How to write well

Never mind the seemingly pompous title. There is no one way to write well and I am hardly an expert. I just came across a paper I used to give a class on writing three years ago and the ideas still seem fresh and useful to me that I thought I’d share them.

The context: a friend was starting a news magazine and invited me to facilitate a workshop for his staff before the take off of the publication. Thus you will understand the references to editing and so on…



Every newspaper / magazine has its own style and style book.
– a set of rules telling journalists whether to write Gadaffi or Qaddafi;
– warning about common mistakes
– encouragement to write with Clarity and Simplicity

Requirements of our writing

Be readily understandable
– Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought
– Think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.

George Orwell’s Six (6) elementary rules which can be applied to journalistic writing:

1. Never use a METAPHOR, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
a. Expressions overused, hackneyed… when this happens readers tune off
2. Never use a long word where a SHORT WORD will do
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
4. Never use a passive where you can use the ACTIVE.
a. “A hit B” is stronger than “B was hit by A”
5. Never use a FOREIGN PHRASE, a scientific word or a JARGON word, if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (able to inflict pain or suffering).

What and How

Readers are primarily interested in what you have to say.
The way you say it may encourage them either to read on or to stop reading.
What is more important.
How is only a help to read on or stop

Do you wish them to read on?

1. Do not be stuffy.
a. Write as anyone would speak in common conversation, who had a thorough command or choice of words or who could discourse with ease.
b. Avoid oratorical flourishes: like one reciting a poem to the queen.
c. Use the language of everyday speech, not that of spokesmen, lawyers or bureaucrats. Prefer
i. let to permit
ii. people to persons
iii. buy to purchase
iv. colleague to peer
v. way out to exit
vi. present to gift
vii. rich to wealthy
d. Avoid (where possible) euphemisms and circumlocutions promoted by interest-groups.
i. hearing-impaired are simply deaf
ii. Crippled is not disrespectful, instead of disabled or Physically challenged
iii. Female teenagers are girls not women
iv. The Underprivileged may be disadvantaged but are more likely just poor
v. Man sometimes includes woman, just as he sometimes makes do for she as well.

2. Do not be arrogant
a. Those who disagree with you are not necessarily stupid or insane.
b. Nobody needs to be described as silly: let your analysis prove that he is.
c. When you express opinions, do not simply make assertions. The aim is not just to tell readers what you think, but to persuade them; if you use arguments, reasoning and evidence, you may succeed. Go easy on the oughts and shoulds.

3. Do not be too pleased with yourself.
a. Don’t boast of your own cleverness by telling readers that you correctly predicted something or that you have a scoop. You are more likely to bore or irritate them than to impress them.
b. References to “this correspondent” or “your correspondent” are always self-conscious and often self-congratulatory.

4. Do not be too chatty: Surprise, surprise is more irritating than informative.

5. The Magazine is not a classroom. Do not be too didactic.
If too many sentences begin Compare, Consider, Expect, Imagine, Look at, Note, Prepare for, Remember, Take, readers will think they are reading a textbook.

6. Be concise.
a. Be economical in your account or argument (“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out”).

7. Be lucid. limpid: (of language) transparently clear; easily understandable; “writes in a limpid style”
a. Simple sentences help.
b. Keep complicated constructions and gimmicks to a minimum.

8. The paragraph:
a. The paragraph is a unit of thought, not of length.
b. Long paragraphs, like long sentences, can confuse the reader.
c. The paragraph must be homogeneous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.
d. One-sentence paragraphs should be used only occasionally.
e. The paragraph is a unit of thought, not of length

9. Clear thinking is a the key to clear writing. “A scrupulous writer,” observed Orwell, “in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Scrupulous writers will also notice that their copy is edited only lightly and is likely to be used. It may even be read.

A note on Editing

Respect the uniqueness of each writer

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