A Guide to Writing Well

January 8th, 2007  |  Published in Education, Essays, Writing  |  56 Comments

For a good writer, there is only one measure of success,
and that is found in his honoring the complexity and richness
of his subject while telling his story in a lucid way.
Joseph Epstein

Compiled by Joshua Sowin

This guide was mainly distilled from On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Other sources are listed in the bibliography. My memory being stubborn and lazy, I compiled this so I could easily refresh myself on writing well. I hope it will also be helpful to others. If you have any suggestions about additions or changes, please let me know.

Table of Contents

Before You Start Writing

Before you start writing an article, ask the following questions:

  1. How will I address the reader?

    (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)

  2. What pronoun and tense will I use?

    (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?)

  3. What attitude will I take toward the material?

    (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)

  4. How much of the subject do I want to cover?
  5. Have I done enough research and/or have enough experience with the subject to write intelligently?
  6. Is there anyone I can interview to gather more information on the subject and to quote? (See also: “Interviews”)
  7. What is the one point I want to make?
    1. “Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.” (Zinsser, 53)

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General Principles

  1. Be yourself. Don’t alter your voice for a subject. Relax and write with confidence and in a way that comes easily and naturally. Sometimes this will mean discarding the first few paragraphs until you start writing naturally. “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation” (Zinsser, 27). When possible, use the first person – it usually comes out more naturally.
  2. Write for yourself – that will make it interesting to the reader.
  3. Write with humanity and warmth.
  4. Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter. Don’t add words for “style.”
    1. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” (Strunk and White, 23)
    2. “Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterations that weaken the strength of a sentence.” (Zinsser, 8)
    3. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” (Strunk and White, 72)
  5. Be clear. Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Know logic, rhetoric and your subject.
    1. “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it.” (Strunk and White, 79)
    2. “Jaw-breaking words often cover up very sloppy thinking.” (Thomas Sowell)
    3. “Remember this: a well-written book with bad arguments will have more influence than a poorly-written book with endless nuance and lifeless prose. Remember this too: lifeless prose comes from lifeless minds.” (Scot McKnight)
    4. “Good writers write in such a way that one can read them aloud and know what they mean. Bad writers have to be studied and re-read and pondered.” (Scot McKnight)
  6. Avoid fancy words.
    1. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” (George Orwell)
    2. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide…” (Strunk and White, 77)
    3. “Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.” (Jacques Barzun)
  7. “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” (Dillard, 68)
  8. Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning. Use a dictionary for any word you have doubt on its meaning. Use a thesaurus to “nudge your memory.” (Zinsser, 36)
  9. Talk about a person, not people. Specificity will raise interest.
  10. Pay attention to your metaphors – what are you communicating with them?
  11. Have a unity of pronoun (first person, etc.), unity of tense (past, present, future) and unity of mood (casual, comedy, irony).
  12. “Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.” (Zinsser, 53)
  13. Don’t save good ideas for later.
    1. “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.” (Dillard, 78-79)
  14. Don’t over-explain.
    1. “Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can surmise. Try not to use words like ‘surprisingly,’ ‘predictably,’ and ‘of course,’ which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact.” (Zinsser, 92)
    2. “It is seldom advisable to tell all.” (Strunk and White, 75)
  15. After every sentence, ask yourself what the reader wants to know next.
  16. Use orthodox spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
    1. “Do not write nite for night, thru for through, pleez for please, unless you plan to introduce a complete system of simplified spelling and are prepared to take the consequences.” (Strunk and White, 74)
  17. Make your writing interesting. (See also: “Humor ”)
    1. “[F]ind some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your ‘style.’ When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper.” (Zinsser, 288)
    2. “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.” (C. S. Lewis)
  18. Learn to interview others and weave their quotes into your writing. “Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of ‘quotes’ you can weave into it as you go along” (Zinsser, 101). (See also: “Interviews ”)
  19. Learn to write about place, because “people and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built” (Zinsser, 116). (See also: “Travel ”)

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Usage Principles

  1. Use active verbs. Example: “He was seen by Joe” should be “Joe saw him.”
    1. “Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.” (Zinsser, 69)
  2. Most adverbs are unnecessary. Replace them with precise verbs. Beware of adverbs that have the same meaning as the verb (“grinned widely,” “sadly moped”).
  3. Most adjectives are unnecessary. Kick the “adjective-by-habit.”
  4. Remove common clichés, cheap words, and made-up words.
  5. Remove qualifiers: a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense.
    1. “[Qualifiers] are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” (Strunk and White, 73)
    2. “Good writing is lean and confident.” (Zinsser, 71)
  6. Keep sentences short.
    1. “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” (Zinsser, 71)
  7. Remove laborious phrases. Why use “at the present time” instead of “now”?
  8. Remove “experiencing.” “Are you experiencing pain?” could be “Does it hurt?”
  9. Remove unnecessary euphemism. A “depressed socioeconomic area” is a “slum.”
  10. Remove long words when a short one will do. Examples: Assistance (help), facilitate (ease), implement (do), referred to as (called).
  11. Remove word clusters that explain to go about explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.”
  12. Remove verbal camouflage. Corporations and governments are often tempted to use this. “A negative cash-flow position” means a corporation is bankrupt. “Involuntary methodologies” means layoffs.
  13. “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” (C. S. Lewis)
  14. Use exclamation points sparingly. Instead, try to “construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it.” (Zinsser, 72)
  15. Alert the reader to mood or subject changes. Examples: but, yet, however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now, later, today.
    1. Sentences can begin with “but,” no matter what your teacher said.
    2. “Don’t start a sentence with ‘however’—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’—by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can…. Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.” (Zinsser, 74)
  16. Use contractions when they sound natural.
  17. Don’t be ambiguous – use personal nouns. For instance, “The common reaction is incredulous laughter” could be “Most people just laugh with disbelief.” (Zinsser, 77)
  18. Don’t use overstatement or people will never believe you in a million years.
  19. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. For instance, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways” could be “Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.” (Strunk and White, 32)
  20. Don’t use dialect unless your ear is good.
  21. Avoid foreign words. Use English.
  22. Regarding quotations:
    1. “When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it…. Nothing is deader than to start a sentence with a ‘Mr. Smith said’ construction—it’s where many readers stop reading.” (Zinsser, 110)
    2. “Don’t strain to find synonyms for ‘he said.’ Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating ‘he said,’ and please—please!—don’t write ‘he smiled’ or ‘he grinned.’ I’ve never heard anybody smile. The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss.” (Zinsser, 111)
  23. That/which: Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” (Zinsser, 76)
  24. Regarding e.g./i.e.:
    1. For “e.g.,” think of “example given.” (It is an abbreviation for the latin exempli gratia, which means “for the sake of an example.”)
    2. For “i.e.,” think of “in effect.” (It is an abbreviation for the Latin id est, which means “that is.”)

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The Introduction

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 55

General Principles

  1. Make your lead as long or short as it requires – each article requires a different lead.
  2. Look for material everywhere. Many good leads come from finding some odd fact or overlooked daily absurdity.
    1. “Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from everybody else’s.” (Zinsser, 60)
    2. “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.” (Dillard, 78)
  3. Tell a story if possible – “look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.” (Zinsser, 62)

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Does my lead capture the reader’s attention and force him to keep reading?
  2. Does it tell the reader why this is written and why he ought to read it?
  3. Is my lead fresh?
    1. If it has to do with future archaeologists, visitors from Mars, what various figures have in common, or a recent cute event, it probably isn’t.
    2. If it starts with “John Doe was born on…” then it definitely isn’t.

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The Conclusion

Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 64

  1. Give as much thought to the last sentence as the first.
  2. Don’t conclude with a summary.
    1. “[Y]our readers hear the laborious sound of cranking. They notice what you are doing and how bored you are by it. They feel the stirrings of resentment. Why didn’t you give more thought to how you were going to wind this thing up? Or are you summarizing because you think they’re too dumb to get the point? Still, you keep cranking. But the readers have another option. They quit.” (Zinsser, 65)
  3. “When you’re ready to stop, stop.” (Zinsser, 66)
  4. Don’t use “In conclusion,” or other derivatives.
  5. “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said. But they know it when they see it.” (Zinsser, 65-6)
  6. “Conclude with a sentence that jolts … with its fitness or unexpectedness.” (Zinsser, 66)
  7. If possible, bring the lead story full circle. It gives symmetry and pleases the reader.
  8. Often a quotation works best – especially one that is surprising.

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Rewriting

You can save some sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 5

  1. Rewriting is the essence of writing well. Clear writing is the result of much tinkering.
  2. A first draft is never perfect. “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.” (Zinsser, 17)
  3. Rewriting is tweaking the text, not starting over. Simplify, clarify, rephrase drab sentences, add information and alter the sequence.
  4. Listen to how your words sound – rhythm and alliteration are important. Read all your writing aloud.
  5. Have a friend read your article before making it public – writers often miss obvious errors in their writing.
  6. Rewriting is rereading. “I reread a sentence maybe a hundred times, and if I kept it I changed it seven or eight times, often substantially.” (Dillard, 31)

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Genre Specific

Interviews

  1. Interview people who are passionate and know more about a subject than you. Have them tell your story.
  2. Learn about the person you are interviewing, if possible, before your interview. “You will be resented if you inquire about facts you could have learned in advance.” (Zinsser, 105)
  3. Interesting information is “locked inside people’s heads, which a good nonfiction writer must unlock” (Zinsser, 103). Ask questions that elicit interesting answers.
  4. Make a list of likely questions, but better questions will often occur to you in the interview. Tailor your questions to the conversation.
  5. During the interview:
    1. “Interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better at. You will never again feel so ill at ease as when you try it for the first time, and probably you’ll never feel entirely comfortable prodding another person for answers he or she may be too shy or too inarticulate to reveal. But much of the skill is mechanical. The rest is instinct—knowing how to make the other person relax, when to push, when to listen, when to stop. This can all be learned with experience.” (Zinsser, 104)
    2. Take time to chat before you start interviewing. It will put them at ease.
    3. Use pad and pen/pencil. Use a tape recorder only when it is important to transcribe every word (for instance, when someone speaks a different dialect than you.) (Zinsser, 105-107)
    4. If you get behind in your notes, politely ask them to stop talking while you finish. Nobody wants to be misquoted. But as you interview more, you will develop shorthand and get faster at writing.
  6. After the interview, distill the essence of the interview. Single out sentences that are most important or colorful. Present his position accurately, even if that means putting two quotes together that were not together in the interview:
    1. “If you find on page 5 of your notes a comment that perfectly amplifies a point on page 2—a point made earlier in the interview—you will do everyone a favor if you link the two thoughts, letting the second sentence follow and illustrate the first. This may violate the truth of how the interview actually progressed, but you will be true to the intent of what was said.” (Zinsser, 109)
  7. When unsure about a point, contact the person for clarification. Again, nobody wants to be misquoted.
  8. Never fabricate quotes.

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Travel

  1. Travel writing is very hard. “It must be hard, because it’s in this area that most writers—professional and amateur—produce not only their worst work but work that is just plain terrible.” (Zinsser, 117)
  2. While traveling, keep in mind what will interest the reader.
  3. Be specific and avoid travelese. “Travelese is also a style of soft words that under hard examination mean nothing, or mean different things to different people: ‘attractive,’ ‘charming,’ ‘romantic.’” (Zinsser, 118)
  4. Choose words with unusual care. Keep a reign on adjectives. “If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them…. Strive for fresh words and images.” (Zinsser, 118)
  5. Be selective about descriptions and events. Find details that are significant and concrete; talk about things that will interest others. Leave out the rest.
  6. Practice travel writing locally before trying something more ambitious.
  7. Bring out the place and the people.
  8. Examples of travel writers: Bill Bryson, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Jonathan Raban, V. S. Pritchett, James Baldwin.

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Memoir

  1. Write what you know, what you think and what makes you unique.
  2. “Think narrow…. Memoir isn’t the summary of life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” (Zinsser, 136)
  3. Bring in details whenever possible.
  4. “Summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable—what turn of mind, what crazy habits?” (Zinsser, 145)
  5. Remember that people are hoping you are the most interesting character in the book.
  6. Examples of good memoirs: Speak, Memory by Nabokov, Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, The Education of Henry Adams, The Confessions by St. Augustine.

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Science and Technology

  1. Assume the reader knows nothing and explain concepts accordingly.
  2. Start with too much material.
  3. “Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, [and so on.]” (Zinsser, 150)
  4. Include the human element using yourself or others. Weave a story around a person.
  5. “Relate [unfamiliar facts] to sights [your readers] are familiar with. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can visualize.” (Zinsser, 155)
  6. Write like a person and not like a scientist.
  7. Examples of good science and technology writers: Stephen Jay Gould, Neil Postman, Lewis Thomas, Bill Bryson, Oliver Sacks.

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Reviews

  1. Know and love the medium you are reviewing.
  2. Don’t give away too much of the plot.
  3. Use specific detail. Don’t only say “Mr. Jones is a poor writer” – give examples of what you think are poor writing and let the reader decide.
  4. Avoid the ecstatic adjectives: wonderful, marvelous, dazzling, etc.
  5. For critics:
    1. Steep yourself in the literature of the medium. Place each work into its tradition.
    2. You can presuppose certain shared knowledge with your readers, unlike general reviews.
    3. Be personable. “We like good critics as much for their personality as for their opinions.” (Zinsser, 199)
    4. Criticism should be stylish, allusive, disturbing. It should “jog a set of beliefs and force us to reexamine them.” (Zinsser, 202)
    5. Humor is a good lubricant.
    6. “How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter. Even if they are broadly educated men and women they need to be told or reminded of certain facts.” (Zinsser, 204) (See also: “The Introduction”)
    7. Take your stand with conviction.

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Humor

Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool—and sometimes their only tool—for making an important point.

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 208

  1. “Humor… is urgent work. It’s an attempt to say important things in a special way that regular writers aren’t getting said in a regular way—or if they are, it’s so regular that nobody is reading it.” (Zinsser, 209)
  2. “Don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.” (Zinsser, 215)
  3. Control is vital. Know when stop.
  4. Be vulnerable. Making yourself the victim or dunce can be funny – to a point.
  5. Example humor writers: Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Robert Benchley, S. K. Perelman, Bill Bryson, Garrison Keillor.

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Questions

How do I get better at writing?

  1. Know the rules of writing and learn when to break them.
  2. Establish a schedule for writing and stick to it. Force yourself to write regularly.
    1. “Every day for years, Trollope reported in his ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: ‘Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.’” (Acocella)
  3. Practice, practice, practice.
  4. Read good writers. Writing is learned by imitation. Find model writers, read them, and imitate them.
    1. “[The writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.” (Dillard, 68)
    2. “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or craft…. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud.” (Zinsser, 238)
    3. “We should accustom the mind to keep the best company by introducing it only to the best books.” (Sydney Smith)
    4. “To learn to write one must learn both a considerable portion of what has been written and how it was written.”
      (Berry, Life is a Miracle, 71)
  5. Ask friends to read and critique your writing. Be sure to tell them you want the truth.

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Where should I write?

  1. Write where you are most productive (it is not always the place you think).
    1. Experiment with various locations. Wendell Berry writes in front of a large window; Wallace Stephens and Osip Mandelstam composed poetry on the horseback; Annie Dillard, on the other hand, says “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” (Dillard, 26)
    2. Regarding computers:
      1. Writing at the computer is often an invitation to distraction, unless you don’t have internet access. Paper and pencil are old favorites that many writers still use today. If you must use a computer, turn off your email and other distractions.
      2. “A computer, I am told, offers a kind of help that you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you write faster, easier, and more. For a while, it seemed to me that every university professor I met told me this. Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.” (Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, 74)

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What should I write?

  1. Write about what you know and love, like hobbies or work. Your love of the subject will come out and make it interesting.
    1. “Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” (Dillard, 67-68)
  2. “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all your possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses. Much of those years’ reading will feed the work…. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” (Dillard, 71)

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I’m stuck on a sentence, what should I do?

Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by getting rid of it, or starting the sentence over again. If that doesn’t solve it, move on and come back to it.

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Bibliography

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Appendix 1: Orwell’s Six Rules of Clear English

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Taken from George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

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Appendix 2: Mark Twain’s Rules of Story Writing

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Adapted from Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895).

[ Back to the Table of Contents ]

Printable PDF

For those who want an easy-to-print PDF, here you go.

(Thanks to Danny Frese for making it!)

Revisions

2007-02-17: Added Berry’s advice about reading under “How do I get better at writing?”

2007-02-13: Added Trollope’s advice under “How do I get better at writing?”

2007-01-22: Added Appendix 2 (“Mark Twain’s Rules of Story Writing”)

2007-01-09: Added i.e./e.g. under “Usage”

2010-08-13: Added PDF

[ Back to the Table of Contents ]

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Responses

  1. JC says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 6:34 am (#)

    Josh,
    This is valuable. Thank you very much for the post!

  2. rosemary says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 8:45 am (#)

    I found your post through “Between Two Worlds.” I printed this because it is so helpful. Thank you very much for sharing your insights with us.

  3. jtp says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 9:24 am (#)

    Some good thoughts here. Let me add one — Always check your homonyms. “Principals” should be “principles” throughout. There is a big difference!

  4. Josh Sowin says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 11:19 am (#)

    Good catch jtp. Maybe I should add “Don’t be your only editor.”

  5. Tony Reinke says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 3:23 pm (#)

    Josh there is such a strong pressure to abandon Zinsser and Strunk/White. I’m reading “Sin and Syntax” and “Spunk and Bite” both are a direct attack upon E.B. White’s archaic “whitewashed tomb” style. It’s refreshing to see people like yourself not pushed away from these older (and much better) resources. Thank you for encouraging clarity! The message of the Cross deserves clarity.

    Tony

  6. Josh Sowin says:

    January 9th, 2007 at 3:38 pm (#)

    Tony,

    Thanks for your comments. It’s a shame there is pressure to abandon Zinsser and Strunk/White. I’m surprised that there can even be an attack against clear writing — what do they argue for, obfuscating the subject by putting superfluous adjectives and phrases everywhere? Instead of saying “Mark, look at the tree — it’s beautiful” do they want “Whoa, dude, Mark, get a load of that SWEET leafy tree that I’m currently looking at, it’s like totally awesome, you know what I mean!?”?

    Josh

  7. Arthur Plotnik says:

    January 15th, 2007 at 4:49 pm (#)

    Tony (and cc to Josh)—I hope that as you read further in SPUNK & BITE (I’m the author) you’ll see that the last thing it does is turn its back on Strunk & White’s principles of clarity and concision. These, along with Zinsser’s principles, cannot be beat. I take a cold shower in them myself every few weeks when I sense that my prose groweth skanky.

    My theme is simply that today’s insanely competitive environment calls for something more than basic principles. To stand out from the crowd often takes stylistic leaps and risks that some of Strunk and White’s style rules tend to inhibit—even though E. B. White himself went beyond them. SPUNK & BITE prompts writers to attempt certain leaps that have proved successful in contemporary writing.

    Anyway, this site and its commentaries are, how shall I say?–if not totally awesome, concussively engaging.

  8. Phil McClure says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 12:36 pm (#)

    # Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter. Don’t add words for “style.”

    1. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” (Strunk and White, 23)

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?

  9. Phil McClure says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 12:47 pm (#)

    Bah! Comment box doesn’t allow markup…

    What I meant to write was:

    “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.” (Strunk and White, 23)

    with the:

    “or the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

    struck through, as it is clearly extraneous.

    Grammar nazis are subject to their own rules as much as the rest of us. :)

  10. Josh Sowin says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 12:52 pm (#)

    Phil,

    I thought that might be what you were referring to but was not sure. Personally I find their example helpful, so I would not label it as “unnecessary.” Overly simple writing can be bad, too!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Josh

  11. Liz Muir says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 2:23 pm (#)

    This is great! I especially loved the Mark Twain rules. Did you adapt them yourself? The Fenimore Cooper essay is one of my favorites, especially if you’ve been victim of Cooper’s writing. :D

    Yeah, I’m definitely sharing this with my writing group.

  12. Joe Smithson says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 2:42 pm (#)

    Mark Twain himself debunked his own rules late in life, calling them “Rubbish. Just write as clearly and sincerely as you can, edit without mercy, then edit some more.”

    Rules. Bah. They’re for writing students and perpetual workshop participants.

  13. Josh Sowin says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 2:59 pm (#)

    Liz: I did adapt them myself, but I only did light editing.

    Joe: That’s interesting. Do you have a source for your Twain quote? I’d be interested in adding it to my Appendix on Twain’s rules if I can verify it.

  14. Alex says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 4:17 pm (#)

    I try to improve my writing skills all the time and keep an eye on articles published online. This one definitely stands out. Travel writing – never thought of that, will think over at the weekend.

  15. Quang says:

    February 9th, 2007 at 5:45 pm (#)

    Thanks for compiling this great reference. Wow, and Thanks. =]

  16. p b and j ason says:

    February 10th, 2007 at 5:46 am (#)

    What a very cool thing to stumble upon! THANKS, Josh, for taking the time to compile and share this. It’s just what I was looking for/hoping for/REALLY needing for a kick. Good stuff in the comments too!

    Cheers,

    Jason

  17. Andrew Wise says:

    February 12th, 2007 at 5:42 am (#)

    I’m going to attempt utilizing most of this into my own writing. Very nice!

    Take Care,
    Andrew Wise

  18. Antonio Gould says:

    April 6th, 2007 at 7:01 pm (#)

    Fantastic stuff – this has helped me already!

    Antonio

  19. Richard Beer says:

    June 19th, 2007 at 8:00 am (#)

    Josh, this is a really useful page with some very sound advice. It’s good to see it collated in one place like this.

    I’m a copywriter by trade and, although I started out as a good writer (I like to think), being a good copywriter is something completely different, for a lot of the reasons you’ve mentioned above.

    Nothing drives one to brevity more than having to communicate a message to a potential customer in the split second their eye passes over your email/banner/webpage etc. Commercial writing is a fantastic learning curve in writing to be read rather than writing to indulge oneself.

    Perhaps you need another section on Copywriting? I plan to be a insanely successful author myself one day, and I feel my lessons learned whilst copywriting will have made me an immeasurably better writer than I would otherwise have been.

  20. johno says:

    October 8th, 2007 at 10:39 am (#)

    What a great article. This one’s being sent to the printer for future reference.

  21. Jesse Hines says:

    November 27th, 2007 at 3:42 pm (#)

    Excellent guide. Especially like the quotes by Lewis and Orwell:

    “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” (George Orwell)

    “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” (C. S. Lewis)

    Also, Orwell’s admonition to not use cliches, as they evidence lazy writing and thinking–love it.

    http://vigorouswriting.blogspot.com

  22. gaile says:

    January 31st, 2008 at 4:10 am (#)

    hey thank you for sharing, awesome!

  23. Chris A says:

    February 2nd, 2008 at 8:30 am (#)

    I am doing a literary blog and this will help in that quest to have more readers… Thanks to this.

  24. Hrishikesh says:

    February 4th, 2008 at 11:56 am (#)

    Two Words – Thank You.

  25. Liuzhou Laowai says:

    April 21st, 2008 at 10:00 am (#)

    “Personal and causal” Are you sure?

    “Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter.” I don’t thing you need the “and” here. “Write simply without clutter.”

    Apart from that, I’m just glad Shakespeare and Joyce etc never read your rules.

  26. Bonnie says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 2:40 pm (#)

    I wondered about the “personal and causal, too.” Can you explain that?

  27. Josh Sowin says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 3:38 pm (#)

    Bonnie,

    I can’t find that in the article. I think I might have edited it out after I published it. If it’s still in there, please copy the whole context so I can find it. Thanks!

  28. Bonnie says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 7:41 pm (#)

    Josh — It’s in the “before you start writing” section:

    Before You Start Writing
    Before you start writing an article, ask the following questions:
    1. How will I address the reader?
    (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
    2. What pronoun and tense will I use?
    (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and causal?)

  29. Josh Sowin says:

    May 28th, 2008 at 9:14 am (#)

    Ah, there it is. Thanks for finding that for me.

    By “personal and casual” I mean writing with warmth and humor in a casual way. It is writing like speaking. Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. Here’s a quote as an example:

    “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

    Perhaps not the best example, but it was handy.

  30. Jeff Jensen says:

    July 9th, 2008 at 9:57 pm (#)

    Thanks for posting this! I will be using it really, very much, quite, a lot (or should I just say “often).

  31. Person says:

    November 28th, 2008 at 8:01 pm (#)

    Annie Dillard wrote An American Childhood, not This American Life (a radio show).

    [Thanks, I've fixed it.]

  32. B. Peterson says:

    January 6th, 2009 at 11:55 pm (#)

    January 6, 2009: I was searching for a phrase that I was sure was written by E. B. White and came across your fascinating article. I simply had to print it for reference when I finally get around to writing that book–in my twilight years.

    What stopped my efforts many years ago was reading words that read: “if you have a poor memory you cannot be… a writer…” Since now these words are ringing in my ears again I wonder from which book it came? Does any one out there have any ideas?

  33. Daniel Faintuch says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 2:49 pm (#)

    Amazing post.
    Thanks!

  34. JP says:

    November 6th, 2009 at 1:52 am (#)

    Great post! There’s a lot of information here that I can definitely use. Been getting writing jobs and this will help me a lot.

  35. nadeem says:

    December 23rd, 2009 at 12:20 pm (#)

    Josh
    Thank you very much for this extraordinary post. I am a writer and found it so helpful. Can you give me your email? I want to send you one article of mine and want to know your thoughts on that. In my mail I can write that why I want your help in the first place.

    Thanks again
    nadeem

  36. Chris P says:

    February 24th, 2010 at 5:12 pm (#)

    I found this post through the Gospel Coalition website.

    Three things:

    1. Kudos.
    2. Thank you.
    3. Looking forward to reading more!

    & one question:

    Any posts/advice for a freelance writer?

    Thanks, Joshua.

  37. Charlie Xu says:

    April 14th, 2010 at 9:43 pm (#)

    Awesome! Thanks a lot!

  38. Charlie Xu says:

    April 14th, 2010 at 9:44 pm (#)

    I looked everywhere for something good on writing and nowhere did I find something better.

  39. Sonia N. Cabaloa says:

    June 26th, 2010 at 6:58 am (#)

    I love reading these. It’s really a big help to me being an English teacher. Looking forward to more updated techninques.

    thank you…

  40. Geoff Eagar says:

    July 19th, 2010 at 6:03 pm (#)

    Hi Josh,

    Great stuff.

    General principles point 1 concludes:

    “usually comes out more natural”

    Natural here is an adverb and should read naturally.

    Geoff.

  41. dfrese says:

    August 13th, 2010 at 2:42 pm (#)

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks for posting this; it is an excellent resource. Perhaps you could post a .pdf version to make it more download-friendly?

    DAF

  42. Linatul Mabruroh says:

    August 15th, 2010 at 9:25 pm (#)

    That is very important to read. thanks for your post.

  43. marciano guerrero says:

    August 17th, 2010 at 10:27 am (#)

    This posting is a great service to the writing community. It seems that we can use, at one time or another, many of the points listed above. Thanks for compiling the list–a labor of love, I bet.

  44. Writing Student says:

    September 25th, 2010 at 1:00 pm (#)

    Thank you for such helpful information. Advice on making only one point in every piece of writing is particularly fresh and useful to me, I tend to “flood” my articles with too many points at once.

  45. Devall Krem says:

    December 11th, 2010 at 4:01 am (#)

    If serializing is prioritized over habits then won’t serialized project approach cause you to constantly work on the next group project? As project time is impossible to calculate you will eventually have to breach particular habit times.

  46. Lunch Lady says:

    February 22nd, 2011 at 5:00 pm (#)

    Thank you so much for this, very helpful! I will be sure to use it as a guide for future writing.

  47. Fazeera Latiff says:

    March 11th, 2011 at 5:34 am (#)

    Some of the items that I read were advise that I give to my students. As for the rest, God bless you. This article is a blessing in disguise. Thank you very much. You were a great help.

  48. John Bird says:

    June 8th, 2011 at 10:19 am (#)

    Love the printable version. I had to cut, paste, and re-format a few years ago when I printed this. I’ve read it so much since then that I need a new copy. And, during those years, I’ve bought and read most of the books you quote from. Thanks again!

  49. david jamieson says:

    December 13th, 2011 at 3:33 pm (#)

    Mostly dreadful advice. Sanctimonious, arrogant and philistine; but then unsolicited advice usually is. Especially obnoxious are the pleas for simple language. Making counter intuitive points does not make you clever – sometimes big words are appropriate, even fun.

    Mark Twain is a boor and Orwell a simpleton.

  50. Josh S says:

    December 13th, 2011 at 6:05 pm (#)

    @David: I started reading your comment but I found it boorish and sanctimonious so I decided to reply instead.

  51. Sofi says:

    June 5th, 2012 at 5:44 pm (#)

    This information is really helpful. I have noticed several of the negative traits described here in my writing, and with this advice, I hope to improve my writing. I always find something that I dislike in my writing, but I can never determine what. One thing I really liked are the quotes. Thanks for the great advice!

  52. Brent R Jones says:

    October 4th, 2012 at 5:17 am (#)

    What not to do:
    1. Try to write like someone else: Twain, Hemmingway, Homer, J.F. Cooper.
    2. Write for someone else. How else can you make money?
    3. Write with condescension and cold detachment.
    4. Embellish and obfuscate.
    5. Be obtuse and contradictory.
    6. Big words show you are a big person.
    7. Write as if you will live forever. That is the true purpose or all writing.
    8. Never respect words, use them as your servants.
    9. Generalize about people; don’t pick on individuals.
    10. Metaphors can anchor your prose, making it soar like an eagle.

  53. limpette says:

    December 12th, 2012 at 6:03 pm (#)

    This a well-put-together outline of what makes a good writer. I will definitely incorporate these suggestions in my daily free-writings.

  54. Leo de Guzman says:

    January 22nd, 2013 at 10:51 pm (#)

    Interesting! Thanks for this.

  55. Anne Green says:

    February 2nd, 2013 at 11:26 pm (#)

    Great summary of some expert advice. Especially relate to “find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment”. Oh, and Trollope’s schedule … formidable. I was referred to your site by the examiner of my recent creative writing thesis … experts are pointing to you as a good reference!

  56. surfer says:

    February 16th, 2013 at 12:47 am (#)

    I’m an admirer of both William Zinsser and E. B. White. Moreover, I admire the way you have summed up writing instructions by two great teachers of how to write correct English. English is my second language, first being Urdu. Thanks to Zinsser and White who have helped me write columns and articles not only for the local English newspapers but also contribute to forums on the Internet.

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