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Organizational Psychology and Leadership Research Guide

Use this guide to find UNO library resources and other helpful research tools.

Common Writing Problems and Tips To Avoid Them

From Dr. Lisa Scherer

  • Try to avoid wordiness and vagueness in your writing by avoiding the use of the following words:
  • the idea that
  • the fact that
  • involve
  • in terms of
  • involves
  • Avoid passive voice and passive verbs whenever possible. Active voice yields greater clarity and conciseness, and business, technical, and research audiences prefer it to    the verbose      and often unclear passive voice. APA encourages active voice, and journal reviewers may    reject your work for publication if it is unclear and excessively wordy. See list of passive verbs below. and please avoid using them as the only verb of the sentence!

                        is, be, am, are,

                        was, were, been,

                        have, has, had,

                        do, does, did,

                        may, might

                        can, could,

                        shall, should,

                        will, would,


  • Don’t use “This” as the only subject of a sentence. This WHAT? Leads to comment:
         “Unclear Referent”
  • Avoid beginning a sentence with “there” + passive verb (passive voice guaranteed!)
  • Review and USE seriation for lists using colon plus (a), (b), (c), and (d). This information is in the APA manual. Note that longer clauses within seriation would take a semicolon between each letter of list.
  • Punctuation goes before second quotation mark (comma before second quote in middle       of sentence and end-of-sentence punctuation before second quote mark).
  • Two independent clauses are separated by a comma and a conjunction, or they are    separated by a semi-colon and no conjunction. However, an independent clause followed by a dependent clause usually takes no comma, unless it is needed for clarity. Note the correct examples below:

                        I went to the store and purchased some shoes.

                        I went to the store, and I purchased some shoes.

                        I went to the store; I purchased some shoes.

  • Correct placement of apostrophe in establishing singular and plural possessives (many of you are completely forgetting the apostrophe!)
  • Avoid setting off nonrestrictive clauses in parentheses—use commas on both sides of clause
  • Avoid writing a sentence with “this” as the only subject of sentence
  • STOP with the overuse of parentheses when commas would work in place of the parentheses. Parentheses may be used for e.g., and i.e., and other APA approved uses, but you should still use them sparingly and not often at all in an intro or discussion section.
  • Check your work, check your work, and check your work. Unprofessional work includes, but is not limited to, misspellings, missing words, and extra words (note the non-restrictive clause in this sentence).
  • Adverbs modify adjectives which modify nouns (e.g., very long list). Use a hyphen between one adjectives which modifies a second adjective which modifies a noun (e.g., a 7-point scale, lower-case letter).
  • There's a tendency to over-quote.  Use quotes sparingly.  Also, though this is a generalization, many of you tend to be abrupt in your writing when you start a sentence with a quote.  Until you are more experienced in the subtleties of quote use, avoid starting a sentence with a quote; try to introduce it with non-quoted text.
  • Many tend to make strong empirically-based statements without supporting it with a citation.  Even more common is the tendency to bury a citation after many sentences relating to or based on that citation; in this case it is not clear whether citation supports the previous five sentences or just the last sentence.  In this situation, it is preferable to start the paragraph with the explicit acknowledgement of the article you are discussing so it is clear to the reader that all subsequent sentences of the paragraph are based on that article.
  • When ending with a quotation, the appropriate punctuation must be enclosed within the last quotation mark.  In addition, quotations require page numbers.  Ex: According to Scherer (1993, p.305), "effective writing is an essential skill in today's competitive marketplace."  (Many of you do this: ..."marketplace".)  Another correct way to write this passage follows: According to Scherer (1993), "effective writing is an essential skill in today's competitive marketplace" (p.305).
  • Probably one of the most difficult writing issues is determining how much detail on a study should be provided. Key studies, which lend support to your conclusions, hypotheses, and choices of variables, manipulations, etc., merit more detail than is typically provided in students' writing.  Whenever you are taking a stand or making a choice, ask yourself the following question: Have I provided sufficient detail to support this?
  • Never use “like” in place of “as”
  • Do NOT use while when you could substitute although or though—save while for “at the same time”
  • Remember to check for correct matches between nouns and verb number, such that singular referents take singular verbs and plural referents take plural verbs. Collective    nouns and prepositional phrases can be tricky (Subjects were assigned…but the group of subjects was assigned)
  • Don’t use since for the word because; use since to denote the passage of time
  • Know the difference between it’s, which is always it is, and its, which is possessive case
  • Please do NOT write as you would speak. Most of you tend to use too many colloquialism and slang. A less egregious tendency to assume, what Strunk and White refer to as, “a breezy manner” Just as in clothing choices for business situations, it is safer to error in the more conservative, formal direction.
  • Remember to write an effective topic sentence for each paragraph and note that a section heading or paragraph heading fails to substitute for a topic sentence. EVERYTHING in a paragraph should follow from a topic sentence.