12 rules that will help you write better

All writers have a set of rules or, more precisely, broad ideas that guide them in their craft. You could also characterize these rules as pet peeves, good ideas they picked up somewhere and tricks that work for them.

I presented my list recently at a Chamber of Commerce gathering of business people who were hungry for any information that would make writing easier. As I told my audience, another writer will have a different set. I also said that I will never say writing is easy, but these tips, and others, can help settle you before you sit in front of the computer screen. They work to create a path – a dim path perhaps, but a trail to follow through the forest – that will lead you to your goal.

Here are my 12 rules.

1. Mostly short sentences and cut useless words
This is from my background as a newspaper reporter. We had to make stories easy to understand, quickly. I can write a 60-word sentence that makes sense but it takes longer to write and to read than two or three shorter sentences. Eliminating extra words, or those that don’t add meaning, occurs when you re-read your work and edit yourself.

2. No clichés
I harped on this rule while teaching classes of college first-year students. Please, instead of writing “He took the bull by the horns,” instead say, “He took charge.” Cliches often convey shorthand meaning but in most situations your readers are looking for clean, clear wording that describes a situation or a person.

3. Triple-check spelling of names and facts
This is another news habit that serves every writer well. The only way I could be satisfied that I would almost never incorrectly report a fact would be to check each one three times. Names: look them up in a database that you trust and literally go over them letter by letter. Three times. It’s the same with other facts. If you say a house is 3,000 square feet, make sure you check it against your notes or, better still, an official document. If you check it just twice, some mistakes will slip through. I know from experience. And the problem with mistakes is that some readers will focus on the error and ignore the good information you are providing.

4. Read it out loud
After you have written your article and gone over it a couple of times to look for words to cut and descriptions that could be improved, read it out loud to yourself. You will often hear sentences that are unclear or don’t make sense. It’s weird, but some things you just won’t see when you read it silently. I also find things to change when I print out my writing and read it on paper. You see it differently in different media, which helps you make the final product as readable as possible.

5. Have someone else read it before you hit send
Sometimes this is painful, especially when the reader (especially when it’s your spouse) has ideas that you don’t want to hear. You just want someone to check for spelling and punctuation, and to make sure everything makes sense. Thank your reader, make the necessary corrections, and ignore the rest.

6. Punctuation. Keep it simple, and if you don’t know, look it up
I’m talking here about the semicolon. You see it sprinkled inappropriately all across the Internet. If you aren’t sure, use a period. Go easy on commas, too. Reading out loud is helpful with commas. If you hear yourself pause, a comma is OK. It’s better to leave it out than to insert one in the wrong place.

7. Don’t repeat yourself without reason
When we start a writing project – all of us – we throw our ideas onto the screen. That’s good, as long as we go back and re-read to edit and cull until we have just what we need for the reader to understand our idea. Most of the time, saying something once is all your reader needs. Saying it twice doesn’t make things more clear. It makes them boring.

8. For impact, use words that are one or two syllables when you can
I think I first learned this from a New York Times article: The English language is most powerful in one-syllable doses. Love, life, death, kiss. It is obvious that good writing often includes words of more than one or two syllables, but when you are editing your first draft, look for long words and decide if a shorter word might help you better connect with your readers.

9. Harold Ross said this: If you can’t be funny, be interesting
Ross was the founding editor of The New Yorker and he thought of the magazine as a vehicle for humor. But he knew that not everyone is good at writing in a humorous way. So if you’re not funny, don’t force it.

10. If it isn’t funny or interesting, keep it short and factual
Sometimes you want to convey information that is important or useful. Business websites, especially, contain information that visitors need to know. Write it in a straightforward, clear manner and you’ll be OK.

11. For blogs, tell a story. Start and end with an anecdote, if possible, or circle back to the beginning.

When you write a blog for your business website, you are demonstrating your expertise and telling the reader why they should hire you instead of someone else. Most of the time, facts aren’t enough. Hook your reader with a compelling story that has a beginning, middle and end.

12. Stuff you print for your company should be as close to perfect as possible. Blogs should be readable, but don’t obsess.

In other words, choose what to obsess about. The copy on your business website demonstrates your expertise. Be careful and precise with it. For most readers a blog can be more conversational, less precise. Although your punctuation and grammar should be correct, you can be a touch more chatty if that’s your style.

Whenever I teach a writing course to college students, a handful always tell me they can’t write. Then I tell them I never want t hear them say that again. By the end of the course, I promise them, they will consider themselves writers. At least, they will have the confidence to write a college-level essay and after they graduate, to express themselves in writing in a manner that others will easily understand.

All semester long we work on writing clearly. You can use these 12 points to increase your comfort when you write, and to cleanly communicate your ideas.

About Paul

I grew up in Marin County, California, and moved to Connecticut to join The News-Times, a community newspaper in Danbury where I eventually served as editor for 10 years. I joined Western Connecticut State University and ran the PR and development offices. I now serve as director of community relations and public affairs. I have four kids, all with the same wife, and now run Writing Associates, a consulting service that makes writing easier for my clients.