Ten Writing Rules

Here’s the third (and last!) installment in my end-of-year advice series: A grab-bag of writing rules for every situation.

  1. Break up long paragraphs. Ideally each paragraph should explore a different idea. But there’s nothing to stop you from simply breaking a paragraph in half if it’s starting to get long. Readers prefer shorter paragraphs and are more likely to read them all the way through.
  2. In dialogue, keep identifying the person who’s speaking. It’s frustrating to read a whole page of dialogue, lose track of who’s speaking, and have to waste time backtracking. Since you’re the author, of course you know who said what. But does your reader?
  3. Don’t overuse would. Reserve it for talking about a wish, a repeated action, or something unreal. When you’re talking about the past, use normal past-tense forms of verbs: walked, sang, drank (not would walk, would sing, would drink).
  4. Be careful with he, she, him, and her when you’re writing about two or more people of the same sex. “Betty was expecting a phone call from Anne to talk about her tax return” is confusing: Whose tax return?
  5. Keep the subject and verb together, especially when a sentence is long. Don’t ask your readers (who probably have many demands on their time) to read a sentence two or three times in order to figure it out. (I did it myself with that last sentence!)
  6. Don’t apologize for an opinion. Many writers overuse “in my opinion,” “I think,” and “I feel.” You’re allowed to have opinions!
  7. Explain abbreviations the first time. Yesterday I had to track down INRA (which turned out to be an agricultural research organization in France) for something my husband was writing. It should have been spelled out in the article he was reading.
  8. Get rid of empty and unnecessary words: I personally feel = I feel. A personal friend = a friend. Three different times = three times. Seven individual members = seven members. Very, rather, and respective take up space while adding nothing to your meaning. “Etc.” is another bit of writing clutter that tells your readers nothing. Either spell out what the “etc.” constitutes, or omit it.
  9. In general, don’t use more than three commas in a sentence (unless you’re making a list). That fourth comma should warn you that your sentence is getting complicated, and readers may have a hard time deciphering your meaning.
  10. Impress with your ideas, not big words and fancy syntax. Pomposity never fooled anyone.
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