How to Write

I’ve written about editing, eliminating distractions, getting started – it’s time to get down to basics. Too many people don’t know how to write. Period. Yeah, they can make marks on paper, but when it comes to making a clear, compelling, and meaningful statement, especially one more than 140 characters long, they fail.

So here, in no particular order, are 17 ways to make your marks on paper as good as they can be.

  1. Write naturally. Not necessarily how you talk – speaking and writing are separate crafts and are processed differently by the brain – but using a tone and language that is natural to who you are. Avoid “university words” (even if you’re in a university) and jargon (unless among peers).
  2. Have a plan. Outline if you can, but at the least make sure you know where you’re going and how you intend to get there. Don’t ramble on hoping your reader will put it all together in the end. They won’t get to the end.
  3. Use active, forceful verbs. Use verbs that convey action, movement, and purpose; avoid verbs that are passive and simply indicate existence or equivalence (e.g. “Our company is a leading manufacturer of…” vs. “Our company leads in the manufacture of…”). Never use a verb in a sentence that you wouldn’t do. For example, if you wouldn’t “interface” with a business partner, don’t write it.
  4. Avoid adverbs. Adverbs are words that modify the verb. If you’ve used a strong, active verb, you don’t need to modify it. While you’ll have to use adverbs occasionally, most of the time you should strike the adverb and choose a better verb.
  5. Be for something or against something. As in life, people avoid standing for something in their writing. They often seem to use language that, in a way, would tend to imply that they are perfectly ok with whatever opinion you might be comfortable with. Boooo-riiiing! Take a stand, build an argument, and convince your reader that you’re right.
  6. Cut “think”, “seems”, “believe”, and other opinion words. This goes along with the last point, but there’s more to it than just hemming and hawing. Too often, people write their opinions, which you should be convincing me of, not using to support your argument. Don’t tell me what you think, believe, or disagree with, tell me what you know.
  7. Write for people. Don’t write for some generic audience "out there", and for the sake of all that is holy don’t write for search engines. Picture the person, real or imagined, you want to read and be moved by your writing, and write for that person.
  8. Be present. I don’t mean you have to write in the first-person (though that’s not as bad as your high school teachers led you to believe), but there should be a sense of you the writer in your work, of your humanity and passion for your subject.
  9. Don’t be clever. Unless you’re writing something intended to be witty — a greeting card or joke to begin a speech with, for example — avoid clever turns of phrase that make you feel smart. Here’s what will happen: 1 or 2% of your readers will say "Oh, that’s clever. See what they did?", 50% won’t notice at all, and 48% won’t get it. I’m being generous here.
  10. Hook ‘em early. Start with the headline, which should say why I should read this. Then write a strong introduction that draws your reader in and makes them want to read on. Tell a story, make a bold statement, offer up a surprising fact. Don’t open with "According to Wikipedia…" or "According to Webster’s…". YAWN!
  11. Use topic sentences. Every paragraph should clearly say what it’s about. The topic sentence might not be the first sentence — it might even be the last sentence, or the first part of the third sentence. But somewhere in the paragraph there should be a line that, taken on its own, says what the paragraph is about.
  12. Have a conclusion. People fuss a lot over introductions, and slack on conclusions. Tell your reader why they bothered to read your piece. Remember, the conclusion is the part your reader is going away with — make it count. 
  13. Explain yourself. Never assume your reader agrees with you. If you say someone’s bad because he barbecues puppies, you’d better explain why barbecuing puppies is a bad thing. Maybe your reader thinks puppies are delicious and nutritious — can you afford for that reader to completely miss the intent of your writing?
  14. Have a trusted reader. Whenever possible, get your work read by someone you trust to be honest with you. Listen intently to their responses, even when your reader tries to blunt their critique. For example, if they say they didn’t get a part, but that’s probably because they didn’t know anything about the topic, you need to rewrite that part so that, even knowing nothing about the subject, they do get it.
  15. Let it rest. Never write up to a deadline. Allow your writing at least a few hours, a day or two if you can, before you come back to it. You’ll be surprised how much cruft you find when you approach your writing with fresh eyes.
  16. Cut, cut, cut. You’ve been told that a piece of writing should be exactly as long as it needs to be to get its point across. That’s wrong – it should be half that long. There is no piece of writing, except the published work of the greatest authors, that couldn’t benefit from a savage reduction in length. Concision counts.
  17. Rewrite. You’ll break all these rules in your first draft. That’s why it’s called a “first” and not “only” draft. Writers just don’t get it right the first time – cut, cut, cut and rework your text into a lean, tight, and clear piece of work.

Any other tips for writing? Let us know in the comments.

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