Tips for Writing Well
There’s no guarantee that your writing, no matter how brilliant, will be recognized by your readers for its best qualities. As with strategic planning or advice, the response to a piece of well-executed work will be highly variable and a reader’s subjectivity can be influenced by anything from their prejudices to the weather, the quality of their morning coffee, the travails of their commute or the result of their last meeting. That’s just when you have one reader. When you’re writing for a wider audience, tastes and preferences differ, contradict and confound.
You can’t write for the reaction, tempting as it may be. Sometimes people will declare your brilliance, sometimes they’ll barely be able to look at you and sometimes, as it just happened to me, the piece you wrote based on an executive’s notes from two months ago will be met with: “This is a good essay, for 2004.” Maybe I shouldn’t have included so many references to Theresa Heinz-Kerry.
If you know your work was well-crafted, you can navigate the praise and criticisms. I like to start with George Orwell’s often cited “six rules for writing,” from his essay “Politics and the English Language,” particularly rule #6:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
My warning is that Orwell fought long for clarity in a world where governments and corporations deliberately obscured language to fool and manipulate the public. He should have won, but he didn’t. So, if you follow all of these rules, you’ll invariably find that some clients like clichés because they are familiar and comfortable, and some like jargon because they find it necessary for their mission – that can all be worked back in later, which is why you shouldn’t look at notes and revisions as any sort of failure. Write what’s right and then compromise where it makes sense.
A couple of items from me, not an Orwell, by far:
- If you’re cutting for clarity and brevity, look at the opening words of your sentences and paragraphs. We all like to clear our throats before speaking, which leads to extraneous words.
- You’ve heard “show don’t tell,” but the craft is “storytelling.” You just have to do the telling well.
- You’ve heard about the virtues of using active voice. I agree. “I think,” is better than “I am thinking.” But look out, also, for the passivity that creeps into prose when we’re trying to hedge our bets. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” is no way to say, “I’m sorry.”
I shouldn’t have more than half as many tips as George, so I’ll stop here.