I try to follow four principles when writing. They don’t make it much easier. In fact, they add discomfort and delay, but this is a price worth paying. We swim in a sea of written words at work and at home. They shape our thoughts and actions. You can use them to shape thoughts and actions: most people claim they want some small influence on the world and many squander one of their best opportunities. Too much writing, particularly at work, is a form of ritual, hollowed of meaning. The transmission of purpose, the changing of minds or the spur to action is an afterthought.
Perhaps this is because we send our words out into the void and too rarely see them work their way into the minds of others to make small but real changes. In one of my jobs I sent out regular newsletters and almost never got any response. I used to wonder why I bothered. Then one day, I saw a quote cut out and stuck to the side of someone’s computer screen. It was a paragraph from my newsletter. I’ve not taken words lightly since.
We all have the power to write in a way that changes minds.
- We need a point of view
- We must be vulnerable
- We must make every word count
- And we should use the music in our words
These are my four principles. You probably already get the first three, perhaps with some reservations on the second, but you’re wondering whether you’ve stayed into a poetry class on the fourth? Bear with me.
Your writing must be animated by a purpose, however mundane. That purpose is yours alone. This is work that begins before the writing but is often revealed during it. You should write to advance an argument, never to explore a topic. Requests like “Give me 600 words on the climate emergency” strangle good writing. You will, however, often be given topics to write about in exactly this way. Your task is to step away and find your point of view. What do you really believe is true and important here? What are the causes and consequences of this belief?
Your purpose should be exposed directly, stripped of the shield of, frankly, bullshit with which we often protect our beliefs from judgement. Writing well is going to hurt a little because it makes you vulnerable. People might understand exactly what you think! Most business writing fails at this stage because the writer fears that their truth is insufficient. If it is genuinely your truth, it will be sufficient. Crude, concrete honesty grabs our attention like a hand on the collar. Hyperbole and pretention put the reader to sleep.
You must respect the reader with brevity, knowing that every word exacts a price in attention. Say exactly enough to convey your meaning and no more. Anything that isn’t doing vital work – any prefix or suffix, any word, phrase, sentence or paragraph, any structure that convolutes the piece – is cut. Whether something is doing ‘vital work’ is a matter of judgement rather than fact, so prepare for more pain. There is a limit to this surgery, of course. You may need to insert words if your meaning is unclear or if the rhythm doesn’t flow. Einstein probably said, “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but no simpler”. This is true of writing as well as less fundamental fields like physics.
Speakers have known for millennia that you can amplify your meaning and emotion through the rhythm of your words. This applies to writing as well as speaking. This is the music of the piece, and it lifts the words off the page and plants them in the mind of the reader. This is not an arcane skill, you need no rhetorical training, so you shouldn’t ignore it. It is embedded in our instincts for communication. However it does live more naturally in spoken rather than written words. It is not quite true to say that you need to write like you speak – you owe your reader the clarity of structure and brevity that the spoken word often lacks – but if you can infuse the logic of your writing with the spirit of your conversation you may achieve something special.
It should also be clear that it is impossible to write well without revision. Revision goes beyond spotting mistakes and typos. The four principles above are applied more in editing than in composition.
Even people who plan and structure their work in advance often discover more about their purpose through the writing. Those of us who jump straight in, to find out what we mean by saying it, can only count the first draft as the most basic sketch of the final work. It is also far easier to spot bullshit when you return to your writing. The cutting of words requires repeated passes through the writing, like a carpenter planing a timber to perfection, verbiage falling like shavings to the floor. Finding the music needs rehearsal: you must actually listen to your work.
No writer who respects their reader gives them a first draft. No reader is moved by a writer who disrespects them. As Ernest Hemmingway is supposed to have said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
We edit better with distance. If you can, put your draft to one side for as long as possible. Return to it as a stranger. Even better: get an actual stranger to edit it.
Here are some exercises to help with each of these tips. Try them one at a time on a chunky piece of writing (say 300-600 words) when you have a moment. Try them on this blog post if you like and let me know! There is overlap between the tips, because the principles support each other and the same tactic can work to different ends. Your purpose helps you decide which words are doing work – they either advance your purpose or they are cut. Eliminating words also eliminates barriers: it is hard to be both concise and pretentious. And the music makes your meaning clear and your aims persuasive.
Point of view
- Step back from the words briefly. What do you really believe about this topic? Anything at all, however mundane? Now, is that viewpoint obvious from what you have written?
- Could anyone reasonable disagree with what you have said? One way of testing this for particular sentences is to convert them to say the exact opposite; if you can’t imagine anyone actually holding that view, you’ve probably written something pretty bland.
- What would you like someone to do after reading this?
- (This connects to the section below) Where do you feel most vulnerable in this piece? What claims do you most feel exposed on or at risk of challenge? Nothing at all? Perhaps you’ve not been as honest as you could be.
- How often do you hedge your bets? Do you spend more time on the counter argument than your own? This is a matter of judgement. If there are real downsides or doubts or limits you owe it to your reader to be honest. The question is, who are you trying to protect with the caveat: the reader or your reputation?
- Are there any phrases or sentences in the document that you would feel foolish saying out loud to a friend in the pub / your mother / a child? (delete as appropriate to achieve the right impression of a common sense audience) What would you say to them instead? Why didn’t you say that?
- Do you make any subjective claims for size, scale, quality, popularity, or any other virtue? “This is the biggest, quickest, smoothest, most loved…” Can you replace with an objective, even quantified, piece of evidence? If you can’t, how do you know it is true?
- “Mistakes were made.” You’ve probably been told to avoid passive sentences, but they are sometimes appropriate. If you spot any in the document, rather than delete them, ask whether they are concealing responsibility, either your own or someone else’s. Usefully, active sentences are also often shorter.
- Returning to the areas of vulnerability, have you tried to make anything look grander than it actually is? Have you used the words ‘system’ or ‘solution’ or ‘mode’ anywhere, for example?
- Have you used any words that sound good but that you don’t really understand? Try looking for the word or phrase that you are most proud of and test it hard. If you were called on to define it, what would you say?
- I often work my way into a piece of writing, which can mean that my early words and sentences are the equivalent of throat clearing. Try deleting the first sentence; is anything lost? What about the first paragraph? How far can you go before your meaning is lost? If there is important warm up material that goes missing, can you summarise it more concisely than your first pass? In the same spirit, I understand that common advice given to budding fiction writers is to start their novel at the second chapter.
- Hunt down every superlative (very, really, incredibly), adjective and adverb in the document. Delete them; what is lost? Might it actually seem more confident? If the remaining nouns and verbs are too limp, try replacing them with a bolder version. A “very fast run” would be better as just a “run”, but could be more accurate as a “sprint”. Most pieces will probably need a few of these words, this blog certainly does, but the process of trying to remove them all is instructive.
- Simply set yourself the goal of removing 10% of the word count of the document, either by straight deletion or rewriting convoluted sentences where necessary. Test whether any important meaning is lost in the absence of those words. What do you notice about the words you can lose? Any habits?
- We often use two or three words to describe or modify something when one would do. Are there any lists of characteristics in your document? Try picking just one of those characteristics. This tic is brought dramatically to life in the West Wing episode ‘A Proportional Response’ during an argument between Sam Seaborne and CJ Cregg:
C.J. What this is about Sam is you’re a high profile, very visible, much noticed member... SAM You just said three things that all mean the same thing. C.J. You’re not going to let this out of your teeth. SAM Can I go now C.J.? Because what I think this is about is you. Once again letting the character cops win in a forfeit because you don’t have the guts or the strength or the courage to say ‘we know what’s right from wrong and this none of your damn business!’ C.J. Really? SAM Yes! C.J. Strength, guts or courage? SAM Yes. C.J. You just said three things that all mean the same thing.
Brevity is so important that it is worth the irony of making this the longest section. Take this worked example:
“I hope it is clear that in our future plans we will be remedying the complex and interlocking failure modes that were associated with this project.”
- Throat clearing
- Weak conjugation
- Fancy word
- Redundant adjectives
- Cliche / jargon
- Passive avoidance of responsibility
Eliminating this fat could give us:
“We will fix the complex mistakes we made on this project.”
We can often go further on brevity if we examine the basic structure of the sentence. ‘Complex’ is a subjective modifier, for example. It would be even better if we described the actual mistakes:
“Three things went wrong on this project: weak quality control, lack of ownership and unrealistic scope. These are our responsibility and we will fix them by 31st March.”
Of course, this is longer than the first version (although only marginally given the significant increase in content), which exemplifies a trade off between the principles. To preserve clarity, the new sentence has been split in two. In making these choices, it also helps to consider the purpose of your writing. Evidently, someone has screwed up, the client is unhappy and the relationship is at risk. You want to demonstrate ownership and resolution, you want to create trust. Which version does this best?
Removing words is not always clear cut. The extra words often carry some minor meaning or modification or give a sense of tone. In the above example “complex and interlocking” are slightly different concepts. It is best to think of it in terms of cost/benefit rather than a binary decision. Each addition to the length of the document exacts a price from the reader. Is the extra meaning worth it? Assume that the cost is high.
These tests require you to read the piece out loud, so find a quiet spot or subvocalise to avoid funny looks.
- Where do you run out of breath or even the will to live? Split the sentence or work in a change of pace.
- Do you fall into any singsong or staccato rhythms? Vary the lengths or sounds.
- Do you notice you repeat anything (sounds or words) accidentally?
- Are there any sudden breaks where you jump from one concept to another without warning?
- Does anything sound really dumb or weird when you say it out loud? How would you actually say it if you had to speak the concept to someone?
The final words go to George Orwell: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Some useful references:
Politics and the English Language, George Orwell – for the quote above and many other brilliant suggestions
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White – including grammar tips beyond the scope of this article
The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto – help on structure
Story, Robert McKee – about scriptwriting, but very stimulating
Edit 1: A previous draft read, “Hunt down every superlative (very, really, incredibly), adjective and adverb in the document. Delete them; what is really lost?” One reader asked if it was ironic that I used “really” so soon after criticising its use. I wish I could say it was. Also a good example of how you need an outside perspective to truly perfect your writing.
Edit 2: I originally wrote, “We all have the power to write in a way that informs and changes the minds of others.” This uses two words that aren’t distinct given the context. Deleting one then left “the minds of others” feeling cumbersome.
Edit 3: I wrote “exerts a cost on the reader”. It almost works, but I meant “exacts a cost from the reader”. And “price” works better than “cost”. Perhaps “demands” would be simpler than “exacts”.
Edit 4: The original draft used too many semi colons. It is a tic of mine.
Edit 5-ish: I found another scatalogical (fancy word, but fun) Hemingway quote in the article Losing the Narrative by James McElroy in American Affairs Journal: “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”