It’s confirmed: people would rather type than speak. Research has shown text messages are now overwhelmingly more popular than voice calls. And yet, the quality of modern writing is sinking as fast as the quantity rises.
Why the paradox? Writing is simple. It’s the simplicity that people have forgotten.
Here are the ten basic elements of good writing. These are timeless essentials, known well before Shakespeare. Keep them in mind for every sentence you write, and I guarantee your writing will stand out among the clutter.
It sounds obvious, right? Writing must have words.
And yet it’s the most common mistake rookie writers make: not writing.
It’s happened to all of us: you have an idea, you turn it over your head for days, you think about a million ways of setting it down. A week later there’s still not a word in your .doc file.
The solution is easy: write. Write about anything. Write badly if necessary – don’t worry, you’ll get better at it. Writer’s block is a myth, and as Dan Poynter said, if you wait for inspiration to write you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.
You’re a writer. Make words happen.
- But not too many words
You might have heard the famous story of the time Hemingway was challenged by a drinking buddy to write an entire story in six words.
At once, Hemingway took a napkin and wrote this down: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”
What a lot of people forget is that the Hemingway’s story is not powerful despite its length, but because of it.
Brevity is eloquence. Weed out unnecessary words – adjectives and adverbs tend to be the main offenders, –sentences, paragraphs and ideas from your writing. Keep your prose clean.
Sentences are very often misunderstood. Writers often pepper punctuation marks over a string of words and call it a sentence. But a sentence is not just a bag where you keep your words organized.
Rather, a sentence is the basic unit of meaning.
What this means in practical terms is that each sentence should convey one idea and one idea only. If you include more than one idea, you bog it down. If you include less – well, then it’s not really a sentence.
- Starting with a bang
Andy Weir’s novel The Martian got out in 2011 and became an instant best-seller.
This was its first line: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
It’s blunt, crass and a bit obvious. It’s also impossible to stop reading.
Weir was smart enough to know the importance of grabbing the reader. It’s a matter of inertia: it takes some effort to start reading something, but, by the same token, it takes some effort to stop reading and start doing something else. Engage the public from the get-go and you’ll have half of the job done.
- But not ending in a fizzle
The genius of The Martian’s first line doesn’t lie in what it tells you, but in what it doesn’t. The reader keeps reading because she wants answers the questions the line poses. Why is the narrator fucked? What is he going to do about it? Will he finally unfuck himself? Once these questions are answered, the reader is likely to get bored and start checking her Facebook feed.
This is why it’s important to put an end to your writing as soon as you reach its natural conclusion. Add any secondary details you deem necessary to the middle of the text, where the main questions haven’t been answered yet.
Or even better: do away with them.
Between the all-important beginning and ending, your most important job is to keep things flowing. Make sure every sentence relate to the next. Use carrier words like “and,” “but,” “also,” “in addition.” The path must be as smooth as possible.
- Active voice
Active voice is vigorous, direct, succinct and less convoluted than the passive. Unless you’re shooting for a flabby and insecure style, avoid the passive as much as possible.
- No ‘core competencies’ and no ‘sinergies’
A ‘core competency’ is a strength. That I’ve had to explain it proves the term’s uselessness. Never say ‘core competency’ when you can say ‘strength.’
The same goes for ‘thought-leadership,’ ‘synergy,’ ‘alignment,’ or even classics like ‘literally’: the purpose of these buzzwords isn’t to make things clearer, but to obscure ideas. They’re used when a writer has nothing of substance to say and he needs to hide this fact by making himself look like an expert.
Use the simplest vocabulary. Let your message shine by itself. Which brings me to the most important element of writing:
- A message
The best writer in the world will be out of a job if she has nothing to say. Every word you write should be there to support the message, and not the other way around. The best writing is noted for the ideas it conveys, not because of the writing itself.
- None of the above
There’s a time and a place for breaking every rule. If you find yourself in such a time and a place, congratulations! Just be aware of the rules you’re breaking, and why you’re breaking them. Rule-breakers are the ones pushing the world forward – but only if they break rules out of knowledge, and not out of ignorance.