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Top Ten Rules of Writing Well

Good writing is like clear, fresh water. It’s transparent yet substantial. It’s also the result of much revision. How to tell what needs to stay and what needs to go? Following are some rules of thumb that work as often as not. They come from an editor’s bag of tricks and will lift your writing to a new level.

 

  1. Be specific. To weave a spell, your words must evoke an image in the mind’s eye of the reader. The phrase, “a beautiful, bright-colored flower”, is abstract and meaningless. The “dark-eyed pansy” is evocative.

 

  1. Show, don’t tell. If you tell me, why should I believe you? If you show me, I experience it for myself. It’s the difference between, He was greedy and “Gimme that,” he said, grabbing the candy and stuffing it into his mouth.

 

  1. Let verbs do the work. The verbs of English are potent and vigorous. Sometimes we run, and sometimes we dart. Sometimes we walk, and sometimes we amble. Sometimes we mumble, and sometimes we ramble.

 

  1. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Passive voice is clumsy, awkward, long-winded, and circuitous. It holds the reader at a distance instead of plunging her into the action. It’s the difference between I wrote the book and The book was written by me.

 

  1. Use contractions rather than the complete form of the verb. Unless you’re writing for a technical, scientific, or legal audience, contractions are closer to the rhythms of speech.

 

  1. Vary sentence structure. Too many subject-verb sentences in a row become monotonous and leaden. English is a rhythmic language rather than a melodic one. The possibilities are endless, but to name just a few: start sentences with a subordinate clause, use conjunctions to combine short declarative sentences, and insert transitions for emphasis or to vary the rhythm. Take the sentence: He seemed a little shy, and I definitely was, but we didn’t have any trouble talking. A variation might be: Though we both were shy, soon we were talking nonstop, just like old friends.

 

  1. Write to communicate rather than impress. High-falutin’sentiments, pompous phrasing, and intellectualizing ring false. Appeal to the reader’s emotions. Say, I thought it over rather than I contemplated the ramifications of the current state of affairs.

 

  1. Cut ruthlessly. Yes, you want your writing to be vivid, alive, and fresh, but make every word count. Carve, trim, and chisel them until they gleam like alabaster or white marble warming in the sun.

 

  1. Use short, simple, precise words that leave no doubt about your meaning. Favor earthy Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latinate stand-ins. Tell someone, don’t inform them. Ask rather than inquire. Want rather than desire.

 

  1. Write in shorter sentences of 15 to 20 words. Sentences can sprawl across several lines in your early drafts, but see it as a red flag for poor construction. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader or, worse, boring him.

  Copyright 2007 by Donna Ippolito