As laid out in the introduction to his book About Writing, Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews.
Whether you’re writing fiction or slide decks, applying these rules is vital to keep your audience interested.
- Use simple words with clear meanings whenever possible. (This is a call for clarity, not simplicity.)
- Use the precise word. Don’t say gaze when you mean look. Don’t say ambled or sauntered or stalked when you mean walked. There are no synonyms.
- Whenever reasonable avoid the passive voice.
- Omit unnecessary modifiers. As a rule of thumb, nouns can stand up to one modifier each; thus, if you use two or more, have good reason.
- For strong sentences, put your subject directly against the verb. Preferably, when possible, move adverbial baggage to the beginning of the sentence—or to the end, less preferably. Don’t let it fall between subject and verb. Do not write “He then sat,” “She suddenly stood,” “He at once rose.” Write “Then he sat,” “Suddenly she stood,” or “He rose at once.”
- Omit unnecessary chunks of received language: “From our discussion so far it is clearly evident that…” If it’s that evident, you needn’t tell us. If it’s not evident, explain it and omit the phrase.
- Avoid stock expressions like “The rolling hills,” “A flash of lightening.” Good writers don’t use such phrases. Talented writers find new ways to say them that have never been said before, ways that we have all seen but have rarely noted.
- Good writing rarely uses “be” or “being” as a separate verb. Do not use either be or being when you mean either “becoming” (not “It had started to be stormy, but “A storm had started”) or “acting” (not “She was being very unpleasant,” but “She was unpleasant”). By the same token, avoid “there are” or “there were”. Don’t write “There were five kids standing in line at the counter”. Write “At the counter five kids stood in line.”
- Don’t weigh down the end of clauses or sentences with terminal prepositional phrases reiterating information the beginning already implies. Here’s an example of the last: “I turned from my keyboard to stack the papers on the desk.” Since the vast majority of keyboards sit on desks, you don’t need that terminal prepositional phrase.
- Use a variety of sentence forms. Avoid strings of three or more sentences with the same subject—especially “I”. While you want to avoid clutter, you also want to avoid thinness. Variety and specificity are the ways to achieve this.
And some definitions, for those who (like me) did not learn grammar at school.
Verb: a word used to describe an action or state. The “doing” word of the sentence. Run, throw, become, happen and so on,
Subject: the person, place, or thing doing the verb.
Adverb: a word that tells us more about the verb. Vera spoke loudly. Afterwards she ate a mouse. Theodore lives locally.
Preposition: a word that indicates position (in, near, beside, on top of), or some other relationship between a noun or pronoun and other parts of the sentence (about, after, besides, instead of, in accordance with). This noun or pronoun is called the object of the preposition.
Prepositional phrase: the sequence of words that make up the preposition and its object.
Clause: a group of words that includes a subject and a verb.
Passive voice: when the subject of a sentence is the recipient of the action. Passive: “The product was launched by the team.” Active: “The team launched the product.”
That’s it! Happy (re)writing!