Get out the pruning shears: a big part of good writing is good editing. And a surefire way to give your writing a confidence boost is to eliminate words that weigh down your writing and make you sound uncertain.
We call these weasel words. Like weasels, they’re not necessarily bad on their own. In fact, they’re kind of cute. But weasels are known for escaping situations (ever heard of someone “weaseling out” of something?). Plus, if you’re a rabbit, they’re deadly.
Weasel words won’t kill you (or rabbits). But you’ll still be safer if you avoid them. So give your writing a confidence boost with these tips for cleaning up your writing.
Get rid of these dirty habits
1Weasel words Specifically, weasel words are qualifiers that might make you sound sort of like you’re not sure of yourself. Or maybe like you’re trying to create a little wiggle room. For example:
Sort of, kind of
Let’s try that again. Weasel words are qualifiers that make you sound unsure of yourself, like you’re trying to create wiggle room.
Don’t get us wrong: in some cases, you need these words. But if you want to convey an idea or make an argument, remove words that make your readers think of slimy politicians trying to avoid stating something directly. Maybe it can make a difference.
No, really: it makes a difference.
2Adverbs Like weasel words, adverbs aren’t evil on their own. They’re like seasoning: a little goes a long way. Who wants pasta with more pepper on it than cheese?
Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing:
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
We’re not going to bring devils and brimstone into the picture, but we do strongly recommend that you seriously think about taking out the adverbs, unless you actually need to significantly modify an idea.
Oh look, it happened again. Here’s that sentence without the padding: we recommend taking out the adverbs unless you need to modify an idea. Stronger, right?
Here are some of the most common do-nothings in the adverb world:
When you catch yourself using one of those words, read the sentence to yourself without it. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence in a significant way, axe it.
3“There is” and “there are”
There is nothing more boring than a sentence that starts with “there is.” In other words, sentences that start with “there is” are boring. In other words, write interesting sentences. Constructions that start with words like “it,” “here,” or “there,” followed by a form of the verb “to be” fall into the category of empty filler words.
Instead, try to start with yourself or a subject—or better yet, a verb—to focus on the action and the idea. After all, there are so many interesting writing styles out there. Er, that is, emulate interesting writing styles to keep your prose powerful.
Replace these signs of weakness
Sure: sometimes a colon, semicolon, or other fancy punctuation—dashes, for example—can help you get a point across; it’s elegant and convincing.
But often, shorter sentences are better. If your writing feels weighed down by long sentences crammed with lots of punctuation, try taking out some of the extras in favor of sentences that are short and sweet.
2Too many negatives
Yes, that goes for your mood, but it also goes for your writing. If you’re finding lots of instances of “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” “don’t,” and other variations of “not” in your writing, try to diversify by picking a verb that doesn’t require the word “not.”
You shouldn’t use negatives in your writing.
Use positive words in your writing.
Now there’s a boost to your writing style and your mood.
3Excessively fancy words
Fancy words are fun. They make us feel smart. They remind us that we took the SAT, and despite the tribulations of the egregious experience, passed with equanimity and aplomb.
It’s a bit much. Sure, a 50-cent word here and there can help you convey ideas precisely—for example, “with equanimity” is a lot more specific than “doing a good job and staying calm.” But don’t just toss in the big guys to make yourself sound smart. Your writing will be clearer and more powerful if you use them sparingly. After all, you can have too much of a good thing.
4The word “thing”
Really, just destroy that thing.
Pretty much every time you use the word “thing,” you could pick another word that is more specific and precise.
Take these examples:
I’m trying to strengthen my writing with things that sound better to an audience.
I’m trying to strengthen my writing by gearing my style toward a target audience.
See? Rewriting can be a powerful thing.
Follow these key rules
1Make verbs stronger
In other words, strengthen your verbs. That just about covers it.
2Think about icebergs
You know, the tip of the iceberg. It’s an idiom that means a small or visible part of a much bigger issue, and it’s how Ernest Hemingway thought about writing as a whole. Here’s the idea in his words:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg [sic] is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
The metaphor: the dignity of writing is also due to slashing what you want to say down to what you need to say. Maybe one-eighth sounds extreme, but even if you have a different fraction, the rule stands: show, don’t tell, and if you’re showing, show it in a shorter way. Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or something that defies definition, it’s a good rule of thumb.
3Listen to George Orwell
In an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” he defined six rules of writing. If they worked for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, they may just work for you. Here they are now:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
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.
There you have it: keep your writing simple, brief, active, free of clichés, and to the point.
But Orwell gives you a little bit of leeway: if something sounds “outright barbarous” (in simpler terms more in line with his own rules: brutal, uncivilized, or bad), you might just have permission to break these rules. Which leads us to our final guideline:
4Use your own best judgment
These rules will help you maintain clean, clear prose that argues, convinces, or portrays efficiently and powerfully. But there are always exceptions: sometimes a grandiloquent word best serves your purposes, or the word “thing” really comes in handy. You don’t have to treat these rules like a religion, but if you keep them in mind when you’re polishing your writing, you’re likely to have a more powerful product. Even the weasels can’t argue with that.
When he lost his partner and his sister, 90-year-old Derek Taylor was incredibly lonely.
“The older you get, the less people seem to contact you,” Taylor said in a video with the BBC. “I thought, what can I do to stop being lonely?”
Rejecting the idea of being isolated for the rest of his life, Taylor, who lives in Old Moat, U.K., decided to do something about it.
He wrote a list of tips to combat loneliness.
Distributed by Manchester City Council, who put the tips in a pamphlet about Manchester’s “Age-Friendly” outreach work, Taylor’s list includes everything from learning to use a computer at your local library to joining a hobbies club.
“Some of the tips were to use the phone more often,” Taylor said. “Get in touch with neighbours. Try and socialize and meet as many people as I possibly could do.”
Following his own advice, Taylor is happy and has made many new friends at his coffee club and gardening program.
“These are simply the things I have done to keep myself active and involved, and I thought they might be useful for other older people living on their own,” Taylor wrote for the Manchester City Council.
As pointed out by Mashable, Taylor isn’t alone in experiencing loneliness at this stage in his life. They note a statistic from Age U.K. that says 35 per cent of people over 65 spend time with friends most or every day, and a overwhelming 12 per cent never do. Around five million people in the U.K. consider television “their main source of company.”
For this reason, Taylor’s list to combat loneliness is so important.
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My inbox is constantly flooded with pitches from public relations (PR) professionals, and the majority of them are complete garbage. While a few come over that are perfectly fine, most are downright cringe-worthy.
“Want to interview the company founder Jonathon?”
You can’t even spell my name correctly? Pass.
“We are launching this amazing new app and it would be perfect for your audience.”
Looks interesting, but I see this was sent to 50 email recipients, taking laziness to the highest level. Pass.
I know a lot of people in the PR space and have built some amazing relationships over the years. One of those relationships is with Lavonte Johnson, CEO of Star Relations, and while his company focuses on securing press coverage across music and celebrity outlets, we constantly talk strategy. His company secures press on outlets like Billboard, VIBE and XXL — major music industry outlets that receive pitches around the clock, so he knows how to craft an effective pitch that, at the very least, is read by the target recipient.
If you want to write pitches that will be read, rather than sent to the trash immediately, consider the five tips below.
Related: What to Do When No One Responds to Your Pitch Emails
1. Be fully aware of whom you are pitching.
It’s important that you are fully aware of who you are pitching. Is your pitch related to what they typically cover? You need to put some effort in, but sadly, most pitches are done completely blind, with zero research or thought behind them.
“Take time to read something that your target recently wrote and make sure to include a little detail pertaining to that, as it helps to build a relationship immediately. It takes just a few minutes to get familiar with your target’s previous work, and it greatly increases the chance of them not only reading your pitch, but also actually responding,” suggests Johnson.
Social media engagement is such an easy way to lay a little foundational ground work. A follow, with some “likes” and replies mixed in is an easy way to get one someone’s radar. Then, when you send your pitch, your name is somewhat familiar, which increases the chance of your email avoiding the trash.
2. Avoid emails that reek of a copy-and-paste job.
I can smell a copy-and-paste email from a mile away, and when I receive them I send them to the trash right away without even reading them. Generic pitches that appear to be automated are a complete waste of your time.
When I receive an email that has different font styles or sizes throughout the body, it’s obvious that I’m the 434th person to receive the email, albeit a few changed information fields. Johnson says to avoid copy-and-paste emails altogether, saying, “I always write a unique pitch for every recipient, even avoiding using a template as a guide. I find that authentic pitches are far more effective, and while more time consuming, in the end, you will end up landing more successful placements with this approach.”
Related: 6 Tips for Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch
3. Highlight the value you are providing the publication.
For me to give a pitch attention, it needs to offer value, and I need to be able to see that value within seconds of opening the email. Instead of writing a paragraph about how awesome something is, provide answers to the following:
Why will my audience be interested in the story?
Why will this story attract traffic and interest?
How will this story help me reach my target audience?
“If your pitch leaves the recipient asking questions, you aren’t going to get a response. The last thing you want to do is give your target extra work. Highlight the value you are providing them if you expect them to take the time to reply to you,” offers Johnson.
4. Stop using the same automated templates that every other PR “pro” is using.
Now, I’m not saying that automation tools are bad. In fact, my company is currently using Pitchbox to execute campaigns for some of the brands we own. I am working on an article about how to properly execute a campaign using this tool, that I will be publishing in the near future.
If you are using software, please don’t just use the standard template that comes pre-loaded. They are never intended to be used, yet so many people fire up software and launch a campaign without any customization or thought put into it.
Get creative and make sure to stand out from everyone else.
“Media outlets and journalists receive so many pitches every single day, so it’s important that you do everything in your power to stand out from all of the template-pitches that they receive, all of which appear to be the same. If your pitch even slightly resembles a template-pitch it will be ignored and deleted,” says Johnson.
Related: 8 Reasons a Powerful Personal Brand Will Make You Successful
5. Get to the point — clearly and quickly.
“Writing a long-winded pitch says that you don’t value your target’s time. The less they have to think, the greater chance you have receiving a response,” explains Johnson. Be 100 percent transparent and honest in your initial pitch — be clear in regards to what you are looking for.
What do you want out of the ask? Being upfront and honest will get you instant respect. If you dance around the ask or try to sugar coat it, you will likely be ignored. I get it — you want some exposure — just be honest about it. If you try to blow smoke up my rear about your intentions, it’s likely going to cause me to delete it.
Let’s face it, no PR professional is pitching just for the fun of it — there are motives and intentions behind every pitch. Make yours clear (and quickly) for the best response rate.
Jonathan Long is the founder of Market Domination Media®, a performance-based online marketing agency, blerrp™, an influencer marketing agency and co-founder of consumer product Sexy Smile Kit&trade…
July 21 marks the 118th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Hemingway. He was an American writer who is one of the most popular and celebrated writers of the 20th century. His seven novels, six short story collections, and two nonfiction works are characterized by his economical use of words and understated storytelling. His particular writing style has greatly influenced American literature, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1954.
Although he never wrote any essays on writing, he did give numerous pointers to his friends and fellow writers who came to him for advice. Here are 10 of them:
1. On beginning to write again
“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.” – A Moveable Feast
2. On editing your own work
“The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.” – Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter (1935 Esquire)
3. On knowing when to rest
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”- A Moveable Feast
4. On how to avoid getting stuck
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.” – Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter (1935 Esquire)
5. On creating believable fiction
“Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best — make it all up — but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way… Write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises.” – Excerpt from a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald
7. On using your own tragedy
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it — don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you… You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write.” – Excerpt from a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald
7. On the rigours of writing
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit.” – Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter (1935 Esquire) 8. On a writer’s need for solitude
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” – Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech 9. On being influenced by other writers “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.” – Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter (1935 Esquire) 10. On finding the courage to write again “Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is. Go on and write.” – Excerpt from a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Why is so much writing so hard to understand? Why must a typical reader struggle to follow an academic article, the fine print on a tax return, or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?”
These are questions Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asks in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. They’re questions I’ve often encountered –and attempted to tackle– throughout my career as a business writer and editor. Whenever I see writing that is loaded with jargon, clichés, technical terms, and abbreviations, two questions come immediately to mind. First, what is the writer trying to say, exactly? And second, how can the writer convey her ideas more clearly, without having to lean on language that confuses the reader?
For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”, which he defines as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”
“Every human pastime –music, cooking, sports, art, theoretical physics –develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to say or type a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in each other’s company. The problem is that as we become proficient at our job or hobby we come to use these catchwords so often that they flow out of our fingers automatically, and we forget that our readers may not be members of the clubhouse in which we learned them.”
People in business seem particularly prone to this “affliction.” You could argue that business has developed its own entirely unique dialect of English. People are exposed to an alphabet soup of terms and acronyms at business school, which they then put into use in their day-to-day interactions once they enter the working world.
And what starts out as a means of facilitating verbal communication between people becomes the primary mode with which people communicate their ideas in writing, from email to chat apps to business proposals and presentations.
“How can we lift the curse of knowledge?” asks Pinker. “A considerate writer will…cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in ‘Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,’ rather than the bare ‘Arabidopsis.’ It’s not just an act of magnanimity: A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”
“Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all.”
Whenever I write a sentence that makes me pause and wonder about what it means, I assume that other readers might react in the same way. If a sentence is not clear to me, it might not be clear to others. It’s an approach that I recommend to anyone who is trying to improve his own writing.
Before hitting publish and sending your writing out to the world, it’s better to be honest with yourself about how much your reader is likely to understand a given passage or sentence. Before you commit your writing to print– or to the internet– take a few moments to make sure that what you write is clear and understandable by as many of your intended readers as possible.
As Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”
Today, if you can believe it, makes it ten years since we lost one of the greatest American writers—and, no matter how he tried to deny it, one of the greatest writing teachers. Certainly one of the greatest writing advice list-makers, at any rate. Vonnegut’s many thoughts on writing have been widely shared, taught, studied and adapted (designer Maya Eilam’s infographic-ized version of his “shapes of stories” lecture springs vividly to mind) because his advice tends to be straightforward, generous, and (most importantly) right.
Plus, it’s no-nonsense advice with a little bit of nonsense. Like his books, really. Find some of Vonnegut’s greatest writing advice, plucked from interviews, essays, and elsewhere, below—but first, find some of Vonnegut’s greatest life advice right here: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Okay, proceed.
On proper punctuation:
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. (From A Man Without a Country)
On having other interests:
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak. (From “an interview conducted with himself, by himself,” for The Paris Review)
On the value of writing:
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. (From A Man Without a Country)
On the theory of teaching creative writing:
I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory… It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.” (From “an interview conducted with himself, by himself,” for The Paris Review)
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are [and what they want].
And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade. (From “an interview conducted with himself, by himself,” for The Paris Review)
On not selling anything:
I used to teach a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa back in the 1960s, and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent van Gogh—who sold two paintings to his brother.” (Laughs.) I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me, and that’s the case for writing or for drawing, and then out it comes. There are times when nothing comes. James Brooks, the fine abstract-expressionist, I asked him what painting was like for him, and he said, “I put the first stroke on the canvas and then the canvas has to do half the work.” That’s how serious painters are. They’re waiting for the canvas to do half the work. (Laughs.) Come on. Wake up. (From The Last Interview)
On love in fiction:
So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers. (From “an interview conducted with himself, by himself,” for The Paris Review)
On a good work schedule:
I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours. (From an interview with Robert Taylor in Boston Globe Magazine, 1969)
On “how to write with style,” aka List #1:
1. Find a subject you care about Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way—although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
2. Do not ramble, though I won’t ramble on about that.
3. Keep it simple As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
4. Have guts to cut It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
5. Sound like yourself The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.
All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
6. Say what you mean I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable—and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
7. Pity the readers They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school—twelve long years.
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient readers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.
8. For really detailed advice For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I recommend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say. (From “How to Write With Style,” published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications in 1980.)
On how to write good short stories, aka List #2:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 5. Start as close to the end as possible. 6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that. (From the preface to Bagombo Snuff Box)
On ignoring rules:
And there, I’ve just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules. (From A Man Without a Country)