Seven Simple Rules for Good Writing

“The best writing is rewriting.” – E.B. White

Seven Simple Rules for Good Writing
Jan Peck

“A few strong instincts and a few plain rules” are all you need to write well, according to  William Wordsworth.

Here’s a list of plain writing rules from respectable sources, including E.B. White, George Orwell, and myself:

1.    Be specific.

    Examples of specific: Siamese

                               General: cat

                               specific: five pickles

                               General: some pickles

    2.    Use active voice.

    Examples of Active: The car hit the tree.

                                      Mother braided Sissy’s hair.

                               Passive: The tree was hit by the car.

                                             Sissy’s hair was braided by Mother.

Note the “to be” (was, is, had been) verb form of passive sentences.  The use of active voice creates dramatic writing.

3.    Use parallel structure.

          Example: Parallel structure – Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

As you can see, the parallel structure makes a memorable, easy-to-read copy.

4.    Vary sentence structure and length when not using parallel structure.  Writing a short sentence after a couple of long ones gives the reader a punch.  It keeps them awake.  Sentences starting with subject-verb every time can get boring.

            An example of varying sentence structure and length:

She ran to the house and opened the door.  “Mom! Mom!” she screamed.

No one answered.

            Same sentence structures and length:

She ran to the house.  She opened the door.  She screamed for her mom.  Her mom was not there.

5.    Prefer strong nouns and strong verbs over adjectives and adverbs.

           An example of the strong verb: She stammered.

           Weak adverb: She spoke hesitantly.

           An example of a strong noun: Porshe

           Weak adjectives: a shiny, expensive sports car

6.    Avoid cliches (like the plague) HA!

    Example: Every Tom, Dick, and Harry,

Sometimes change the cliche to make it funny.

          Example: Every Trey, Dylan, and Harold Fredrick.

7.       Stay in one viewpoint.

          Pretend you are a camera inside your character’s head; you can see, hear, taste, smell, think, and feel for that character, but not for any others.  It’s like real life.

          An example in one viewpoint: Marilyn petted her dog.  His hair felt sticky on her fingers.  “You need a bath, old fellow,” she said.  “You smell like a skunk.”

 Oh no! thought the dog.  Gotta run!

 Did you catch the change of viewpoint from Marilyn’s to her dog’s thoughts?

Here’s a rule about rules: If you know the rules, you can break them.

Try the rules and see if they work–you’ll find most of the time, they do!

But remember: don’t let the rules override your strong writing instincts!