No matter what you study in college, you’ll certainly be required to write, and when you graduate you’ll be expected to have the writing skills you need to succeed in your career.
But will you? Despite their best intentions, college courses can instill some bad writing habits. Whether you go on to write academic papers or interoffice emails or blog posts (like me), you’ll need to break those habits to communicate effectively.
How bad habits start
The main culprit behind bad writing habits? Page requirements.
Let’s say Jim the undergraduate is assigned a five-page paper. He has enough knowledge and sources to write a thoughtful, well-supported paper — but it’s only four pages long. Maybe four and a half pages, depending on which fonts his professor allows and how willing she is to overlook padded margins.
Jim could add more length to his paper by doing more research to support his argument. Or, he could save a lot of time and hit the page requirement by using some or all of these four bad writing habits:
1. Using more and fancier words when fewer and simpler words will do.
Jim could write, “Capping the price of butter will lead to butter shortages.” This is perfectly clear, but it takes up less room on a page than, “Government dictation of the maximum price of butter will necessarily lead to shortages in the amount of butter available for sale on the market.”
It’s not as long as it could be, though. If Jim really wants to expand the sentence, he could say, “Government regulations dictating the maximum allowed price that sellers may charge for butter will necessarily lead to shortages in the amount of butter available for sale on the market following the implementation of the rules.”
This may pad the word count for Jim’s essay, but continuing this habit in professional life will lead to complicated writing that is hard to understand. It is almost always best to use the simplest and fewest words possible to express your ideas clearly.
2. Using the passive voice
The passive voice describes something being done, as opposed to someone doing. The active voice tells us that “Sally caught the ball,” but the passive voice says that “The ball was caught by Sally.” The resulting sentence is more boring and awkward to read, but it is also two words longer, so Jim will use it in his essay.
But if Jim keeps this bad habit past college, all his writing will be awkward, boring, and hard to read.
When possible, the active voice should be used you should use the active voice for more concise, impactful prose.
3. Avoiding contractions
Many of us are taught that contractions don’t belong in formal writing. That works for Jim just fine, because it means he can use two words where he might have used one. He might even think that eliminating contractions makes his work seem more formal and intelligent.
Avoiding contractions isn’t always a bad thing. You’re likely to use fewer contractions in an academic paper than in a blog post, because the writing styles and audiences are different. But if you avoid contractions altogether, your writing may come across as stiff and formal when it shouldn’t.
4. Avoiding pronouns and acronyms
Jim wants to cite some figures from a report by the Congressional Budget Office in his paper. Rather than introduce the report and its source just once before using the acronym “CBO” in the rest of his paper, Jim will use the full name whenever possible. Similarly, when citing professors or other experts, he is certain to write their full names again and again, rather than simply “he” and “she.”
Like the other bad habits, this adds unnecessary length, making the whole paper harder to read. It’s also annoyingly repetitive — reading all those nouns over and over again can really get you down.
If you’d like to break some of your bad habits, I highly recommend the Hemingway App. It identifies complex words, long sentences, and the passive voice to help you make your writing more clear and concise. It even gives recommendations for simpler words and words to cut.
I also recommend George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Several of Orwell’s rules for writing are the inspiration for bad habits on this list.