Professor Dowding’s Writing Faux Pas

Professor Michael Dowding, a Master Lecturer at BU and an extremely experienced communications practitioner, explained in detail the writing mistakes he sees among mass communications professionals today. Below are the most common, frustrating, and flat-out unacceptable writing faux pas out there. No worries, though…he also included some priceless methods to help avoid those pesky mistakes. 

The most common faux pas:

  1. Its vs. It’s

Professor Dowding gets it…he really does. The English language is a rollercoaster ride and “its“ vs “it’s” certainly does not make it any easier. “I won’t say it’s the most grievous faux pas…it’s just the one I see most often,” said Dowding. It is not just students who make this mistake — he sees it everywhere.“It’s very understandable. It is a forgivable mistake, but it’s very, very common,” explained Dowding. So, take some comfort in knowing that if you make this mistake, you’re not alone. But make sure you check over your work and look for those pesky “its” and “it’s”… It’s important.

The biggest writing mistakes:

  1. DO NOT use exclamation marks in media writing.

“I think in media writing it is a mistake to use exclamation marks. If I am reading a news release, I really don’t want to see an exclamation point at all,” said Dowding. He continued,  “I tell my students to live by the ten-year rule…which is you get to use one every ten years, so decide if this will be your lucky day.” A good writer should be able to use word choice in order to create excitement and enthusiasm rather than exclamation points, according to Dowding. He stated, “Throwing an exclamation point on the end of a weak sentence is just a cheap punctuation stunt to try to inject this false enthusiasm where none exists.” 

  1. The passive voice

Anyone who has taken the Writing for Communication course knows all about passive voice…it’s hard and confusing at times. Passive voice is something that the writing professors in COM are desperately trying to stomp out. Dowding explained, “Passive voice is when you’re leaning on a structure that hides the actor. We want the active voice. For example, we want ‘Tom kicked the ball,’ not ‘The ball was kicked.’” Dowding wants to make clear that the passive voice is not “illegal.” “A lot of my friends in the journalism department still rely on it…it is often used in news stories. But in media writing and the mass communication department, we can get rid of more than 90% of the passive voice and give our writing much more power and media impact,” explained Dowding. 

  1. The Comma Splice

Let’s start off with an example that Professor Dowding calls both common and deadly. That is, “I went to the store, my friend came with me.” He explained that you can say “I went to the store, and my friend came with me” or “I went to the store. My friend came with me.” But unfortunately for writers everywhere, two sentences can’t just be joined by a comma. He said that it’s a sign of flawed writing that will cause a reader to question the writers’ ability. As Professor Dowding explained, “We have a very discriminating audience…a very sophisticated readership with media documents and our media documents are trying to persuade those readers. Every error we allow to slip past us just diminishes our credibility ever so much.” 

How can we fix this?

  1. Find a friend and have them read over your work

An easy and fun way to combat these writing faux pas is to proofread with a friend. Professor Dowding especially stressed this method with documents such as resumes and cover letters. He explained that it is imperative that they are flawless. “The stakes  are really high with [cover letters and resumes], so you do not want to let those errors slip through,” explained Dowding.

  1. “Read…read, read, read”

It may sound obvious, but just as painters study the work of their forebears for inspiration, so too should writers read other writers’ work and learn from it. “If you’re not reading volumes of material every day as a writer, I’m worried about you,” explained Dowding. He continued, “Through reading, we absorb information, ideas, and style from our peers and colleagues. If you read well-written stuff, even on a subconscious level, you are absorbing great things.”

  1. There is no substitute for practice

If you are a writer, you need to be writing every day.  “It’s like playing a musical instrument…if you do not do it every day you may atrophy a little bit. But if you do it every day you’ll stay sharp,” Dowding said. He continued, “And it’s not just doing it every day, it’s doing the right things every day. In reality, practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” So Dowding suggests that everyone follow AP style in everything they do. As he explained, even if you’re sending a text to a friend, do it in a grammatically correct way. 

Dowding gave me “the one cheap lesson,”, the lesson worth all of the hundreds of thousands of dollars we pay to study at BU. He said “elevate your verbs. Stop relying on ‘is’, ‘did’, ‘was.’ Stop using cheap linking words to support sophisticated sentences. Instead, get rid of the boring, pedestrian words and elevate them.” Just that one tip alone will improve your writing immensely.” Professor Dowding — if you’re reading this, then I apologize for my upcoming punctuation. Thank you for the advice!

Eliza Shaw, Staff Writer

Eliza was born and raised in Westchester County, NY, and traveled a whopping 196 miles to attend Boston University in Boston, MA. She is currently a senior at BU studying Public Relations at the College of Communication. Eliza has worked two consecutive summers as a Social Media intern for ViacomCBS, acted as a blog writer for MediaGirls, and taken on the role of Public Relations Intern at Mystic Sons PR in London. Currently, she works as a Creative at Empath Worldwide, has a Public Relations role at The Center for Information and Systems Engineering at BU, and is a writer for the BU COMmunicator. When Eliza is not working or studying she enjoys being a diehard NY Rangers fan, eating fresh New York bagels, and sipping strong iced coffee! Once Eliza graduates from BU she plans to begin her career in Public Relations and Marketing.

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