Ten Rules for Writers

Many people mistakenly think that writing rules are only for students and novice writers. The truth is that most good writers have gradually assembled a set of rules that they rely on for everything they write. Here are 10 rules for writers that I’ve found useful in my own career as a writer, teacher, and editor:

1. Don’t tell readers what they already know. Good writers always have something fresh to say. (Remember when you were growing up and stopped listening the moment an adult started lecturing you on Responsibility or Good Behavior?)

One good strategy is to explore your theme from a fresh angle. If you’re writing about the winter holidays, try setting your story in a warm climate. If you’re discussing ways to keep love alive in a marriage, include a few anecdotes about couples who overcame unusual problems. Better yet, explore a topic that will be brand new to many of your readers: An unusual way to solve a common problem, a fresh outlook on an ordinary experience.

2. Make your point of view clear right from the beginning. Avoid ambiguous statements like “Many people believe…” or “A recent study shows…” It’s much better to clarify your point of view with a statement like “many people mistakenly believe” or “a helpful recent study shows.”

3. Make it easy for readers to understand what you’ve written. If there are seven or eight women in your story or article, remind readers that Alice is your central character’s sister-in-law. The same holds true for chronologies (don’t expect readers to remember 13 pages later that it’s still 1922) and unusual words, which you should define in context: “We toured a fascinating exhibit about the troglodytes (cave-dwellers) who used to live there.”

4. Have a plan. You should know your main point, supporting ideas, and examples before you start drafting your paper or article. If you’re not sure where you’re going (as often happens when you’re researching a new topic), write a discovery draft first. A rambling, I-don’t-know-where-it’s-taking-me draft is a great way to explore a topic–but don’t mistake it for a final draft.

Be especially wary if you’re taking a long time to arrive at your main point. Your thesis belongs near the beginning, not the end (see Rule 2).

5. Cut, cut, cut. Omit everything that doesn’t match your thesis. If you’re writing about your wonderful trip to Rome, don’t mention anything negative that happened (bad weather, shoddy service, delays).

This principle often bothers novice writers: Isn’t it dishonest to omit parts of the story? The answer is an emphatic no. Every detail, fact, and description should support your overall point. What if you don’t know what point you’re making? That’s a sure sign you’re writing a discovery draft (see Rule 4).

6. If a sentence contains more than three commas (unless you’re writing a list), it’s probably too complicated. Consider rewriting it.

7. Take a long look at every and, asking yourself whether the sentence should be rewritten. Although and is a wonderfully useful word, sometimes it oversimplifies sentences, and sometimes it’s simply…boring.

John sat down at the piano, and he entertained our guests with some gorgeous music. WEAK

John sat down at the piano, entertaining our guests with some gorgeous music. BETTER

8. In general, limit each sentence to only one idea. Cramming too many ideas and details into a sentence frustrates readers and may even convince them to stop reading. If a sentence has to be read twice, it’s too complicated: Rewrite it.

9. Make the first sentence in each paragraph (the topic sentence) relate to your theme or point of view. If there’s a Golden Rule of Writing, this is it. This lovely rule will help you eliminate anything that needs to be cut (see Rule 5), and it makes the reading process smooth and speedy. More than any other practice, this practice will ensure that readers enjoy what you’ve written.

10. Use climaxes. This rule will help you sound like a professional writer. (Good news for student writers: This is a great technique for impressing your teachers.) Here’s how: If you have three examples, save the biggest or most important for last.

For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me a Monopoly game, a catcher’s glove, and a shiny red bicycle. CLIMAX

When you’re organizing your supporting ideas, save the paragraph with your most important point for the end. Use an introductory phrase that sounds emphatic, like most important or best of all. Never use finally, last, or last but not least: They suggest that you’re almost finished and readers can stop paying attention.

That’s it! Follow these 10 rules, and you’ll soon see a vast improvement in your writing.

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