Three Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Writing

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When I signed up for WGU, I don’t remember being told that I’d be writing until I caught a case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. (I see you, Enrollment Counselor who shall go unnamed.) So when they loaded my courses in and I took a look, my first thought was, "I’m being punk’d, right? I mean, Ashton Kutcher’s going to jump off the webpage and yell, ‘Ur punk’d, dude!’" Well, that didn’t happen—ever. So WGU offered all these writing classes, when the one I actually needed after seeing it all was an anger-management class. Not bitter, though.

I’m mostly kidding. I’m an editor and deal with words all day long. I see the good. I see the bad. And then I see the ugly. I mean, really, really ugly. At this point, I have formed all sorts of opinions about the efficacy of writing, so I thought I would share them with my fellow peeps here at WGU.

So what is effective writing? It may be helpful to talk about what it isn’t. Here are the three top issues that I encounter as an editor:

  1. Ungrammatical writing
  2. Garrulous writing
  3. Stylistically inappropriate writing

Ungrammatical Writing

Yes, I am breaking out my red pen. Fear me!

I am not going to get all technical here by saying things like, "Stop it with the discourse marker!" Or, "You didn’t use a predicate nominative after your copular verb!" Or, "Um, I just measured, and that’s an em dash; you should have used an en dash!" While those are important considerations to make when writing—especially in a scholastic setting—I am referring here to embarrassing mistakes, mistakes that make others think, "No way did he just write that!", mistakes that make your credibility go down faster than the ticket sales of Mariah Carey’s "Glitter."

And let’s be honest: We have all made those kinds of mistakes. So as a courtesy, I am offering you some notable writing commandments from the Book of Xavier 14:19–25 (for sale on Amazon).

  1. Thy subjects and verbs shall agree in number;
  2. "Like" shall be a tool for comparison, not a method of mimicking a 13-year-old damsel from Malibu Beach;
  3. Ye shall suffer my eternal wrath for confusing "your" and "you’re";
  4. Put not your trust in spell check, and do lean to thine own understanding.

Follow those commandments, and you’ll be gold through your entire program.

Garrulous Writing

Did you just go, "What in the world does ‘garrulous’ mean?" Well, it’s kind of normal to say that. It’s not because you have poor vocabulary skills—right?—it’s because you probably have a life and don’t have sending you the word of the day for the past seven years straight. (So sue me!)

So how do you think your audience feels when you start dropping "desideratum," "transubstantiate," or "quietus" in your writing? Unless they’re word geeks like me, they’re going to do one of two things:

  1. Mentally start focusing on that bang-up episode of "The Celebrity Apprentice" they watched last night.
  2. Mentally start focusing on that bang-up episode of "The Celebrity Apprentice" they watched last night.

And there goes your writing. All the hard work you put into cramming more syllables into your words than contestants on "American Idol" do just went down the drain. Why? Because no one’s reading your work. No one cares. You may have the best idea on the planet, but if no one’s listening, you’re out of gas.

So here’s a simple solution: Be straightforward in your verbiage. Don’t use "explicate" when "explain" will do. For you human-resources students, for the love of Pete Sampras, don’t use "involuntarily separate" when you mean "FIRED!" (Seriously, my HR people: Whose feelings are you trying to spare: yours or the guy’s who now has to sign up for food stamps?) Remember KISS—no, not the group—the initials for "Keep It Short and Sweet." (It actually means something else, but I’m trying to be nice so WGU will actually post this.)

Stylistically Inappropriate Writing

All those syllables in the heading of this section probably make me a hypocrite (based on the advice in the previous section), but I’m an editor; we’re exempt from such plebeian (I did it again!) writing concerns.

Anyway, what do I mean by "stylistically inappropriate writing"? This is not rocket science.

Here’s an everyday example: I can assure you that I could not show up to work looking like I just stepped out of the club. Based on my penchant for, um, well-fitting clothing, I’d be fired from my job faster than my American Express card balance drops at a shoe sale at Kenneth Cole.

In other words, there’s a way for me to express myself at work and a way at the club. This is no different in your writing. Your audience dictates how you will address it.

Are you writing to a bunch of rocket scientists whose idea of a grand time is seeing who can remember the most significant digits of pi? Well, scientific terminology is what will motivate them. Do you have to write a message to people who use slang on a daily basis? Well, you probably don’t want to focus too much on making your subject and verb agree or carefully making proper use of words like "whom" or "likewise."

The best way to determine the style you should use is by—you guessed it—your audience. How do they think? What verbiage do they use? Do they need long, flowing explanations in order to arrive at a modicum of comprehension? Or do they want succinct messages? Maybe they have a different need. Your attention to style (unlike many of our so-called movie stars) will be important. Pay attention!

If you use these guidelines, you will be boss. And you’ll pass all your performance assessments with flying colors. And when you get your degree because you were boss at writing, you won’t even have to tell anyone that Xavier hooked you up. I’m perfectly fine with not getting an ounce of credit for the exhausting, hard work I put in to help you earn your degree. I mean, who needs credit, anyway? It’s so overrated.

Online University Student Xavier Smith

Xavier Smith, is a student in WGU’s online business management bachelor’s degree program. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is preparing to graduate and walk in WGU’s July 2012 commencement.

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