(From Aidan Directors Blog, 27 March 2009)
I cannot call myself a writer, since I have not published anything of note. But reading what passes as “writing” on the Internet: blog entries, websites, editorials, ad copies, even newspaper columns, sometimes make me cringe.
These are ten simple rules to make your writing not suck. Nothing new here, just old wisdom repackaged for the Facebook generation.
Rule One: Omit unnecessary words.
This is the cardinal rule of Will Strunk, the greatest writing teacher of the past century. He would cross out extraneous words with relish in front of his students, and would often repeat the mantra: Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!
If Will Strunk is alive now, his Delete button would wear out very quickly.
There are many clumsy phrases, commonly used by lazy writers who put word count above readability. The result is clunky prose, like a camel with a misplaced hump.
Some examples are (to borrow George Orwell): “cannot be left out of account”, “a development to be expected in the near future”, “deserving of serious consideration”, “brought to a satisfactory conclusion”. Unnecessary words strung together are still unnecessary. Use single words instead – “essential”, “prospective”, “important”, “successful” – and your writing will be tighter in no time.
Will Strunk has more: http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk5.html#13
Five words are guilty of overuse: extremely, basically, very, quite, really. Get rid of these, and see the quality of your writing go up.
Rule Two: Use short sentences.
Long sentences are exactly that: long. They do not make you sound more intelligent. The only place where a long sentence is called for is when you want to break the monotony of your prose. Even then, long sentences can be annoying, if not constructed properly according to rhythm.
The cure is simple: write short sentences. Like this one. If the sentence you just wrote is too long, cut it in half and put a conjunction in between.
Rule Three: Concentrate on the content, not on the style.
Write down what you want to say. Give minimal thoughts to style. A good argument will stand on its own, even if written on a template.
Style is a crutch for people with nothing much to say. Even then, appealing to style usually ends awkwardly, as is bound to happen to people who try too hard. Only experienced writers can play their style comfortably. Overdoing style leads to annoying writing (see Annie Proulx.)
Bring the reader’s attention to what is being written, not to you.
Rule Four: Do not be overly clever or “snarky”.
I repeat: write down what you want to say. “Snark” (snide remark) is no substitute for substance.
People who try to be overly clever always come across as underachievers who need to validate themselves at each turn.
Avoid clichés. Nothing spells “bad writer” like using a cliché to make your point.
Rule Five: Use precise words.
This is harder than it sounds. A decent writer must not only know words, but the ways words are used and misused. A misused word can diminish your credibility.
Do not use an uncommon word if you are not sure what it means. An uncommon word is rarely precise. More often than not, the precise word in a given context is a common word.
One of my pet peeves is when people use “myriad” wrongly. “Myriad” is a noun with a specific meaning, i.e., the number ten thousand (pl. “myriads”, tens of thousands). However, modern usage allows it to be used as an adjective, to mean a great quantity, e.g., “Myriad of villagers…”. However, it should be used only when dealing with quantities of that order of magnitude. It is incorrect to say “a myriad of reasons”. You do not have ten thousand reasons.
Rule Six: The soul of wit is brevity.
A bad joke is a sign of weak writing skills. There are two common mistakes when writing a joke: setting up the joke too much, and explaining the joke to the reader. Both mistakes will cause the joke to fall flat, and in the process insult the intelligence of your readers. Jokes should be brisk and sharp.
There is an analogue in real life: the funniest jokes are those told in a deadpan manner, with no change in emotion or facial expression.
Rule Seven: Proofread.
Check your spelling. American and British English are both acceptable, so do not sweat about choosing between British or American spelling. Nobody take that distinction seriously anymore.
It is common to make errors in subject-verb agreements, especially among non-native English speakers. One or two slips are fine; you can guarantee such errors will happen even in respectable publications like Newsweek (which, by the way, has sloppy editing.) Try not to make too many errors, or risk irritating your readers.
Rule Eight: Use the active voice.
Active voice adds energy to your verbs, while passive voice makes your verbs lean on the wall for support.
Rule Nine: Handle idioms carefully.
You have just read a cool expression in some hip publication and now you want to use it in your blog. Take it easy. Make sure you really know what the expression means.
Even commonplace idioms have to be applied with care. Using idioms incorrectly screams “amateur”. There are alternatives to every idiom: by using commonplace phrases, you can guard against error.
Rule Ten: The more you write, the more rules you can break, but not earlier.
Experienced writers and celebrity authors can get away with anything. You are neither. Go back to your grammar rules and stick to it.
For further reading, I recommend these classics: