Monday, November 21, 2011

Writing tips: don’t try to be a writer

Some readers have told me they like writing tips. Here’s the most important: keep it simple.

Too many people try to be writers. They get stuck trying to construct new kinds of sentences, trying to shine or to equal Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. Or worse, they try to write like a business person speaks—or worst of all, like a politician.

Instead, try to tell your story or get your point across.

Some writers and editors recommend writing without any revising. Just get the words down, worry about grammar, spelling, tense, voice or anything but the ideas. That requires knowing clearly what those ideas are. (See my previous series of posts, “Get a GRIP” for more about making sure you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to write before you start writing). Just state as simply and as bluntly as you can what you want to say. Almost always, that’s the most effective—that is, that kind of writing achieves the goal you started with.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; you can always go back and fix them. Writing means re-writing. Once you have a draft, you can move sentences and paragraphs around, change words and clarify your expression. But you can’t do that until you have something written down.


Wherever possible, use verbs instead of strings of nouns and adjectives.

Instead of:

“On issues related to ...”—write “about”

“in the six-month period” of “over the course of”—write “between Date 1 and Date 2”

“expressed discontent with”—write “were dissatisfied”

“taking a leadership role”—write “leading”

“relates to the fact that”—write “because”

“in recent years”—write “recently”

“would expect to”—write “expects”

“these measures enabled management to discern any areas in which improvements can be made by operations”—write ”management could identify improvements operations could make ...”

“the regulated firm is typically given 30 days to respond”—write “the regulated firm usually has 30 days to respond”

“X achieved high rankings for new online presentation of resources and tools”—write “X revised its website, making online tools and resources easier to access.”

I recommend dropping the phrase “achieved high ranking,” because that focuses on the organization’s goals, not the reader’s. Why should they care about the company’s satisfaction rankings? What they care about is what it does for them. Yes, there may be some value perceived in the testimonial aspect of high satisfaction ratings, but still, what is important in that example is the new functionality of the website.

See how much shorter and clearer the revised messages are?

The next post on writing tips will focus on what to watch for when you’re re-writing. In the meantime, tell me about your own pet peeves—what phrases or styles of writing bug you the most?


  1. I may sound thick by admitting this but I really switch off if a book becomes too 'literary' - or at least my understanding of it. Too much flower and not enough soil bores me. There's just no need for it as it rarely adds anything to the story. I also

    have issue with over technical language too. I'm presently reading an indie novel to review which is about... no I won't tell. Needless to say I had to stop reading at chapter three because my head may have exploded if I continued even one page further.

    Also, over-preaching about something - boy! If I want to find Jesus I'll take refuge in a Church. If I want a preacher I'll do the same. I don't mind learning something from a novel, in fact if done well it can be a huge plus. But generally, keep it simple and neutral. Or I will put that book down (or rather press delete on my Kindle:D)

    Anyway, rant over :) Hello - found you because my ipaper chose your tweet to feature on The WordsinSync Daily. :D Shah. X

  2. Journalists using phrases such as "begs the question" wrong and spouting the phrase of the moment ("on the ground," "that being said," "exciting," etc.)

    Thanks for this post.

  3. I particularly hate it when writers spell words in a strange way in order to portray someone's accent - it makes the book hard to read and I get annoyed and switched off by it.

  4. I'm not keen on novels that are written with great blocks of text. Dialogue adds more depth to the characters and moves the storyline forward.

    1. Exactly. It tends to add white space to the page, too, making it more inviting to the eye.

      It all fits into the "show, don't tell" idea - show what people say. Let their own words describe their feelings.

  5. Great post. The story is the most important thing pertaining to the novel. The words used to communicate that story is more important than the writer showing off his/her vast vocabulary. Nothing can turn off a reader than boring and wordy text that makes them need to reach for the dictionary to know what they are reading. If the story can be told in plain english and is interesting, it will pull in the reader, not he verbage.

  6. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Something I needed to read! I worry writing my memoir that I am not a "professional writer". My theory has been to just write and worry about the rest later. So glad to hear your advice!

  7. Great advice.

    I've worked for years as a technical writer, and now as a blogger.

    There are a lot of misunderstandings about what makes great writing. Many people think that great writers have huge vocabularies (some do, not all), and that they spend their days effortlessly churning out perfect prose. Far from it.

    Most good writers spend more time editing their work than composing their first draft.

    What bugs me most? Really, I'm not a huge stickler about grammar or even sentence structure. I'm much more interested in the message a writer is trying to communicate than the technical aspects of writing.

  8. This is where the advice 'write in the active voice, as opposed to passive voice' applies. You use less words, and improve clarity and pacing.

    One of my pet peeves is having to read a sentence (or paragraph) multiple times to decipher its meaning. This is usually because the author used too many words, or words that my meager intelligence can understand. :)

  9. Great post Scott! And sage advice. I tend to get "wordy" as I call it when I'm writing the draft, but those words disappear when I edit...:D

  10. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I'm with you, Scott. One that makes me grind my teeth: 'at the present time' or worse, 'at this moment in time'. Where else would a moment be? Now, please.