Common Mistakes Writers Make

Copy editors were more than a little stunned and outraged a few years ago when the Associated Press casually mentioned at the American Copy Editors Society conference that using “over” instead of “more than” in front of a number was now acceptable.

It’s a well-established AP rule that you change “There were over 200 participants” to “There were more than 200 participants.” But suddenly, either way is acceptable, the AP said. Twitter blew up.

This started me on one of my favorite word nerd pastimes: listing common mistakes writers make that drive editors crazy. Yes, these are my pet peeves, but I encourage writers to take them as advice and always strive to improve your writing (I know I still do!). 

My top four writing pet peeves (at the moment)

1. “That” vs. “which.” Person looks frustrated as they hold their fists together.

“That” does not use commas before it. “Which” needs a comma before it. I wish explaining it was that simple, but unfortunately people don’t understand comma rules either.

Use “that” when it sets off a clause or description that is necessary for the meaning of the sentence. Use “which” for additional clauses that add something to the sentence but aren’t necessary for the sentence to make sense:

Dogs that are rescued make great companions.

I’m not just talking about any dog, but dogs that are rescued. Without the “that” clause, the sentence would have a different meaning: Dogs make great companions.

The dog, which my neighbors rescued, barks all the time.

The “which” clause adds extra information but doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Either way, the dog barks all the time.

2. The overuse of “that.” Oftentimes, the word isn’t necessary, and I’m a big fan of getting rid of extraneous words.

Many writers include sentences similar to: “He said that he wanted to get more involved in the community.”

The test: Remove “that” from the sentence and see if it still makes sense. If so, leave it out. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes “that” just helps the sentence sound better, and it’s OK to leave it in. But many writers use “that” in every other sentence. So next time you write a piece, I challenge you to do a “that” search and see how many you can eliminate.

3. Stop using “in order to.”

It’s unnecessary. It’s repetitive and doesn’t add anything to the sentence. Compare:

In order to apply for the scholarship, visit our website.


To apply for the scholarship, visit our website.

4. Sloppy mistakes.

When I was in journalism school, it was an automatic “F” on a piece if you got someone’s name wrong. Too bad we can’t do that in life.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of writing I’m editing lately in which the writer leaves words out of journal titles, misstates the book title or gets a name or degree entirely wrong. While fact checking citations as part of a copy editing job for a client, I am forever correcting “MD”s to “PhD”s; not all doctors are MDs. I may notice that a journal headline has a word such as “medicine” when the correct title says “medication.” I’ve seen societies called associations and names of hospitals completely inaccurate.

Tip: If you’re citing a book, journal, even a person, find the info online and copy and paste and then correct the formatting. Retyping long titles leads to mistakes if you’re not careful. Or, just be more careful. I’m shocked that these freelance writers are submitting their articles to my client with this much sloppiness.

So, what editing mistakes drive you crazy — or which ones do you struggle with in your own writing? Sound off in the comments.

Comments 2

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