18 Things That When I Read Make Me Cringe Like Nails on a Chalkboard

I edit a lot of writing. I’m not often paid for it, or at least not very much, but it has given me the opportunity to develop a list of best practices. I’m sharing them today with the class I’m TAing, and thought I’d also put them up here. You know, for fun. These are cobbled together from previous writing instructors (thank you Neal Bruss for Advanced Composition, which changed my life as a writer), stolen blatantly from writing and style guides (Oh Strunk & White, I’ll never tire of your pithy snobbery) and obliquely refer to perhaps the best book on the compositional process, creative or critical, I’ve ever read (Forming/Thinking/Writing by Ann E. Berthoff).

18 Things That When I Read Make Me Cringe Like Nails on a Chalkboard

  1. Avoid unnecessary words. For great examples see Strunk and White’s Elements of Style available for free online: http://www.bartleby.com/141/
    A good example: “the fact that.” Usually, though not invariably, superfluous. Another ubiquitous example: “I just feel” or “I simply feel.” Those words are better used telling the reader what, exactly, it is that you think.
  2. Proofread. Seriously, it sounds simple, but it’s really obvious when it hasn’t happened. If you did proofread and there are still basic errors, try reading it out loud. Use built in proofreading tools (spell check and grammar check). They’re there, you might as well.
  3. Titles of books are italicized or underlined; titles of poems or articles are put in quotation.
  4. The word “very” is always and utterly unnecessary. She’s not “very pretty” she’s “beautiful,” “stunning,” “gorgeous,” or any number of other adjectives that better amplify the description. She’s not “very smart” she’s “intelligent,” “brilliant,” or  the possessor of a “humbling genius.” Very (and generally speaking, “extremely”) can always be made more interesting by a better adjective.
  5. As vs. because. Be really, really careful about using “as” to mean “since” or “because.” “As” has other meanings as well, so it’s usually better to say “since” or “because.”
  6. Being vs. was. “Being” (or “being that”) is not a substitute for “was.” “Being” is the present gerund of “to be” and cannot serve as the past tense. Ex. “One case being when we saw Natasha enter the parlor.” is incorrect and should read “One case was when we saw Natasha enter the parlor.”
  7. Seeing is not a causal pronoun. And “seeing that” must be used sparingly if at all – generally it leads to awkward and passive constructions that can always be better and more clearly put. Ex. “He felt out of place seeing he had never been there before” should read “He felt out of place because he had never been there before.”
  8. Which vs. that. If you can tell which thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use which; if you can’t, use that.
  9. Avoid passive construction. Ex. “It was discussed by Tolstoy that truth was the utmost virtue.” should be “Tolstoy discussed truth as the utmost virtue.” “I would do anything for the love of a woman” should be “I would do anything for a woman’s love.” Unless you’re intentionally using the passive construction as a stylistic element to emphasize something.
  10. Dangling modifiers: Absolute phrases (http://www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/eduweb/grammar/course/sentence/2_4e.htm) must modify the correct noun or pronoun. Don’t say: “Getting up early, the sky was clear and blue” or “As an academic writer, this advice is indispensable.” The sky did not get up early, and the advice is not an academic writer. You can say “The sky was clear and blue when I got up, early this morning” and “As an academic writer, I find this advice indispensable.”
  11. Use the dictionary. Most especially when using a thesaurus. Or stick to a vocabulary you can comfortably define. Through the University online database you can access the Oxford English Dictionary for free and this is the academic standard usage for words. Merriam-Webster is acceptable though not ideal and dictionary.com is unacceptable. Keep in mind if you’re also using a thesaurus that generally words that are listed as synonyms in a thesaurus have similar but in many cases not the same meaning. For example, a former professor told a story in which a group of students protesting calling for an administrator to immediately vacate his position, by using a thesaurus but not a dictionary, released the statement demanding that he defecate his office.
  12. Definite vs. indefinite pronoun. “The” refers to a specific noun (The U.S. beat the Russians to the moon), “a” or “an” refers to a general class or kind of noun (A Russian was the first person in space).
  13. Quotes: When introducing quotes, if the quote is a long sentence or more than one sentence, use a colon. If it’s a short sentence or a sentence fragment, use a comma. If a quote is long or several sentences, it’s good practice to separate the quote from the rest of the paragraph, single space and indent it. Often people also make the font smaller when doing this.
  14. Quotation marks: For a quote within a quote, use single quotation marks.
  15. Hyphens: Use hyphens to connect the components of a compound adjective: “five-hundred-dollar charge;” “seventy-year-long dispute;” “three-month-old bundle of joy;” “well-liked colleague.”
  16. Comprise vs. compose. “Comprise” means “include;” “compose” means “make up.”
  17. Comparisons: “any” vs. “any other.” Don’t forget “other” where appropriate. “Tolstoy was greater than any American novelist” but “Tolstoy was greater than any other 19th-century novelist.”
  18. Multiple” refers to identical units. Do not say “I’ve had multiple good experiences there” or “there are multiple mistakes in that paragraph.” Say “numerous” or “several” or “many.”


  1. David Tomlinson

    This is genius! I’m a grammar/punctuation junkie and you’ve even taught me a few things. Oh, but dangling modifiers can make for good jokes at least. Like: “I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith. What was the name of his other leg?” That one’s a classic.

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