Bad Writing Bingo
I’ve written about self-editing before. And I’m a firm believer in the notion that bad writing is best conquered by the writer taking a critical eye to his or her own work. But not everyone gets excited about hunting down comma splices and double-checking subject-verb agreement.
Some people feel like a paper marked up with red is a bad sign, an indication that their writing is weak. Personally, nothing makes me happier than burying myself in a heap of annotated, crossed-out, and crumpled pages from my drafts. The sense of accomplishment once I’ve corrected my own writing – what could be better?
Hopefully my Bad Writing Bingo card will help you see self-editing as a game, a challenge to find (and correct!) at least five mistakes in what you’ve written. Feel free to print it out, make copies, move the spaces around… or just read the explanations of each bingo space and keep them in mind as you re-read your writing.
used a cliche
“then” and “than” confused
quotation marks used incorrectly
“this” has unclear referent
used an adverb
two spaces after a period
“affect” and “effect” confused
“it” has unclear referent
shift in tone (e.g. formal to informal, promotional to academic)
sentence over four lines long
no thesis/topic sentence
“whom” and “who” confused
discussing literature in past tense
“your” and “you’re” confused
“its” and “it’s” confused
inconsistent use of Oxford comma
switching tense within a sentence
no evidence for claim
What makes bad writing so bad?
Here’s a handy list of the Bad Writing Bingo spaces above, with an explanation of what makes each item an incidence of bad writing.
Used a cliche:
Cliches are bad. Not because they necessarily involve sloppy phrasing or bad metaphors. (Though they often do.) Rather, they’re bad because they are dead. They’ve been overused. They don’t engage the reader’s imagination—any metaphorical resonance they once had has been lost, faded away as the phrases gained ubiquity. When a reader sees a familiar phrase, he or she tunes out. Readers are no longer getting your unique thoughts, your unique expression. They’re just seeing generic filler.
Parallel structure is a beautiful thing. You improve your writing’s flow when phrases within a sentence, or even phrases at the beginnings of multiple sentences, create a pattern. If you’re listing your favorite activities, it sounds better to say “I like swimming, writing, watching television, and writing essays” than to break the parallel structure of your string of gerunds by writing “I like swimming, writing, to watch television, and the writing of essays.” That sentence isn’t just badly written because “to watch television” and “the writing of essays” are clunky phrases; it’s bad because those parts of the list break the pattern established by the first two items (swimming and writing). Consistency is important.
“Then” and “than” confused:
Gail was kind enough to do a post on homonym confusion a while ago. A helpful way to remember this distinction might be that “thEn” indicates what comes nExt, while “thAn” compAres.
Quotation marks used incorrectly:
You put quotation marks around words that are not your own. That’s it. Quotation marks are not used for emphasis (italics, underlining, or even punctuation can achieve this). If you place a single word in quotation marks, it means you’re referring to that word as a word. If you place a phrase or more in quotation marks, it means you’re quoting another person (and you need to cite that person). Book and movie titles are italicized, not put in quotation marks. Shorter works’ titles are sometimes placed in quotation marks, but this notation can depend on the style guide you’re using.
“This” (or “it”) has unclear referent:
This problem gets two spaces on the board because it’s so common. I know you know what you mean when you say “this.” But that doesn’t mean I know what you mean. Answer “this what?” and “what is ‘it,’ exactly?” for your readers. You might feel like you’re stating the obvious, but your “it”s and “this”s probably aren’t as clear as you think they are.
Used an adverb:
Adverbs are okay. In moderation. But usually a modified verb or adjective can be more succinctly expressed by a synonym that has a slightly more appropriate connotation. (Yes, I realize I just used adverbs while telling you not to use adverbs. The important thing is to be aware of how you’re using language, not to become a mindless stickler for an arbitrary set of rules.)
Two spaces after a period:
People used to be taught to insert two spaces between sentences, so as to avoid jamming their typewriters or something. This is no longer an issue. So please stop inserting extra spaces into your writing. It looks ugly.
Sometimes repeating yourself is a useful rhetorical device. But usually, it’s just sloppy overstatement. Don’t bore your readers by saying the same thing over and over. Find the best way to express your thoughts as briefly as is possible while remaining thorough.
“Affect” and “effect” confused:
Again, the post on homonyms should come in handy here. For the most part, “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. (There are exceptions, but these usages are more obscure and unlikely to occur in everyday communication.) One way of trying to remember the difference between “affect” and “effect” is that “Affect” is an Action while “Effect” is a rEsult.
I used to work for an Editor In Chief whose main bugaboo was the word “utilize.” I’ve adopted her pet peeve, I suppose. But it really is worth noting that bigger words do not make you sound smarter. They make you sound pretentious.
Shift in tone (e.g. formal to informal, promotional to academic):
It’s okay to use “I.” It’s okay to use contractions. And it’s okay to address your reader directly. In certain contexts. Everything you write should be understood to have an audience. And you need to keep that audience in mind as you write. What sort of writing will they expect? What sort of writing will get you penalized, dismissed, or otherwise not paid attention to? Figure out what your reader wants and stick to that voice.
Sentence over four lines long:
Maybe a long sentence isn’t technically a run-on. Maybe it’s grammatically correct. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t taxing on your reader’s patience. Remember, you’re not writing for mind-readers. They don’t have your innovative conclusion or thought process to guide them through your sentence—they’re in suspense over the course of your entire long sentence, waiting to figure out where you’re going. And if you frustrate your readers too much, they’ll just give up.
No thesis/topic sentence:
Don’t make your reader wonder “so what?”
“Whom” and “who” confused:
Here’s a handy (and funny) guide on how to use “whom” and “who” correctly. Generally, you should stick to the more-common “who.” It’s better to be forgiven for making a common grammatical mistake than to get caught over-correcting. As with “utilize,” this bingo slot reveals my bias against pretentiousness. Good writing is unpretentious
This mistake can be hilarious. Avoid this problem by placing the modifying word as close to the word it modifies as possible. If it’s a struggle for you to do this, try rephrasing your sentence. The sentence is probably unwieldy anyway.
Discussing literature in past tense:
The literary present tense is important. It’s a linguistic acknowledgement of the everlasting importance of literature.
“Your” and “you’re” confused:
Sometimes being a fast typist means you’re your own worst enemy. Double-check for homonym confusion.
Don’t use a comma when you ought to be using a period. If you must keep the multiple ideas of your multiple sentences in one unit, use a semicolon.
“Its” and “it’s” confused:
This one can be confusing because apostrophes are used to indicate possession and to represent letters that have been omitted in a contraction. But how do we distinguish between the possessive of “it” and the contraction of “it is” (or “it has”)? Honestly, the choice between which meaning would get the apostrophe must have been arbitrary at some point. But the rule is that “its” means “belonging to it” while “it’s” means “it is” or “it has.” Remember that your apostrophe is filling in for missing letters.
Inconsistent use of Oxford comma:
Also known as a serial comma, the Oxford comma is one of my favorite pieces of punctuation. (Not just because I’m a bit of an anglophile. And the song by Vampire Weekend is catchy.) The final comma in a series is often a helpful signal to a reader that the final two items in that series are separate rather than a unit. It also helps avoid confusion about whether the first item in a three-item list is meant to be included in that series. But there are also instances where an Oxford comma decreases clarity. There are arguments for and against its usage, so the important thing to know is what the Oxford comma is and what your readers will prefer. (AP style, for instance, dictates the omission of the Oxford comma. So if you’re a journalist, learn to leave it out.)
Yes, your reader probably knows what you mean by “pathetic fallacy” if you’re writing a literary essay. But you should demonstrate that you understand the term, and use the opportunity of defining your jargon to define your terms in the most useful way for your particular context. Defining your jargon also gives your writing a wider audience.
Switching tense within a sentence:
This can be difficult to do sometimes, particularly when discussing literature. But it’s important to make your sentences conform to a logical temporal framework.
No evidence for claim:
Don’t make it easy for your readers to dismiss your argument based on lack of evidence. Sure, they can disagree with you. (In fact, it’s a sign of a good paper when there’s potential for meaningful disagreement.) But they should disagree with the way you interpret the information, not the fact of that information existing at all.
It’s just… bad:
There is a certain art to writing. It takes practice. Don’t stop at your first draft. Or your second. Keep your audience in mind, and try to write in a way that your readers will appreciate.
Or just keep playing Bad Writing Bingo!