When we’re writing for school or university, many of our most common writing errors relate to grammar and punctuation, content, or citations.
Writing well is hard. There’s a lot to keep track of, especially if your academic writing experience has been only basic or if you’re following a style guide you’ve never used before.
While we can’t cover all of them in this article, we’ll discuss some of the most common mistakes to avoid. By eliminating these, you can make great progress on your journey toward excellent academic writing.
Here are 3 types of common writing mistakes:
- Common grammar and punctuation errors in academic writing
- Common content errors in academic writing
- Common citation errors in academic writing
1. Common grammar and punctuation errors in academic writing
Incorrect grammar and punctuation can often make a paper hard to understand. Steer clear of the following three major academic writing errors so that readers can focus on your ideas, not your writing mechanics.
With the rise of spell-checking software, spelling errors have been dethroned as the most common academic writing mistakes. Instead, students now tend to use the wrong word, likely because a spelling checker put it there for them.
Wrong word usage happens frequently with homophones or words that are spelled similarly, even if they’re completely different in pronunciation and meaning. Because they’re still spelled correctly, the typical spell checker won’t catch them. These errors also happen because of misunderstandings about word usage.
Reading through your paper slowly, perhaps even out loud, can help you mentally slow down enough to spot these mistakes. You can also try a smart spell checker—like QuillBot’s Spell Checker, which runs on AI and machine learning. It can catch mistakes that traditional software would miss.
There are comma splices, comma splices everywhere, as the Buzz Lightyear meme would say. But this extremely common error is an easy one to stop making if you understand why it’s wrong.
A comma splice happens whenever you join two complete sentences with only a comma, this sentence is a good example.
As you can see, that sentence has two parts: the part before the comma and the part after it. They can each stand on their own as complete thoughts, so they don’t make sense combined into one sentence. They sound like rambling.
How can we fix this? There are two ways: we can add a conjunction, such as and or but, after the comma to show how the two separate thoughts are related (and works well in this example). Or we can use a period or semicolon instead of a comma.
Lots of writers have trouble with semicolons. To make sense of them, you can think of them like weak periods. If a period would work, but you want to show a stronger connection between the two separate ideas, that’s the time to use a semicolon:
A comma splice happens whenever you join two complete sentences with only a comma; we’ve replaced the comma with a semicolon, so this sentence is no longer a good example.
Need more help? QuillBot’s Punctuation Checker points out common writing mistakes to avoid, including comma splices, and makes suggestions to correct them.
Lack of parallelism in lists
When you’re listing items, even as few as two, the phrases that contain them should have a parallel structure. Here’s an example:
The research aims to determine how local land snail populations are increasing and finding ways to mitigate overpopulation.
The problem here is that two things are listed, but the phrases that tell us the two things aren’t structured the same way, so we can’t tell exactly what those two things are. The sentence seems to be saying the land snail populations are finding ways to mitigate overpopulation, which makes no sense.
We can rephrase the sentence in several ways to fix this error, but below are just two of them. The bold text in each revision below shows the phrases that now have a parallel construction.
The research aims to determine how local land snail populations are increasing and find ways to mitigate overpopulation.
The research aims to determine how local land snail populations are increasing and how to mitigate overpopulation.
A simple way to test your parallel structure is to complete the sentence with only one item at a time:
The research aims to determine how local land snail populations are increasing.
The research aims to determine how to mitigate overpopulation.
The same principle applies to bulleted and numbered lists. It also applies to headings, which are a type of list (see the headings in this article, for example). All the listed items should have the same type of structure.
QuillBot’s Grammar Checker can test your parallel structure too—and suggest ways to improve it.
2. Common content errors in academic writing
Suppose you’ve nailed the grammar and punctuation, and you’ve spelled and used every word correctly. Your paper might still be hard to read or understand because its content is not suited to the setting or is more complex than it needs to be.
An informal tone
Writing the way we talk is one of the most common writing errors, but academic writing can’t be casual. The following features of everyday language are typically not appropriate when you’re writing in an academic setting:
|euphemisms||second-person point of view|
To achieve the right tone, think about your audience. For example, if scholars in other countries will read your paper, you probably need to use plain, simple language that makes your meaning clear. The everyday language features above are likely to be misunderstood.
Overly long sentences
A sentence that is longer than about 25 words is not only much more difficult to read but significantly more difficult to understand, and it makes readers more likely to struggle with both attention and comprehension, boring them, failing to communicate your ideas to them as effectively as possible, and perhaps even completely obscuring your message.
The grammar and punctuation of the previous sentence are perfect, but did you have to read it more than once to understand it? Let’s try again. This time, we’ll limit each sentence to just one or two ideas.
A sentence that is longer than about 25 words is not only much more difficult to read but significantly more difficult to understand. It makes readers more likely to struggle with both attention and comprehension. As a result, it bores them, fails to communicate ideas as effectively as possible, and perhaps even completely obscures your message.
Even if you didn’t struggle too much with the original sentence, you probably have to admit that the revised version is easier to read. If you tend to write long sentences, look at the commas and conjunctions in them. These are usually the places where you can easily break sentences up.
Nothing brings on the yawns faster than wordy writing—writing that uses more words than necessary. We can use the example of a lengthy sentence above to illustrate this writing mistake, too. Here’s how we can edit it to remove any words that don’t add value and make it more concise:
A sentence of more than 25 words is harder to read and understand. Consequently, it may bore readers, fail to communicate effectively, and even obscure your message.
This revision lowers the word count by more than half without losing a single idea. To reduce wordiness in your writing, try these tips:
- Avoid repetition. In this example, we could fully cut the second sentence because it only restated ideas contained in the other sentences.
- Don’t exaggerate. Often, you can eliminate adjectives or phrases that add unnecessary emphasis, and it may even make the sentence more powerful instead of less. In this example, we were able to delete about, much, significantly, both, as possible, and completely this way.
- Use simpler language. Many small changes add up to a big difference in your word count and your reader’s attention span. If you can use one word instead of two, do it. In this example, we changed the phrase that is longer to of more, changed more difficult to harder, and changed as a result to consequently.
If you’re stuck on a certain phrasing (it happens to every writer!), QuillBot can help. Our Paraphraser offers you endless ways to say the same thing, and our Summarizer helps you cut out the stuff that matters less and focus on what matters more. Both can help you write more concisely.
3. Common citation errors in academic writing
After doing tons of research and working hard to develop your own ideas, you don’t want to steal others’ work or suffer the consequences of plagiarism. That’s why citing every source thoroughly is vital to good academic writing. By avoiding these errors, you can give credit—and get credit—where it’s due.
There are many types of plagiarism, including more than one way to leave a citation out entirely. You might get distracted and forget to cite a source, or you might believe erroneously that a paraphrase doesn’t require a citation.
Plagiarism is serious whether it’s accidental or intentional. A good way to avoid it is to record sources throughout the time you’re working on a project—don’t wait until the end to gather them.
Missing reference information
Suppose you’re careful to gather your sources and you remember to include every in-text citation and reference list entry. Another common writing mistake is failing to look over these references closely enough for missing information. Often, the missing detail is something like a page number in an in-text citation when you use a direct quote.
Style guide oversights
In academic writing, there’s always a style guide to follow, whether it’s APA, MLA, CMOS, CSE, or something else. Every style guide dictates certain writing conventions that are matters of choice more than outright rules. Still, any areas in which you don’t follow them will be counted as errors. While the standards may seem arbitrary, standardizing communication in each field prevents plagiarism and improves information sharing and learning.
Clear expectations are key to a job well done, so before you begin any writing assignment, make sure you know which style guide to follow and understand its requirements. This step will save you a lot of editing time later.
And remember that QuillBot has developed a Citation Generator and Plagiarism Checker to help you avoid making mistakes in this category. Not only will it show you where details might be missing but it will also help you construct your references according to the correct style guide (you can choose from hundreds, and we’re adding more!).
Great writing is a major factor in whether you get a good grade or a poor one, and in whether you gain academic credibility or lose it. So why not use every tool you can to avoid common errors in writing? QuillBot offers you an entire toolbox to fix all your writing mistakes and take your academic writing from mediocre to meritorious.
What are the different types of academic writing errors?
In academic writing, many of the most common writing mistakes fall into three categories: grammar and punctuation, content, and source citation.
How do you identify errors in writing?
You can spot many common writing errors by reading your text aloud slowly. But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s when proofreading tools can help.