Below, you’ll find five of what I believe are the most important secrets of good writing. Apply these techniques and tricks to every sentence you write, and I promise you that your words will be more powerful, more persuasive, and easier to understand.
RULE 1: DON’T WASTE verbs The verb “to be” and all its forms (such as “was,” “were,” and “are”) are weak. By that, I mean you should use more descriptive verbs whenever possible. For example … Instead of: “The owner was in the doorway at the back of the bar.” Use: “The owner leaned in the doorway at the back of the bar.” One successful writer I know sets his spellchecker to catch any form of “to be” and edits it out of every final draft.
RULE 2: WRITE TO express, not impress Use short, specific, common words. You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to understand what you’re saying. Big, difficult words only slow your reader down. Another way to think of it: Be specific, and write the way you talk. Instead of “automobile,” use “car.” Instead of “large,” use “285-pound.” Instead of “dispatch,” use “send.”
RULE 3: USE FEWER WORDS As much as anything else, good writers are good editors. They are ruthless about cutting words. To be a good writer, you must look carefully at what you’ve written and cut out anything that’s unnecessary.
This sentence, for example, should be edited: “Gold has been worked for centuries in the Veneto region of Italy, and the production keeps going on in many tiny factories in unexpected places.” (25 words) This is better: “For centuries, locals worked with gold in Italy’s Veneto region, and production continues today in tiny scattered factories.” (18 words)
RULE 4: EXPRESS ONE IDEA PER SENTENCE MMF talks about this often. When you include more than one idea in a sentence, you dilute the impact. If you have more than one idea, use more than one sentence.
RULE 5: SAY WHAT YOU MEAN Don’t pad your sentences with high-minded “filler” and clichés, and don’t tiptoe around an issue. Get to the point!
To do this you must:
1. Figure out what you really are trying to say.
2. Say what you mean in clear, simple terms. Let me show you what I mean … Here’s a sentence taken from a popular magazine that could be much improved if the writer would say what he means: “Islands expropriated by a newly elected government or suddenly finding restrictions to foreign ownership can be avoided fairly easily if dealt with in advance.”
Here’s a better way to say it: “If you buy an island in a foreign country, you may encounter problems. A newly elected government could expropriate your property, for example, or put into place restrictions on foreign ownership. You can avoid these problems if you deal with them in advance.” These five rules of good writing are, of course, only the beginning. But if you learn them and put the techniques into practice, you’ll write more persuasively and more clearly than about 90% of the population.