5 (Bad) Writing Habits You Need to Break

Most of us have bad habits we’d like to break. Maybe you’re guilty of hogging the only TV in the dorm or leaving your Chinese takeout boxes all over the living room (both of which drive your roommates crazy).

If your bad habits only cause a few disagreements with your roommates, maybe it’s not worth the effort to try to change them (though it probably is—sorry).

What if your bad habits have greater consequences, though, like bad grades? What if you have a few bad writing habits that you didn’t even know you had?

We often form our habits at a young age, never realizing that we were actually doing them. (You know, like biting your nails when you watch a movie.) You likely formed your writing habits in middle school when you learned the basics of how to write an essay.

Whether you acquired your bad writing habits in middle school or just yesterday, it’s time to break them ASAP. Here are five of the worst offenses.

5 (Bad) Writing Habits You Need to Break

If your writing habits include prewriting, researching credible sources, and leaving ample time to revise and edit your paper, congrats! You’ve established good writing habits.

If, on the other hand, you count yourself among those who have one (or more) of the five bad writing habits below, you need to break them (and replace them with more effective ones—we’ll cover that too).

large grumpy turtle with text that says 'try and stop me'

1. Over-using the thesaurus

There are plenty of times when a thesaurus comes in handy, but over-use of a thesaurus leads to stiff, boring, and unnecessarily complicated word choices.

If you’re writing a scientific report, then dry, complicated language might be appropriate. But if you’re writing something like a history essay, a literary analysis, or a narrative essay, such wording won’t seem natural. Your writing will sound like you tried too hard to find a fancier word to make you sound smart.

Here’s a good use of a thesaurus: Looking up a more appropriately descriptive word for “shiny” when describing a diamond ring. (A check of the thesaurus might turn up “brilliant” or “radiant.”)

Here’s a bad use of a thesaurus: Trying to sound like an academic by replacing common words like “house” or “home” with “abode” or “domicile.”

Sure, there are times when “abode” might be more appropriate than “house.” But don’t try to throw in these types of words just to try to impress your prof. (It won’t work.)

How to break this bad writing habit

The easiest way to break this bad habit is simply to resist the temptation to click on any page that gives you a list of synonyms.

If you feel you absolutely must use a thesaurus, do so sparingly. Wait until you edit your draft, then select any words that you think might need to be changed.

2. Relying on your sources to write your paper

No, I don’t mean setting up some shady deal in a back alley like the kind you’d find in a 1940s film noir. Relying on sources doesn’t mean you discreetly hand a guy in a trench coat (who happens to be one of your most reliable sources) a few folded bills, and in return, he hands you a perfectly written and researched essay.

nervous woman walking away from man issuing warning in film noir scene
(Seriously, though…don’t buy essays from shady characters in alleys. Write your own.)

By “relying on your sources” I mean that you’re including too many paraphrases and quotes from your research sources.

This means your paper becomes a copy and paste of the words of other writers and includes very little of your own writing or analysis.

How to know if this is one of your bad writing habits: Grab one of your recently written research essays, and highlight every word that’s taken from a source. If your paper changes to the color of your highlighter, you’re a victim of this bad habit. (Don’t have a research paper handy to test? Try it with a research paper from our essay library.)

How to break this bad writing habit

Fully understand your arguments before you begin writing. Try outlining or drafting your ideas first (without the help of your sources). Graphic organizers are great for this too. Whatever your approach, once you have solid key ideas in place, use sources to support your claims.

3. Expecting your prof to tell you exactly what to include in your paper

writing professor writing 'who, when, how, what, why, where' on whiteboard

In some classes, your prof will give you a list (often a long list) of everything that must be included in your paper. These types of assignment guidelines can sometimes make it easier to write the paper because you know exactly what your prof expects.

But don’t count on detailed guidelines for every assignment.

Some profs give instructions that read something like this: “Write a 4–6 page essay about the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter.

With these guidelines, you know that you should focus on symbolism in a specific novel, but that’s about it. The rest is up to you.

If you’re in the habit of looking for explicit, detailed instructions, a set of guidelines like this can leave you more than a little overwhelmed because you’re not used to writing without your prof leading you through it step by step. You can also be a bit overwhelmed because you might have slacked a little in class because you thought your prof would tell you what to write.

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How to break this bad writing habit

One of the first things you need to do to break this habit is to pay attention in class and read (and take notes on) everything your prof assigns. Having a solid grasp of the material means you won’t be panic-stricken when you’re asked to write about it.

The second thing you can do is to actually trust yourself and your ability to write well. Follow the writing process, and get help from your school’s writing center or from a professional editor when you need it.

Remember, if your teacher gives you super-specific instructions on what you need to put in your paper, by all means, follow the guidelines. If, on the other hand, there are limited instructions, breathe easy, and let your creative juices flow.

4. Assuming all types of writing are the same

When you text your friends, you know they’ll understand every acronym you type. But you wouldn’t use the same acronyms in a handwritten thank-you note to your grandma, would you?

Probably not.

Why? Because all writing (and all audiences) are not created equal. (And grandma is more likely to think that “lol” means “lots of love,” rather than “laugh out loud.”)

If you treated all writing assignments equally, it would mean that you’d use the same writing style and tone in a first-person narrative essay as you would in your lab report.

If you did that, your lab report might read like this:

I carefully watched as the liquid changed from cool blue to a deep red. I was amazed at the chemical reaction and quickly noted my excitement and the results of my experiment in my notebook.

chemist observing beaker of red liquid

While this is fine for a narrative essay, the use of first person, added description, and narrative quality of the sentences are definitely not appropriate for a lab report (which should be objectively written in third person).

How to break this bad writing habit

Before you start any writing assignment, consider your audience, and consider the appropriate tone for the writing.

You also need to think about the type of writing you’re assigned. As I’ve mentioned, a report requires different word choices and a different style than a narrative.

5. Writing exclusively in first- and second-person point of view

If you’re used to writing emails, narrative essays, poetry, or short stories, you likely use first- and second-person point of view liberally. Using first and second person is fine (and generally preferred) in this type of writing. But remember my previous comments about how all types of writing are different?

This most certainly applies to point of view.

In most academic writing, first and second person aren’t permitted, and you should only write in third-person point of view. (There are, of course, exceptions, but for the most part, academic writing is pretty formal.)

How to break this bad writing habit

Transitioning from first and second person to third person can be hard because, well, you’re so used to it.

To break this habit, start by continuing to write in first and second person. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but stay with me.

Start by writing your drafts in first and second person. (Use this point of view in any place that seems natural. Don’t go out of your way to try to insert first or second person.)

Once you’ve drafted your paper, cross out or highlight any instances of first- and second-person point of view. Then change them to third-person point of view.

Here’s what those changes might look like:

Example 1

Second person point of view: Spending too much time on social media can actually make you lonely.

Changed to third person point of view: Spending too much time on social media can actually make people lonely.

Example 2

First person point of view: I think everyone deserves the right to a free college education.

Changed to third person point of view:  Everyone deserves the right to a free college education.

After practicing this strategy a few times, you’ll naturally begin to move away from first and second person and be more likely to write in third person as you draft.

Breaking (Bad) Writing Habits

bad habits neon sign

As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” We often fall back on our (sometimes bad) habits because we don’t know what else to do.

In the case of bad writing habits, it can be easy to fall into your old habits. It’s the quickest way to get the paper finished. For instance, if you can’t think of a way to end a paper, you simply add “in conclusion” at the beginning of your final paragraph and move on. (BTW: there are better ways to end your paper. Check out this post to learn more.)

You might also fall back on old writing habits because you’ve procrastinated and are now feeling the suffocating stress of an impending deadline. To break this habit, make a plan, and stick to it. Work a little bit each day on your assignment to ease the stress and make huge projects a little more manageable.

Want more ways to improve your writing? Check out this post with 20 ways to improve your academic writing.

And if you’ve been working hard to break all of your bad writing habits but are worried that your paper isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, let us help. Our editors offer constructive feedback to help you make your paper better than ever.

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