Common writing problems and how to fix them

Some problems occur chronically in technical writing, making them especially annoying. Consequently, I thought they were a worthwhile topic to focus on for a moment. Many writing problems (e.g. sentence fragments, dangling this-es and thats) are difficult to attack because they require a more thorough knowledge of grammar and style than many writers will ever attain. We simply won't be addressing those kinds of problems -- that is far afield of the subject matter for this course. More to the point, the problems highlighted here are simple to recognize and remedy.
Writing samples & solutions
Passive voice Active voice FIX IT!!!
Superfluous words or phrases Self-editing FIX IT!!!
Wordiness Self-editing FIX IT!!!
Redundant words or phrases Self-editing FIX IT!!!
Noun-verb disagreement Mentally simplify the phrase and then edit accordingly. FIX IT!!!
Quoting a source Don't! -- but if you do, use only in cases of dire need or exceptional eloquence. FIX IT!!!
Using "and/or" Use one or the other, but not both. If both are indeed required, compose an acceptable solution.  FIX IT!!!
An obvious lack of editing A new work ethic.  FIX IT!!!
Inappropriate or poor word choice Self-editing FIX IT!!!
Using alternative meanings for technical terms.  Consider alternative word choices. FIX IT!!!
Incorrect in-text citations Follow standard reference formats FIX IT!!!

Passive Voice

#1a) The problem: "These types of sediments are deposited by a variety of agents."

As discussed in class, this makes for tough going when sentence after sentence is written in passive voice. It makes writing seem dull and lack-luster. Plus it typically increases the word count.

#1b) A simple solution: "A variety of agents deposit these types of sediments." [Notice that, for this example, passive voice increased the word count by 20%.]

Superfluous words or phrases

Somehow extra words always seem to creep into our writing. But in many cases they place an unnecessary burden on the reader as they must wade through a somewhat less than concise phrase and ferret out the meaning. (The previous sentence is a good example.)

#2a) The problem: "A variety of agents deposit sediments of these types."

#2b) A possible solution: "Various agents deposit these sediment types."


"The" is amongst the most overused words in our writing. It worms its way in at every turn. Sometimes it serves a critical purpose, and sometimes not.

#2c) The problem: "Without the hammer and the chisel, extracting the fossils from the outcrops would require considerably greater effort."  (I found this example on a state geologic survey web site.)

#2d) A worthy solution: "Without hammer and chisel, extracting fossils from outcrops would require considerably greater effort."


Like passive voice (but even worse) wordiness makes the reader work much harder to comprehend your meaning.

#3a) The problem: Geologists commonly use this rather sophisticated analytic technique in a variety of ways with organizations as far ranging as mining companies, oil companies, engineering companies, environmental consulting firms, and many others.

#3b) A possible solution: "Geologists use this technique for diverse investigations including mining, oil, engineering, and environmental research."

Redundant words or phrases

Redundancy hints at a lack of editing, common sense, or worse yet, comprehension, on the part of the writer. Read closely when editing to avoid this major pitfall.

#4a) The problem: Various depositional agents deposit these types of sediments.

#4b) A simple solution: "Various agents deposit these types of sediments."


#4c) The problem: "In sedimentary rocks, these types of sediment grains occur often."

#4c) A possible solution: "These types of grains occur often in sedimentary rocks."

Noun-verb disagreement

Perhaps nothing makes a writer seem less intelligent to the reader than errors in noun-verb agreement. This is a cornerstone of the english language and the subject of countless years of schooling. If you suffer from this malady be extra vigilant during proof-reading.

#5a) The problem: "The largest known occurrence of tar sands are in Alberta, Canada."

In this instance, because "tar sands" is plural, and it sits between the noun and the verb, the writer is fooled into making the verb plural. A simple test for this is to say to yourself "does 'the occurrence are' sound right?" The answer should be immediately obvious unless you are deficient in english grammar know-how. If so, you are simply out of luck (and in the wrong class).

#5b) The obvious solution: "The largest known occurrence of tar sands is in Alberta, Canada."

Using quotes

By its very nature, technical writing is, well, technical. But two important tenets of technical writing are: (a) technical writers should simplify technical subjects, and (b) technical writers should know how to simplify technical subjects. The use of quotes in most cases violates both of those tenets.

#6a) The problem: "Preliminary examination of the cores shows the presence of a highly dolomitized Tertiary reef underlying the Holocene coating without intervening Pleistocene rocks."

To the unprepared writer, this concept might seem too complicated to paraphrase, but once the details of the authors original phrase are considered, it should be possible to avoid (1) plaigarism, and (2) a quotation.

#6b) A viable solution: Cores contained no evidence of Pleistocene deposits, indicating that an unconformity separates a dolomitic reef of Tertiary-age from the thin Holocene sediments that overlie it (Guilcher, 1991). (I've left off my customary quote marks in this example to emphasize that this is NOT a quote.)


Have you ever heard anyone use this in speech? I doubt it. So why does it appear in our writing? Perhaps because in speech we don't think far enough ahead to consider using this construction. Or perhaps we don't try to be as concise in speech as in writing. In either case, it doesn't belong in the printed word any more than in the spoken word. It is ugly and clumsy -- avoid or work around it in every case.

#7a) The ugly problem: "Volcanic rocks tend to develop glassy and/or vesicular textures when appropriate conditions prevail."

In this case, there is absolutely no need for this awful construction -- and in fact, only rarely is a wordy work-around necessary. If so, then the solution is two separate phrases, one for "and," and one for "or." Presumably most readers will infer that and is  implied in the following construction.

#7b) The simple solution: "Volcanic rocks tend to develop glassy or vesicular textures when appropriate conditions prevail."

Obvious lack of editing

As I am often required to edit other writers' work, I have developed a serious disgust for prose showing little or no sign of proof-reading or editing. This is evidence of laziness or apathy that simply has no place in an academic or professional setting. The more you proof-read and edit your work, the better the end product will be -- there is just no good excuse for ignoring this crucial step in the writing process.

#8a) The despicable problem: "To the Suth, evaporaton from the warm see surface cause the concentrate of calcium carbonat on the water become very high so tinny grains of thes minerals form."

#8b) The long overdue solution: click here.

Inappropriate or poor word choice

It never ceases to amaze me how -- shall we say "casually" -- some writers approach their subject. Personally, I take pride in my word choice. In technical writing, it is important to keep in mind that we do not want to dramatize or sensationalize anything, so word choice should typically be limited to non-colloquial, non-inflammatory words, with little or no editorialization.

#9a) The glaring problem: "The oldest rocks in the Greater Antilles were made about 70 million years ago, when the Caribbean plate was going north, and there was a bunch of volcanic islands along the plate boundary. These produced enormous deposits of Styxian-colored pyroclastic effluent."

#9a) The modest solution: "The oldest rocks in the Greater Antilles formed about 70 million years ago. At that time, the Caribbean plate was moving north; consequently, volcanic islands along the plate boundary extruded large volumes of pyroclastic debris."

Using alternate meanings for technical terms.

#10a) The problem: "To differentiate magmas, geochemists must use sophisticated trace element and stable isotope extraction techniques."

It might be unclear here -- because the term "differentiate" has a technical meaning to igneous petrologists -- what the author intends to say. Are the geochemists differentiating magmas -- that is, are they melting rock and doing experiments to see what kind of crystal separations occur? - or - are they simply trying to determine the difference between two different, but petrologically related rock samples?

#10b) A possible solution: "To distinguish between rocks from similar magma sources, geochemists must use sophisticated trace element and stable isotope extraction techniques."

Incorrect in-text citations

Citations (e.g. Henderson, 1989) and references produce chronic headaches for writers and editors alike. Styles vary widely from publication to publication, and many organizations demand that you adhere to a particular style book. Generally, it is best to investigate these requirements long before you sit down to put pen to paper (or perhaps fingers to keyboard). For this class,  I have provided you with on-line resources for following the required Geological Society of America style.

#11a) The problem: "According to Herweijer, and Focke (1), Foster, Williams, Jerrald, and Ray (2) proposed a flawed theory for terrace development on Bonaire."

#11b) The simple solution: Style guide for Geological Society of America in-text citations (embedded link)


#11c) The problem: "Herweijer, Jerkin, & Jochem W., Focke, 1978. Late Pleistocene depositional and denudational history of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao (Netherland Antilles). Geologie En Mijnbouw. Volume 57, no. 2. pages 177-187."

#11d) The simple solution:  Style guide for Geological Society of America bibliographic references (embedded link)