HOTD!

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on November 16, 2014:

Virginia, this is excellent! - Voted up and away! Congrats!

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on November 16, 2014:

Thanks for this, I can sure use it. Especially the common word choices you can correct, I'm always getting caught with them. Will bookmark it so I can return to it as I'm writing my book.

Catherine Mostly from Seattle, WA - USA - The WORLD on November 16, 2014:

Thanks for the grammar hacks. I try to remember the rules; but when I know I've got something wrong, I seldom take the time to look up the correct usage. I"m saving this and sharing. :)

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on November 16, 2014:

What great advice for beginning writers of all ages! "Your welcome" versus "you're welcome" is my number one grammar pet peeve, but another contender that I see a lot, at least in this part of the country, is using "for sale" in place of "for sale." I think it has to do with the Arkansas accent, but that mistake seems to be occurring more and more frequently and it's driving me crazy (which is a pretty short drive). Congratulations on Hub of the Day honors!

Shasta Matova from USA on November 16, 2014:

Congratulations on HOTD. It is important to both read through and use the error checker programs. In this way, more mistakes are caught. I have trouble with its / it's, that / which, and who/whom. I have to watch myself on those, or avoid using them if I'm not sure.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on November 16, 2014:

Nice hub on grammar and frequently made errors in writing. This is an interesting and informative hub that everyone should read. Everyone needs a refresher course from time to time.

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on November 16, 2014:

Hi Virginia,

Nuts with college papers. This is good for HubPages users. Thanks!

SAQIB from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN on November 16, 2014:

Good enough points regarding mistakes in papers. Congrats on HoTD

mySuccess8 on November 16, 2014:

Very useful lessons on fixing grammatical errors and improving essay-writing in this Hub and your many other Hubs. Writers can sometimes make the same certain simple errors over and over again without realizing them, and I like the solutions you gave in identifying the common ones and weeding them out. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

VJG from Texas on October 09, 2014:

I'm going to share this with my son. Valuable pointers.