Five Writing Rules

Today I’m offering you 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. Many times the solution is to rewrite it as two sentences:

The reason for my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester – when I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about it – turned out to be a clerical mistake.  CONFUSING

I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester. It turned out to be a clerical mistake.  BETTER

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