We can never learn too much about how to write well. Even if we know all the rules, hearing them again or reviewing them helps us keep doing what we know we need to do. Plus, hearing these writing rules from someone new can help us understand them better.
So, today, my friend Sue Collier, a publishing consultant and co-author with industry guru Marilyn Ross of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, offers some great rules for writing well. They constitute the same ones I follow in my writing, I teach my coaching clients and that I most often correct when editing for clients. Take them to heart…put them to use.
How to Write Tight, Clear Copy
By Sue Collier
The goal of every writer’s words should be to grab the reader’s attention and shout, “Read me!” So how do you become a better word crafter to improve your chances with readers (or editors)? Here are some tips to help give your work momentum and sparkle.
- Communicate; don’t try to impress. The comfort zone of the average reader is about the eighth-grade level, so practice the old rule of KISS (“Keep it simple, sweetheart”). Recondite slows down most anyone; yet family and company—also three-syllable words—are totally acceptable. It comes down to using good judgment.
- Use the right word for the job. Mark Twain observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Are your words colorful? Specific? Descriptive? Don’t have a man walk. Rather, let him amble, stride, stagger, or shuffle along. But watch for repetition of words within close proximity. Using the same word over and over again (unless it’s for emphasis) is sloppy.
- Avoid ambiguity. Rewrite anything that is unclear. Think through any confusing areas. What do they mean? Could they be misinterpreted? Take the word terminal, for instance. It means entirely different things to a computer operator, an electrician, a bus driver, and a physician.
- Keep a wary eye on overall language. Foreign words and unfamiliar jargon confuse the reader. Likewise, “in vogue” terms date your manuscript and may appear ridiculous five years hence.
- Beware of clichés. These are the overused, trite bits and pieces of speech that are part of everyone’s conversations. “Money hungry,” “sly as a fox,” and “grows by leaps and bounds” are all clichés. Clichés are a sign of lazy writing. Think of a fresh, new way of saying it.
- Delete redundancies and needless words. Watch your writing for conciseness. Have you pared away all unnecessary words? Eliminated repetition? Why say, “He stood up to make the announcement”? (Have you ever seen anyone stand down?) Early pioneers should be simply pioneers; in the not too distant future=soon; due to the fact that=because; until such time as=until; combined together=combined. Get the idea? Abolish words such as very, really, just, and other qualifiers that don’t serve a definite purpose.
- Inject your writing with liveliness. Use similes or metaphors to show comparisons. A simile uses like or as: His personality is as bland as oatmeal. A metaphor suggests resemblance: Her face blossomed with affection. Such additions help readers relate to what you’ve written.
- Put more zip in your manuscript with analogies. They help make or illustrate a point. An example of an analogy: Life is a hundred-yard dash, with birth the starting gun and death the tape.
- Transition smoothly. Are there graceful bridges between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters? Some words and phrases that serve as transitional bridges are still, on the other hand, another, next, however, of course, then, finally, but, yet, unfortunately, in short, once again.
- Avoid bad taste of any kind. Racist statements, gory photographs, sexual overtones, and other undesirable materials are bound to offend some readers. Don’t preach religion in a nonreligious book, and keep your politics to yourself unless that’s your theme. (The one exception to this could be fiction, where you might use a touch of the above to characterize someone in the story.) Of course, obscene or pornographic material will be objectionable to the majority. Always consider your chosen audience, and edit or develop your material accordingly.
- Use the active voice to achieve readability. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action rather than receiving it. ? Here’s a hint for spotting the passive voice: Look at the verb phrase. It will always include a form of the “to be” verb, such as is, are, was, or is being.
Here’s an example:
The active voice: The wind slammed the door shut.
The passive voice: The door was slammed shut by the wind.
How much more powerful is the active version?
And finally, make sure you have access to a good up-to-date dictionary, such as Webster’s New World Dictionary (computer versions of dictionaries are great!); a thesaurus (print version or one on your computer); and a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, put out by the University of Chicago Press (or one of the other accepted style guides).
About the Author
Sue Collier is a publishing consultant and head of Self-Publishing Resources, a book writing, production, and marketing firm that assists authors in all aspects of the book publishing process. She is also co-author with industry guru Marilyn Ross of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition and the upcoming Jump Start Your Book Sales, 2nd Edition. Sue blogs about the publishing industry at http://www.SelfPublishingResources.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SueCollier.