Helpful Writing Tips

The following are a few helpful hints to help you avoid common mistakes in your own writing.

Remember to PROOFREAD your own work, because …

there are “typos” – misspelled words that are flagged (in red) by your computer’s word processing program; and

there are “word-os” – correctly spelled but incorrect words that are flagged (usually in green) by your computer’s word processing program, UNLESS it doesn’t recognize the word, at which point it may automatically replace it.

Some basic tips about word selection / usage:

  • “IT’S” = “it is”; “ITS” = possessive form

HINT: There is never any need to have a plural form of “IT”; more than one “IT” is a “THEM”!

  • “THEN” = sequential actions; “THAN” = comparisons.
  • Using the “first person” (“I,” “me,” etc.) in your writing is appropriate if you are writing about yourself, something you did, or something that happened to you. HOWEVER, there is NEVER any need to offer an opinion by writing “I think …” Of course you do; it’s your name at the top of the paper. If someone else thought it, you’d have to cite that person, now wouldn’t you?!

Some basic tips about style:

  • Underline or italicize names of entire works (books / albums / television shows / etc.). Use “quotation marks” for portions of a larger work (a chapter in a book / a story (or poem) in a collection of stories (or poems) / a song on an album / an episode of a television show).
  • Capitalize – but don’t underline or italicize – the name of scriptural work (but not the word “the” before it): the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, etc.
  • Be sure your pronouns agree.

INCORRECT: “There is no reason why someone can’t take their friends with them.”

CORRECT: “There is not reason why people can’t take their friends with them.”

OR: “There is not reason why she can’t take her friend with her.”

OR: “There is no reason why he can’t take his friend with him.”

OR: “There is no reason why one can’t take one’s friend.”

  • Decades (written in numerals, as a unit) are written WITHOUT an apostrophe:

INCORRECT: the 1960’s

CORRECT: the 1960s

HINT: You wouldn’t write it as “the Nineteen-sixty’s,” would you? (Never mind – just don’t.)

  • Unless you were educated in the United Kingdom, ALWAYS put punctuation INSIDE the quotations marks.

EXCEPTIONS: colons, semicolons, and exclamation points.

  • Incorrect punctuation can change meaning:

“Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

“Woman; without her, man is nothing.”

HINT: Punctuate according to how you might read a passage aloud, and put the proper punctuation where you breathe:

[ , ] = a short pause for air;

[ ; ] = a medium pause for air; and

[ . ] = a longer pause for air.

Here’s Danish comedian Victor Borge doing it in his own style! [And here’s a “G-rated” version.]

Personal Preferences:

  • Only bowels and teeth “are IMPACTED” (verb); otherwise, something “has an IMPACT upon” something else (noun).


Here’s an article by Christina DesMarais (“43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make“) about things for which you should look out as you write.

Here’s an excerpt of a chapter by writer Anne Lamott (“Shitty First Drafts“) about the writing process.

Here are a few great books about writing that are actually fun to read because they AREN’T textbooks:

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (1996).


Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2006).