Compiled by Joshua Sowin

This guide was mainly distilled from On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Other sources are listed in the bibliography.
My memory being stubborn and lazy, I compiled this so I could easily
refresh myself on writing well. I hope it will also be helpful to
others. If you have any suggestions about additions or changes, please
let me know.

Table of Contents

Before You Start Writing

Before you start writing an article, ask the following questions:

  1. How will I address the reader?
    (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
  2. What pronoun and tense will I use?
    (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and causal?)
  3. What attitude will I take toward the material?
    (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
  4. How much of the subject do I want to cover?
  5. Have I done enough research and/or have enough experience with the subject to write intelligently?
  6. Is there anyone I can interview to gather more information on the subject and to quote? (See also: “Interviews”)
  7. What is the one point I want to make?
    1. “Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader
      with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.
      Not two thoughts, or five—just one.” (Zinsser, 53)

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General Principles

  1. Be yourself. Don’t alter your voice for a subject. Relax and
    write with confidence and in a way that comes easily and naturally.
    Sometimes this will mean discarding the first few paragraphs until you
    start writing naturally. “Never say anything in writing that you
    wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation” (Zinsser, 27).
    When possible, use the first person – it usually comes out
    more natural.
  2. Write for yourself – that will make it interesting to the reader.
  3. Write with humanity and warmth.
  4. Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter. Don’t add words for “style.”
    1. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph
      no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should
      have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
      (Strunk and White, 23)
    2. “Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word
      that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word,
      every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the
      verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who
      is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterations that
      weaken the strength of a sentence.” (Zinsser, 8)
    3. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome,
      and sometimes nauseating.” (Strunk and White, 72)
  5. Be clear. Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Know logic, rhetoric and your subject.
    1. “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a
      destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly
      worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase
      in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met
      at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.
      Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When
      you say something, make sure you have said it.” (Strunk and
      White, 79)
    2. “Jaw-breaking words often cover up very sloppy thinking.” (Thomas Sowell)
    3. “Remember this: a well-written book with bad arguments will
      have more influence than a poorly-written book with endless nuance and
      lifeless prose. Remember this too: lifeless prose comes from lifeless
      minds.” (Scot McKnight)
    4. “Good writers write in such a way that one can read them
      aloud and know what they mean. Bad writers have to be studied and
      re-read and pondered.” (Scot McKnight)
  6. Avoid fancy words.
    1. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” (George Orwell)
    2. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.
      Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center
      handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so
      use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to
      style, one’s ear must be one’s guide…” (Strunk
      and White, 77)
    3. “Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.” (Jacques Barzun)
  7. “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you
    write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is,
    after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would
    die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by
    its triviality?” (Dillard, 68)
  8. Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of
    meaning. Use a dictionary for any word you have doubt on its meaning.
    Use a thesaurus to “nudge your memory.” (Zinsser, 36)
  9. Talk about a person, not people. Specificity will raise interest.
  10. Pay attention to your metaphors – what are you communicating with them?
  11. Have a unity of pronoun (first person, etc.), unity of tense (past,
    present, future) and unity of mood (casual, comedy, irony).
  12. “Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan.
    Writing is no respecter of blueprints.” (Zinsser, 53)
  13. Don’t save good ideas for later.
    1. “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book,
      or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to
      save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it
      now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”
      (Dillard, 78-79)
  14. Don’t over-explain.
    1. “Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by
      telling them something they already know or can surmise. Try not to use
      words like ‘surprisingly,’ ‘predictably,’ and
      ‘of course,’ which put a value on a fact before the reader
      encounters the fact.” (Zinsser, 92)
    2. “It is seldom advisable to tell all.” (Strunk and White, 75)
  15. After every sentence, ask yourself what the reader wants to know next.
  16. Use orthodox spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
    1. “Do not write nite for night, thru for through, pleez for please,
      unless you plan to introduce a complete system of simplified spelling
      and are prepared to take the consequences.” (Strunk and White, 74)
  17. Make your writing interesting. (See also: “Humor ”)
    1. “[F]ind some way to elevate your act of writing into an
      entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable
      surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote,
      paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish
      detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These
      seeming amusements in fact become your ‘style.’ When we say
      we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his
      personality as he expresses it on paper.” (Zinsser, 288)
    2. “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more;
      it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying
      examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be
      excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.” (C. S. Lewis)
  18. Learn to interview others and weave their quotes into your writing.
    “Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in
    proportion to the number of ‘quotes’ you can weave into it
    as you go along” (Zinsser, 101). (See also: “Interviews ”)
  19. Learn to write about place, because “people and places are
    the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built” (Zinsser,
    116). (See also: “Travel ”)

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Usage Principles

  1. Use active verbs. Example: “He was seen by Joe” should be “Joe saw him.”
    1. “Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid
      the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work.
      Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t
      say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did
      he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.”
      (Zinsser, 69)
  2. Most adverbs are unnecessary. Replace them with precise verbs.
    Beware of adverbs that have the same meaning as the verb
    (“grinned widely,” “sadly moped”).
  3. Most adjectives are unnecessary. Kick the “adjective-by-habit.”
  4. Remove common clichés, cheap words, and made-up words.
  5. Remove qualifiers: a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense.
    1. “[Qualifiers] are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” (Strunk and White, 73)
    2. “Good writing is lean and confident.” (Zinsser, 71)
  6. Keep sentences short.
    1. “There’s not much to be said about the period except
      that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” (Zinsser, 71)
  7. Remove laborious phrases. Why use “at the present time” instead of “now”?
  8. Remove “experiencing.” “Are you experiencing pain?” could be “Does it hurt?”
  9. Remove unnecessary euphemism. A “depressed socioeconomic area” is a “slum.”
  10. Remove long words when a short one will do. Examples: Assistance
    (help), facilitate (ease), implement (do), referred to as (called).
  11. Remove word clusters that explain to go about explaining: “I
    might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is
    interesting to note.”
  12. Remove verbal camouflage. Corporations and governments are often
    tempted to use this. “A negative cash-flow position” means
    a corporation is bankrupt. “Involuntary methodologies”
    means layoffs.
  13. “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t
    say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’;
    otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about
    something really infinite.” (C. S. Lewis)
  14. Use exclamation points sparingly. Instead, try to “construct
    your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis
    where you want it.” (Zinsser, 72)
  15. Alert the reader to mood or subject changes. Examples: but, yet,
    however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now,
    later, today.

    1. Sentences can begin with “but,” no matter what your teacher said.
    2. “Don’t start a sentence with
      ‘however’—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And
      don’t end with ‘however’—by that time it has
      lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can….
      Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.” (Zinsser, 74)
  16. Use contractions when they sound natural.
  17. Don’t be ambiguous – use personal nouns. For instance,
    “The common reaction is incredulous laughter” could be
    “Most people just laugh with disbelief.” (Zinsser, 77)
  18. Don’t use overstatement or people will never believe you in a million years.
  19. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. For instance,
    “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time,
    though it has advanced in many other ways” could be “Since
    that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly
    advanced in fortitude.” (Strunk and White, 32)
  20. Don’t use dialect unless your ear is good.
  21. Avoid foreign words. Use English.
  22. Regarding quotations:
    1. “When you use a quotation, start the sentence with
      it…. Nothing is deader than to start a sentence with a
      ‘Mr. Smith said’ construction—it’s where many
      readers stop reading.” (Zinsser, 110)
    2. “Don’t strain to find synonyms for ‘he
      said.’ Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate
      just to avoid repeating ‘he said,’ and
      please—please!—don’t write ‘he smiled’ or
      ‘he grinned.’ I’ve never heard anybody smile. The
      reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so
      it’s not worth a lot of fuss.” (Zinsser, 111)
  23. That/which: Always use “that” unless it makes your
    meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its
    precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” (Zinsser, 76)
  24. Regarding e.g./i.e.:
    1. For “e.g.,” think of “example given.” (It is an abbreviation for the latin exempli gratia, which means “for the sake of an example.”)
    2. For “i.e.,” think of “in effect.” (It is an abbreviation for the Latin id est, which means “that is.”)

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The Introduction

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If
it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence,
your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce
him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such
a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is
hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 55

General Principles

  1. Make your lead as long or short as it requires – each article requires a different lead.
  2. Look for material everywhere. Many good leads come from finding some odd fact or overlooked daily absurdity.
    1. “Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and
      portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are
      often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from
      everybody else’s.” (Zinsser, 60)
    2. “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly.
      Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not
      course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down
      until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and
      strength.” (Dillard, 78)
  3. Tell a story if possible – “look for ways to convey
    your information in narrative form.” (Zinsser, 62)

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Does my lead capture the reader’s attention and force him to keep reading?
  2. Does it tell the reader why this is written and why he ought to read it?
  3. Is my lead fresh?
    1. If it has to do with future archaeologists, visitors from Mars,
      what various figures have in common, or a recent cute event, it
      probably isn’t.
    2. If it starts with “John Doe was born on…” then it definitely isn’t.

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The Conclusion

Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of
perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t
stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 64

  1. Give as much thought to the last sentence as the first.
  2. Don’t conclude with a summary.
    1. “[Y]our readers hear the laborious sound of cranking. They
      notice what you are doing and how bored you are by it. They feel the
      stirrings of resentment. Why didn’t you give more thought to how
      you were going to wind this thing up? Or are you summarizing because
      you think they’re too dumb to get the point? Still, you keep
      cranking. But the readers have another option. They quit.”
      (Zinsser, 65)
  3. “When you’re ready to stop, stop.” (Zinsser, 66)
  4. Don’t use “In conclusion,” or other derivatives.
  5. “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by
    surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the
    article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said. But
    they know it when they see it.” (Zinsser, 65-6)
  6.  “Conclude with a sentence that jolts … with its fitness or unexpectedness.” (Zinsser, 66)
  7. If possible, bring the lead story full circle. It gives symmetry and pleases the reader.
  8. Often a quotation works best – especially one that is surprising.

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You can save some sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle
if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in
themselves or hard-won.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 5

  1. Rewriting is the essence of writing well. Clear writing is the result of much tinkering.
  2. A first draft is never perfect. “Most first drafts can be cut
    by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the
    author’s voice.” (Zinsser, 17)
  3. Rewriting is tweaking the text, not starting over. Simplify,
    clarify, rephrase drab sentences, add information and alter the
  4. Listen to how your words sound – rhythm and alliteration are important. Read all your writing aloud.
  5. Have a friend read your article before making it public – writers often miss obvious errors in their writing.
  6. Rewriting is rereading. “I reread a sentence maybe a hundred
    times, and if I kept it I changed it seven or eight times, often
    substantially.” (Dillard, 31)

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Genre Specific


  1. Interview people who are passionate and know more about a subject than you. Have them tell your story.
  2. Learn about the person you are interviewing, if possible, before
    your interview. “You will be resented if you inquire about facts
    you could have learned in advance.” (Zinsser, 105)
  3. Interesting information is “locked inside people’s
    heads, which a good nonfiction writer must unlock” (Zinsser,
    103). Ask questions that elicit interesting answers.
  4. Make a list of likely questions, but better questions will often
    occur to you in the interview. Tailor your questions to the
  5. During the interview:
    1. “Interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better
      at. You will never again feel so ill at ease as when you try it for the
      first time, and probably you’ll never feel entirely comfortable
      prodding another person for answers he or she may be too shy or too
      inarticulate to reveal. But much of the skill is mechanical. The rest
      is instinct—knowing how to make the other person relax, when to
      push, when to listen, when to stop. This can all be learned with
      experience.” (Zinsser, 104)
    2. Take time to chat before you start interviewing. It will put them at ease.
    3. Use pad and pen/pencil. Use a tape recorder only when it is
      important to transcribe every word (for instance, when someone speaks a
      different dialect than you.) (Zinsser, 105-107)
    4. If you get behind in your notes, politely ask them to stop talking
      while you finish. Nobody wants to be misquoted. But as you interview
      more, you will develop shorthand and get faster at writing.
  6. After the interview, distill the essence of the interview. Single
    out sentences that are most important or colorful. Present his position
    accurately, even if that means putting two quotes together that were
    not together in the interview:
    1. “If you find on page 5 of your notes a comment that perfectly
      amplifies a point on page 2—a point made earlier in the
      interview—you will do everyone a favor if you link the two
      thoughts, letting the second sentence follow and illustrate the first.
      This may violate the truth of how the interview actually progressed,
      but you will be true to the intent of what was said.” (Zinsser,
  7. When unsure about a point, contact the person for clarification. Again, nobody wants to be misquoted.
  8. Never fabricate quotes.

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  1. Travel writing is very hard. “It must be hard, because
    it’s in this area that most writers—professional and
    amateur—produce not only their worst work but work that is just
    plain terrible.” (Zinsser, 117)
  2. While traveling, keep in mind what will interest the reader.
  3. Be specific and avoid travelese. “Travelese is also a style
    of soft words that under hard examination mean nothing, or mean
    different things to different people: ‘attractive,’
    ‘charming,’ ‘romantic.’” (Zinsser, 118)
  4. Choose words with unusual care. Keep a reign on adjectives.
    “If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion;
    it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven
    their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to
    make a special effort not to use them…. Strive for fresh words and images.” (Zinsser, 118)
  5. Be selective about descriptions and events. Find details that are
    significant and concrete; talk about things that will interest others.
    Leave out the rest.
  6. Practice travel writing locally before trying something more ambitious.
  7. Bring out the place and the people.
  8. Examples of travel writers: Bill Bryson, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Jonathan Raban, V. S. Pritchett, James Baldwin.

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  1. Write what you know, what you think and what makes you unique.
  2. “Think narrow…. Memoir isn’t the summary of
    life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in
    its selective composition.” (Zinsser, 136)
  3. Bring in details whenever possible.
  4. “Summon back the men and women and children who notably
    crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable—what turn
    of mind, what crazy habits?” (Zinsser, 145)
  5. Remember that people are hoping you are the most interesting character in the book.
  6. Examples of good memoirs: Speak, Memory by Nabokov, Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, This American Life by Annie Dillard, The Education of Henry Adams, The Confessions by St. Augustine.

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Science and Technology

  1. Assume the reader knows nothing and explain concepts accordingly.
  2. Start with too much material.
  3. “Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at
    the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any
    more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the
    pyramid wider, [and so on.]” (Zinsser, 150)
  4. Include the human element using yourself or others. Weave a story around a person.
  5. “Relate [unfamiliar facts] to sights [your readers] are
    familiar with. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can
    visualize.” (Zinsser, 155)
  6. Write like a person and not like a scientist.
  7. Examples of good science and technology writers: Stephen Jay Gould,
    Neil Postman, Lewis Thomas, Bill Bryson, Oliver Sacks.

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  1. Know and love the medium you are reviewing.
  2. Don’t give away too much of the plot.
  3. Use specific detail. Don’t only say “Mr. Jones is a poor writer” – give examples of what you think are poor writing and let the reader decide.
  4. Avoid the ecstatic adjectives: wonderful, marvelous, dazzling, etc.
  5. For critics:
    1. Steep yourself in the literature of the medium. Place each work into its tradition.
    2. You can presuppose certain shared knowledge with your readers, unlike general reviews.
    3. Be personable. “We like good critics as much for their
      personality as for their opinions.” (Zinsser, 199)
    4. Criticism should be stylish, allusive, disturbing. It should
      “jog a set of beliefs and force us to reexamine them.”
      (Zinsser, 202)
    5. Humor is a good lubricant.
    6. “How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an
      immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are
      about to enter. Even if they are broadly educated men and women they
      need to be told or reminded of certain facts.” (Zinsser, 204)
      (See also: “The Introduction”)
    7. Take your stand with conviction.

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Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s
secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best
tool—and sometimes their only tool—for making an important
–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 208

  1. “Humor… is urgent work. It’s an attempt to say
    important things in a special way that regular writers aren’t
    getting said in a regular way—or if they are, it’s so
    regular that nobody is reading it.” (Zinsser, 209)
  2. “Don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise,
    and you can surprise the reader only so often.” (Zinsser, 215)
  3. Control is vital. Know when stop.
  4. Be vulnerable. Making yourself the victim or dunce can be funny – to a point.
  5. Example humor writers: Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Robert Benchley, S. K. Perelman, Bill Bryson, Garrison Keillor.

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How do I get better at writing?

  1. Know the rules of writing and learn when to break them.
  2. Establish a schedule for writing and stick to it. Force yourself to write regularly.
    1. “Every day for years, Trollope reported in his
      ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30
      a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of
      himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he
      finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of
      paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a
      long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he
      said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he
      produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so
      well, he urged his method on all writers: ‘Let their work be to
      them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts
      will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor
      sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat,
      or said that they have sat.’” (Acocella)
  3. Practice, practice, practice.
  4. Read good writers. Writing is learned by imitation. Find model writers, read them, and imitate them.
    1. “[The writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what
      he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he
      will know.” (Dillard, 68)
    2. “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part
      of the creative process for anyone learning an art or craft….
      Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their
      work aloud.” (Zinsser, 238)
    3. “We should accustom the mind to keep the best company by
      introducing it only to the best books.” (Sydney Smith)
    4. “To learn to write one must learn both a considerable portion of what has been written and how it was written.”
      (Berry, Life is a Miracle, 71)
  5. Ask friends to read and critique your writing. Be sure to tell them you want the truth.

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Where should I write?

  1. Write where you are most productive (it is not always the place you think).
    1. Experiment with various locations. Wendell Berry writes in front of
      a large window; Wallace Stephens and Osip Mandelstam composed poetry on
      the horseback; Annie Dillard, on the other hand, says “Appealing
      workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so
      imagination can meet memory in the dark.” (Dillard, 26)
    2. Regarding computers:
      1. Writing at the computer is often an invitation to distraction,
        unless you don’t have internet access. Paper and pencil are old
        favorites that many writers still use today. If you must use a
        computer, turn off your email and other distractions.
      2. “A computer, I am told, offers a kind of help that you
        can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you write
        faster, easier, and more. For a while, it seemed to me that every
        university professor I met told me this. Do I, then, want to write
        faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and
        quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing
        with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I
        would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other
        humans, not a machine.” (Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, 74)

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What should I write?

  1. Write about what you know and love, like hobbies or work. Your love
    of the subject will come out and make it interesting.
    1. “Why do you never find anything written about that
      idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with
      something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is
      something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is
      hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you
      begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own
      astonishment.” (Dillard, 67-68)
  2. “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or
    nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a
    long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all your possess and learn.
    A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’
    inventions and richnesses. Much of those years’ reading will feed
    the work…. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a
    recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” (Dillard, 71)

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I’m stuck on a sentence, what should I do?

Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by getting rid
of it, or starting the sentence over again. If that doesn’t solve
it, move on and come back to it.

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Appendix 1: Orwell’s Six Rules of Clear English

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Taken from George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

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Appendix 2: Mark Twain’s Rules of Story Writing

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of
    corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses
    from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall
    sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely
    to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning,
    also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the
    neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader,
    and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of
    anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in the
    tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf,
    hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning
    of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as
    “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the
    forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities
    and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must
    so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the
    personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the
    reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the
    reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Adapted from Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895).