The 5 Most Common Mistakes in ESL Essay Writing (And How to Avoid Them)

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Some say you can’t master your second language like a native. When it’s completely different from your native language, you get confused by tenses, sentence constructions, and informal speech. It’s true that English will give you trouble. Academic writing, in particular, is a huge challenge.

However, it’s not true that you can’t master the language like a native. All it takes is practice, practice, and some more practice. Somewhere along that practice, you’ll start identifying the habitual mistakes.

How about a shortcut? Instead of trying to recognize your mistakes through practice, you can just go through our list of common mistakes in ESL essay writing and see if you’re making some of them. Needless to say, you’ll still need to practice. However, you’ll be a much more effective writer as soon as you start avoiding these mistakes. 1. Using Abbreviations and Social Media Language

Academic writing is completely different from the way you express yourself on social media networks. In class, your professors allow casual talk. In essays, however, they want to see serious writing based on facts and evidence. Such style doesn’t include abbreviations and casualty.

My favorite book ever? It’s GoT, duh!

That’s not the way to express yourself in academic writing. You have to maintain a tone of professionalism even when you’re working on a personal essay.

If I had to choose the favorite book I’ve ever read, it would have to be A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

Yes, that sentence may seem long and boring for a tweet, but you’re not writing tweets.  

2. Inconsistency in Spelling

There are subtle, but important differences between British and American spelling. Non-native speakers don’t pay much attention to them, so both specialize and specialize seem fine. If you’re a foreign student at a British or American university, these nuances are very important. If you’re not a student and this essay is not for grading, you can maintain the style you prefer. However, you have to keep it consistent throughout the paper.

I believe we should all recognize humor as a force that could revolutionize our world.

Recognize is the American spelling, and humor and revolutionize are written in British spelling. In academic writing, that’s not okay. You have to maintain one style of spelling.

3. Relying on Spelling/Grammar Checkers

The spelling checker won’t recognize the mistake with the one tense back rule. Automated software may confuse their and there, and it may even suggest improper changes when your writing is correct. If you don’t see any underlined words or phrases, you might be confident that the essay is just fine, so you’ll submit it the way it is. Don’t do that!

Academic writing is consists of a few stages:

  • Research
  • Outlining
  • Writing
  • Editing


4. Ignoring the One Tense Back Rule

Harvard researchers reported that meditation literally rebuilds the brains gray matter in just eight weeks.

Did you notice something wrong? You probably noticed brains instead of brain’s, and that’s a serious mistake. However, there’s a more subtle mistake that most ESL writers don’t recognize: ignoring the one tense back rule.

In this case, you’re reporting something. “Meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in just eight weeks.” That’s what the scientists said. When you’re reporting it, you have to take all verbs of that sentence one tense back.

Harvard researchers reported that meditation rebuilt the brain’s gray matter in just eight weeks.

That’s the correct way to write this sentence.

5. Using First-Person Expressions in Academic Context

I think that the Harvard researchers were biased and had a personal interest in the positive outcome of the research on meditation.

Using the first person in an academic context makes your essay look casual and informal. You should aim for the opposite effect: objective expressions. Unless you’re writing a personal essay, avoid using the first person in academic writing.

It can be argued that the Harvard researchers were biased and had a personal interest in the positive outcome of the research on meditation.

Needless to say, you’ll explain how and why that can be argued. You’ll support all statements with facts. That’s what academic writing is all about. It’s not only about your opinions; it’s also about in-depth research.

Can you recognize some of these mistakes in your writing? If that’s the case, it’s time to start avoiding them. Keep practicing and you’ll get better!

About the author:

Karen Dikson is a tech-savvy teacher and blogger from New Jersey. Her works have been published on Huffington Post and other educational resources. She enjoys helping her students achieve their most ambitious goals. Follow Karen on Twitter.

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

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