5 Simple Rules for Better Writing

Writing is my business. I write almost every day, and practice, they say, makes perfect. I’m far from perfect, but I’d like to think I’m better than the average bear. So in the holiday spirit, I offer five simple rules I follow in hope they’ll help you write better.

1. Avoid adverbs

Communicating ideas is hard work and you want the words you use to work as hard as you do. Words that don’t pull their weight are like employees faking it. You fire people like that. You should fire words that don’t help you get your ideas across.

Adverbs, for example, rarely do anything at all. For example, is your new accounting system helpful? I bet it is. Does saying it’s very helpful, or extremely helpful, or fabulously helpful make it any more helpful. No. And I’ll bet that new system is fast, too. Is it blazingly fast? Possibly, but does adding “blazingly” make it faster? Nope. And if you buy that system, will it improve your business processes? I hope so. Will it greatly improve them? I’m sure it will but what does “greatly improve” tell the reader that “improve” doesn’t? Nothing, really, although writing “greatly improve” is superior to “better improve,” which is truly awful. All these adverbs are just faking it. Get rid of them. 

2. While you’re at it, avoid adjectives

Recently, a Bloom Group client wrote a draft describing something as a “huge success.” I suppose she thought calling it a “success” would fail to communicate just how successful it really was. It was “huge”! Sorry. “Huge” modifies success in an empty fashion. Success is good. It’s great, as good as it gets. Adding an adjective can’t make it better, so I respectfully deleted it.

In business writing, authors need adjectives like fish need bicycles.     

3. Use short sentences

There is something called the simple declarative sentence. It begins with a noun, follows with a verb, and ends with an object. Example: Jack (noun) eats (verb) cheese (object). The simple declarative sentence is the gold standard for good writing. Ninety percent of your sentences should be simple declarative sentences. (Okay, I made that up. I have no idea what the percentage should be, but it should be high.) Simple declarative sentences are easier to read and understand than long, complex ones freighted with clauses. Easy is what you want if your intent is to communicate. Write simply, and always use as few words as possible to get your idea across.

4. Vary sentence lengths

Yes, short sentences are great. I love them, as you may have noticed. At the same time, an article made up solely of short sentences will grow tedious and lull your reader to sleep, which is why pop songs have bridges – to vary the tempo and add interest. Short sentences move the reader along; long sentences provide a change of pace and keep your reader interested. Think of your long sentences like bridges in pop songs. Use them for punctuation. An entire article composed of short sentences is punk rock; one with only long sentences is a dirge. You want pop. Pop sells.

5. Read your article aloud to yourself

When most people read, they have a voice in their heads reciting what they’re reading. You want that internal recitation to be as smooth and tuneful as possible. Bad writing generates static inside the reader’s brain that causes him to stop. It’s unpleasant. How can you tell if your writing is creating static? Read it to yourself, aloud. If it doesn’t sound right to your ears, it won’t sound right to anyone else’s. Change anything that sounds stilted or off-key.

By the way, most everything I’ve just said Mark Twain said much better. You can find some of Twain’s rules for good writing here.

May the New Year bring you better and happier writing.

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