Good writing is: Pure, Clear and Precise. Pure means that the writing is in just correct English, without anything else added. Pure writing doesn’t include: foreign language words, unnecessary technical words, old, unused words and slangs.
Clear means writing that uses normal, simple words and does everything possible to avoid confusion. Words are not used that might be misunderstood to mean something else. Clear writing also does not show off or use complicated terms that no one understands.
Precise means writing that intends to have the reader completely understand what is being communicated with as few words as possible.
Precise writing has the goal of getting something immediately understood by the reader. It is writing that doesn’t use long, boring sentences. It doesn’t overuse words. However, it is not so short as to be baffling.
The best writers
The best writers have something they want to say, and they want the reader to actually get it. It is not a sign of intelligence to use big words and long sentences. Sometimes, it’s a sign of being a jerk.
There is a word to describe someone who shows off, is dull and highly academic: Pedant. That’s probably the most complicated word in this book. I only mention it so that you know how to call someone who writes like they have mothballs stuck in their mind, who writes to show off and who is incredibly wordy to the point of being totally uninteresting.
Just because someone uses big words does not mean they are smart. Don’t worry about looking dumb by writing simply. Great writers write simply. I have a large vocabulary – larger than most people. But I go out of my way to choose simpler words in my writing.
Paula LaRocque, a teacher who wrote a well-known (and excellent) book on writing, used to have her students write as much as they could in 10 minutes. Just… go! Because of the time pressure, she found that the writers all used simple words. But what surprised her even more was that the writing was excellent!
It was only when the students tried to “write well” that their writing became boring and dense.
Also, realize people are not as educated as they once were. It’s important to understand that no matter how smart you are, the majority of the population is actually very poorly educated. And I include some college-educated people in this statement as well. I remember being in a college writing course where I was surprised at the lack of education of fellow students.
If you’re involved in any form of teaching, you will agree: what was acceptable in the past as an elementary school education is now taught in college. If you don’t believe me, search online for “8thgrade tests from the 1800s.” The level of education of even poor country kids was better than what “smart” city kids get these days.
You will lose any reader if you try to get fancy.
Don’t write to seem smart. Write to get your point across. Generally, a good rule is to keep your words at the vocabulary level of a 15-year-old and you’ll be safe.
Write to be understood. Write with simple words.
Get your words right
There is a bizarre idea in education that one “figures out the meaning of a word by its context.” There are many smart teachers who give this terrible advice. This thinking leads to major errors.
Look at the following sentence:
He was so noisome. We hated him being around us.
What do you think the word “noisome” means? Looking at the context and thinking about it a bit, you might think that “noisome” means “noisy.”
So then you decide to sound cool, and you write something like this:
The neighbors were upset because I was noisome.
You just got trapped by the “figure the word out by its context.” You just wrote that you smell terrible. Noisome means smelly! These kinds of mistakes happen quite often.
Do a lot with a little
A good writer packs a punch, writing with as few words as possible, to get the most information to the reader in the shortest sentence possible.
Look at the difference in these two sentences:
She was so incredibly stunning, so beautiful and wonderful to look at that all men were crazy about her and would constantly bother her. When she would go out, men were constantly asking for her number and she would just ignore them.
Here is the same idea, but shorter, with more punch:
Her beauty drove men crazy. When she went out, men would ask for her number, only to be ignored.
Look at this boring sentence:
Bill went scuba diving in Aruba last January, but he wasn’t able to see all the sights that he wanted to, so instead he went back in March to dive more to see what he had missed, and was able to complete all of his diving satisfactorily.
Grammatically, it’s fine. But what a completely boring sentence! I can’t teach this because it’s common sense. When you write something, look to how you can remove anything that’s not necessary. It’s a discipline that is learned.
Here’s the same sentence, re-written:
Bill went scuba diving in Aruba last January but missed some areas, so he went back in March and completed all of his dives.
Start with the main idea first
Generally, write your sentences starting with the main idea. Then add more information to your first sentence.
France in the summer is a beautiful place to visit. The countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills, pleasant fields, lazy rivers and carefree living. Best of all, you’ll enjoy incredible food and wine, as you journey through a country that values quality of life over anything else.
There is another style of writing, where you end with the main idea:
A beautiful countryside with rolling hills, pleasant fields, lazy rivers and carefree living, where one enjoys incredible food and wine while journeying through a country that values quality of life over anything else. France in the summer is a beautiful place to visit.
Do you see the difference? The first example is simply easier to follow. The second style is fine, but better used in creative or informal writing. In normal everyday writing, it’s hard to follow.
A tip to give your writing laser focus
Ask yourself this question when starting out a writing assignment.
- What is the piece of writing about?
- What is this piece of writing really about?
- This book is about how to become a better writer.
- This book is about how to avoid common mistakes in everyday writing so you can be successful .
The first question is weak and general. The second question gets down to specifics. It’s a useful tool that you can try yourself.
Subheads – the boldface introductions to paragraphs like you see in this book – are used because they work. In a fast-paced world, readers skim rapidly through most writing, scanning the subheads. Make them informative on their own, so the reader can quickly pick up what’s being discussed just from the subhead.
Writing longer pieces
Thinking logically is key in all writing.
It starts with a sentence, itself a complete thought. Sentences are put into paragraphs, which are themselves bigger thoughts. Then a longer piece of writing, such as an essay, is one really big thought.
A common practice for longer pieces is to state the overall idea that you’re going to discuss in the first paragraph, and then expand on it as you go further down. It’s tidy and neat. Logical. You don’t ramble on and on, putting in “oh, and there’s this other thing I meant to say” halfway through the document. It shows a scattered, disorganized mind.
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A similar and often-used writing style is called the “inverted pyramid.” This style is where you get all the key pieces of information in the first paragraph, and then the less important points further down. This is the style used by reporters and is useful in writing things like newspaper articles.
Vary your sentence length.
Don’t let all of your sentences be the same length. A good sentence length is 15-20 words long. However, you should use both longer sentences and shorter sentences to create a rhythm in your writing.
This part sounds complicated, but it’s common sense.
Research show that children do better learning music at a young age. For example a 15% increase in IQ.
Look at that last sentence. It’s a fragment – something just sitting there, not joined to anything. It’s confusing. Instead, just restructure your sentence to make it clearer:
Research shows that children do better in life when they learn music at a young age. For example, one study showed a 15% increase in IQ for children who studied music at a young age versus those who studied no music at all.
One error I see quite a lot is weird sentences that just kind of babble, just using a comma:
She is really nice, she is always doing good things for the poor. He wrote the book, he found himself wildly successful.
What’s happening is that there are two “mini-sentences” making up the sentence (these “minisentences” are called independent clauses). When you’re joining parts of a sentence like this, use words such as: and, but, for, yet, nor, so, after, although, before, unless, as, because, even though, if, since, until, when, while, however, moreover, on the other hand, nevertheless, instead, also, therefore, consequently, otherwise, and
as a result.
She is really nice, and as a result, is always doing good things for the poor. He wrote the book, and consequently, found himself wildly successful.
You can also use a semi-colon (;), which is really a way to join two sentences; it’s very useful.
Verbs have “voice.” a fancy word that means that the verb shows whether the subject is giving or receiving action.
Active voice verbs show giving action, passive voice verbs show receiving action.
- Tom hit the ball
- She kicked the wall
- The car damaged the bike.
- The ball was hit.
- The wall was kicked.
- The bike was damaged.
You don’t even need to know grammar to understand passive versus active voice. You can “feel” it in the writing. Get the idea of something doing something, and you’ve understood active voice.
You can easily change a sentence to active voice:
- The book was written by Mary Jones.
- Mary Jones wrote the book.
Active words make the writing come alive. It’s a secret to powerful writing. Marketers use it to sell. And you can use it to make your writing livelier and clearer.
Now, some people love to use passive voice to disguise something that’s their fault:
“The bridge was blown up,” said the general.
No one is taking responsibility for the bridge being blown up – especially that general. (You can, of course, use this trick yourself!)
Don’t overuse prepositions. In fact, try to keep them to a minimum. You can sometimes remove them completely. Look at the following sentence:
The car was driving at an incredibly fast pace.
Well, just get rid of the preposition and tighten up the sentence:
The car was driving incredibly fast.
Use bullet points
Bullet points are a valuable tool to create effective, clear writing. Look at this paragraph:
It’s simple to have satisfied customers. You only need to create a great product, deliver great service, communicate regularly, and ask customers for advice on how to improve.
It’s not a very easy sentence to read. So, you could use bullet points to make it clearer.
- It’s simple to have satisfied customers. You only need to:
- create a great product,
- deliver great service,
- communicate regularly and
- ask for advice on how to improve.
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when writing bullet points:
- Keep them simple and uncluttered. Don’t use sub-bullet points and sub-categories.
- Keep them each roughly the same length as the rest, so that they are neat and orderly.
- Start them each with the same part of speech. Don’t, for example, start one with a verb and then use a noun to start the next one.
Also, good bullet points don’t each need to be a complete sentence, but they should be consistent with each other. In other words, make each bullet point a complete sentence, or make each one an incomplete sentence – but at least make them all the same way.
There is a matter of style when it comes to bullet points, so not everything has to be perfect. Just look at the bullet points to see if they are neat, uncluttered and logical.
Give it a night. And read it aloud.
If you’re not under a deadline, a good idea is put aside what you’ve written, and read it with fresh eyes the next day. Another tip is one that many professional business writers do: they read the text aloud to themselves. It’s often amazing how a mistake will pop-out when text is read aloud, which is never caught when reading silently.
How to write
Years ago, when I was first starting in my career, I had a writing assignment from my boss. I was embarrassed to ask “what do I write?” His answer? Just start and write what you would normally say to someone.
It’s good advice. Just start. Write as if you’re talking to the person being written to, and the words will start to flow. Then, go back and polish things up to make it all look good.
The key is start writing. By writing, you develop your style. And write a lot.
Joseph Devlin, who wrote a masterpiece in 1910 on writing, has some wonderful words on the subject of writing. Take them to heart (I’ve edited them a bit for modern language):
“The best way to learn to write is to sit down and write, just as the best way how to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride it. Write first about common things, subjects that are familiar to you.
Never hunt for subjects, there are thousands around you. Describe what you saw yesterday— a fire, a horse, a dog-fight on the street. Imitate the best writers in their style, but not in their exact words. Know what you write about, write about what you know.
To know you must study. The world is an open book…nature is one great book, the pages of which are open to anyone.
Don’t think that a college education is necessary to succeed as a writer. Far from it. Some of college men are dead-heads, useless to the world and to themselves. A man may know so much of everything that he knows little of anything.
If you are poor, that is not a bad thing but an advantage. Poverty is an incentive, not a drawback. Better to be born with a good, working brain in your head than with a silver spoon in your mouth.
Employers are constantly on the lookout for good talkers, those who are able to attract the public and convince others by the force of their language.
It is possible for everyone to become a correct speaker if he persists and take a little care. Listen to the best speakers and note carefully the words which impress you most.”
There’s a bit of an art to writing well. It comes from reading a lot and from practicing a lot. You’ll develop your style over time, but remember to keep the basics in there. Practice good writing and it will help you in life. It will help you in telling stories and facts, and to think more logically.