Common Errors in Professional Writing
The Dirty Dozen
By Carla D. Bass, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
Author of the award-winning book
“Write to Influence!”
Presented below are common errors in professional writing I’ve observed throughout my 45-year career (30 years served in the Air Force and another 15 with a federal agency). I’ve found them in items intended for Congress, the White House, and other senior-level officials in the government and corporate world, alike.
May this list help you compose compelling messages that achieve your goals, personal and professional. As Dorothea Brande, acclaimed American writer and editor (1893 – 1948), noted … “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.”
1. Failure to revise, edit, and proofread. The initial draft is just that … the beginning, often requiring several revisions. Following that step, editing and proofreading yield that polished, professional communique. Hint: don’t rely exclusively on automated tools or worse … on your supervisor … to identify errors.
2. Failure to outline your message. Writing from a stream of consciousness produces a disjointed, poorly organized message that can: a) miss key points, b) include distracting, tangential data, and c) fail to achieve the intended goal.
3. Lack of precision. Run-on sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, inability to use transition words and phrases, overly long paragraphs, and bureaucratic blather.
4. Poor word choice. Redundant ideas, repetitious words, lack of variety in vocabulary, jargon inappropriate to the audience, unexplained acronyms, and a presumption that the reader understands your message.
5. Incorrect punctuation. Misuse of commas and semicolons is ubiquitous. Failure to use the Oxford comma; while optional, it clarifies thoughts. Erroneous application of e.g., i.e., and etc.
6. Overuse of demonstrative pronouns. This, that, these, and those are often unnecessary; expunge, if possible. Related to this – an ambiguous antecedent occurring when several nouns precede the demonstrative pronoun (e.g., Computers have larger screens than smartphones, the reason why they are still necessary. Does “they” refer to “computers” or “smartphones“?).
7. Excessive use of passive voice. Identify the actual subject and verb. Who or what is taking the action? The active voice generates text that is crisp, clear, and concise. Demonstrating #6 above, delete “that is” and revise to … generates crisp, clear, and concise text!
8. Subject-verb agreement. A singular subject requires a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb. Also, be consistent in tense (i.e., present and past), a common problem in resumes.
9. Mixed use of first, second, and third-person voice. Authors often fluctuate, speaking from the perspectives of … “I”… “you” … and “they.” Select one and use throughout the document.
10. Nouns upon nouns upon nouns modifying … a noun. Please don’t!
11. Lack of standardized opening to listed items. Begin each listed item with a noun or begin each with a verb; don’t mix. If opening with verbs, use the same tense. Read aloud and listen to the rhythm.
12. Writing as you speak. Avoid colloquial language in professional products (e.g., get them up to speed equates to inform them). Authors often fail to expunge such text from the draft.