Seven Simple Rules

I just finished up a big rewriting assignment for a first-time author. While his manuscript was excellent for a novice, I spent most of my time dealing with the same seven basic issues. I thought it would be helpful to share those with you now:

  • “When in doubt, leave it out” – I learned this in my first high school journalism class. Put another way, shorter is usually better, whether we’re talking about fewer adverbs or the tendency to say the same thing three times in one paragraph. Trust me, the majority of your readers will get your point the first time (and hitting them over the head with it will just piss them off). As for the others, forget about them. If they’re too stupid to understand it the first time, repetition won’t hel
  • Choose active verbs – Which sentence reads better: “In 1989, I was promoted to assistant manager.” Or “In 1989, my boss promoted me to assistant manager.” On the surface, it doesn’t look like much of a difference. But believe me, paragraph after paragraph of “was” and “is” and “has” will put a reader to sleep faster than Michael Jackson’s anesthesiologis
  • Specifics win every time – Writing is about choices. Why choose a generic word like “walk,” when you’ve got “trudge,” “stumble,” “glide,” “limp,” “amble,” and a whole Thesaurus worth of alternatives at your fingertips. Picking the right word for every occasion makes your writing pop (or sing or dance or sizzle or…)
  • Exorcise wiggle words – Words like “somewhat,” “rather” and “a bit” do nothing for your writing except water it down. Boldly banish them to the cutting room floor.
  • Speaking of “banish,” please remove these phrases from your writing tool kit: “Due to the fact that” and “In order to.” You can confidently start your sentence with whatever word follows.
  • To paraphrase comedian Stephen Wright, “Watch out for identical duplicates.” – For some reason, my brain picks the same words out of a crowd, especially if they’re on the same page (or even worse, in the same paragraph). There’s no reason to describe three different items as “large” or “great” or “amazing.” Even if you’ve opted for the perfect word or phrase, using it multiple times makes it less, er, perfect.
  • Contractions help – In everyday conversation, most folks use “can’t” and “won’t,” not “cannot” and “will not.” Using contractions is the best way to “unstilt” your dialogue.

By following these simple rules, you’ll improve your writing at least one grade level (even if you haven’t stepped foot in a classroom in forty years).