These are the rules I try to apply when I write, with varied success. I have E. B. White and my freshman English prof at the University of Kentucky, Dr. George Cutler, to thank for them. Do with them as you will.
1. Avoid expressing things in ways that distract the reader from the writing. Try to keep your ego out of the way. If you have something worth saying, your material will take care of itself. Remember that you are initiating a dance with the reader, who is just as important to the performance as you. Strive for clarity. Make the reader comfortable.
2. Eschew overly-ornate verbiage. If you have to search for words, it will be obvious to your readers that you have overreached. If such language comes naturally, try not to sound like an egghead.
3. All writing deserves an outline, however brief, even if it is only in your head. Give some thought to how you will express your ideas. Know your references, and be careful not to read into them what you would prefer them to say.
4. Don’t overwrite. Direct descriptions are best, if they are adequate for the job. “High as a kite” can refer to a fly ball, one’s spirits, or one’s reaction to spirits, among many other things. Learn about similes and metaphor, then use them with great care. They can illuminate writing, but only if used sparingly.
The sun rises in a cosmic explosion, spreading vivid fire across the lightening firmament, as Apollo’s chariot commences its journey toward the zenith above the anchorage that marks the Sino-Burmese border.
“The sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay.”
5. Revise and rewrite, then do it again. Your readers’ time is their most valuable commodity, and they are spending it on your work. You owe them the best you can produce. All good writers revise. “Good enough” is not sufficient.
6. Keep your language simple. Fancy prose is hard to read. Save flowery language for poetry. Avoid words like “prose” as affectations, unless your discussion requires them. “His writing sings of the sea” is more effective than “his prose sings of the sea.” If possible, use language that any reader will understand. It’s the friendly thing to do.
7. Never make statements that you can’t back up. One assertion that will not withstand scrutiny can destroy your credibility with all but the least critical (and most gullible) readers. It is safest to assume that the readers know at least as much as you about the subject.
8. Stay away from weak words like “very,” “rather,” “funny,” “pretty” and their kin. They make your writing wimpy, and rarely tell the readers much that they need to know. Which example best tells you about George’s condition?
George was pretty sick. He had felt rather ill the previous evening, and by 2:00 AM he was feeling very bad.
George was sick. He had felt ill the previous evening, and by 2:00 AM he was violently nauseated.
[This goes double for email headers. I can’t tell you how long it has been since I actually read an email with “this is funny” in the header.]
9. Don’t be cute. You must be a communicator first, a comedian second. “Open up a can of whoopass” is amusing in conversation (once), but has no place in any but the most informal writing. Even informally, try to use expressions that are new (if not original), and only if your piece is frankly for the amusement of the reader and yourself.
10. Non-standard spelling interrupts the flow of your writing while the readers do double-takes. The same is true of misspellings. Both mark you as a litewate.
11. Use explanatory words sparingly. Write “Tom retorted,” instead of “Tom said, angrily.” If motivation isn’t clear from the context, make it so. Words that specifically describe a circumstance — “Tom retorted, haltingly” — can be exceptions, but be careful.
12. As a rule, words that are not used in speech should not be used in writing. You can easily create your own adverbs by adding “ly” to any adjective or participle. Please don’t. Similarly, you should not dress up words like much and over by adding “ly.” It’s poor writing, and it sounds silly.
13. “Quotes” are for “quotations,” not for “emphasis,” or for “alerting” people to how “clever” you are. “Read my lips: no new taxes!” is a quotation. The others are not.
14. If you feel you must show emphasis, use italics. Better yet, allow the readers to figure out what is important for themselves. Don’t insult their intelligence.
15. Fancy words will annoy your dancing partners all the way to the dictionary — if they bother. Once again: if you wouldn’t use a word or phrase in ordinary speech, you probably shouldn’t use it in your writing. Clarity, clarity, clarity. (This should not in any way be construed as implying that all ordinary speech is acceptable in writing.)
16. Avoid dialect unless you know it well. If done badly, it will sound silly to those who know. At worst, it may make you seem ethnically prejudiced.
17. When you begin to have trouble with a sentence, don’t try to salvage it. Throw it away and rewrite. Many times you will find that the idea can be better expressed by a couple of shorter sentences.
Long, complicated sentences that seem to go on forever in a style reminiscent of Steinbeck (who wrote Grapes of Wrath), are difficult to handle, no matter how correct they may be grammatically, unless we are masters of descriptive language as Steinbeck was. Even if that is the case, most of us would do well to resort to shorter sentences anyway, since our readers may be less skilled at deciphering such garbage than we are, and well might they be.
Hemingway wrote short, declarative sentences. Emulating his style could pay off. Certainly it will make your readers happier.
18. Avoid opinions unless you are writing an opinion piece or editorial. Otherwise they intrude. That’s my opinion, anyway.
19. Jargon, acronyms and abbreviations are troublemakers. You cannot be sure that their meanings will be clear to all your readers. Abbreviations and acronyms can work if they are introduced along with their meanings:
The International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) announced today that it was….
Better known examples (USN, CBS, NASA) may not require this treatment. When in doubt, clarify, clarify, clarify.
20. Foreign words and phrases distract and confuse readers, and make it seem that you are talking down to them, styling yourself a soi-disant intellectual. Use them seldom, if at all.
21. Slang is not universal, and thus lends itself poorly to the written word. Words and expressions used in conversation change much faster than those used in writing. This is partly due to the liquidity of language, but also to the fact that most writers prefer their writing to be understandable over the long run. “I am so not happy with you,” when inflected orally, is at least clear. When written, it is clumsy. It is also poor syntax. “Hood” (as in neighborhood) is a good example of a slang word that will likely not survive, and thus be unclear to readers in a few years. If nothing else, using slang is sure to date your writing. You can do better.
22. Stick with universally accepted forms. Affectations such as e.e. cummings’ avoidance of capitals and James Joyce’s streams of consciousness are risky, outside of writing class exercises. Remember that cummings and Joyce are admired by many, but unread by billions.
23. Always consider your readers’ comfort and convenience, but write for yourself. When you try to write what you think your readers want to hear, you lose spontaneity and flirt with disaster. If you doubt that, listen attentively to any political speech.
I was asked to include some guidelines to punctuation. The best that I know of was written by William Strunk in 1908. You can find it HERE. Memorize it, and your punctuation worries are over.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!