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4 Simple Rules That Will Make You A Better Writer

2015 July 8
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by Greg Satell

The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that, unless you can express an idea clearly, you don’t really understand it yourself.  His point was knowledge only has value if it’s explicit.  We may act on vague notions and gut impulses, but that doesn’t mean we’re really thinking things through.

Fareed Zakaria seems to agree.  As he noted in a recent article, “Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them”.

“Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian,” he continues, “writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas.” Zakaria also points to Jeff Bezos’ emphasis on memo writing as an example of how clarity of expression leads to innovation.  Here are four simple rules that will help you write better.

1. Clarity Before Creativity

Most people want their writing to be impressive.  They scour the thesaurus to identify “five dollar words,” and dream up clever turns of phrase.  Yet writing to impress is most likely to have the opposite effect.  Good writing is about communicating ideas clearly.  Weighing those ideas down with superfluous words and phrases will only create a muddle.

So instead of trying to be clever or creative, focus your efforts on clarity.  After all, ideas are why you’re writing in the first place, so why would you want anything to obscure them?  Even more importantly, focusing on clarity gives you the opportunity to transform that “jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses” into ideas that can have an impact.

The simple truth is that nobody is going to sit in wonder of how brilliant you are if they can’t understand what you’re talking about.  And if what you say loses its luster when expressed clearly, it’s probably not worth writing about anyway.

2. When In Doubt, Leave It Out

Born in the late 13th century, William of Ockham was a giant of his age.  As one of the few intellectual lights of medieval times, his commentaries on reason, logic and political theory are studied even today.  His ideas about the separation of church and state were literally centuries ahead of their time and formed the basis for our own constitutional principle.

Yet he’s best known for Ockham’s Razor, sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony.” Stated formally as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity,” a more informal way of saying it would be that you should never say more when the same could be achieved with less.

That’s good advice for anything you do, but it’s especially important for writing.  Extra phrases and superfluous points rarely strengthen your writing, but only clutter things up. The most important part of revising is taking out what doesn’t need to be there. If you find yourself questioning whether something belongs, you should remove it.

The three fatal words that can kill any endeavor are “one more thing.”  When in doubt, leave it out.

3. If It Sounds Like Writing, It’s Probably Crap

When we’re taught to write in school, we’re usually urged to follow a certain form.  Often, we’re given academic rules, such as leaning on sources, using a detached tone of voice, adding in sophisticated words to give an air of erudition and never beginning or ending a sentence with a conjunction or preposition.

But if one doesn’t talk like that, one shouldn’t write like that.  Style should be invisible.  If your audience is focusing on how you’re writing, then that steals cognitive energy away from concentrating on what you’re writing about.  Focusing on an arcane set of rules that you learned in school will only make your writing clumsy.

So forget about trying to phrase things in the “proper” way and focus on how you can write with clarity and impact.  In the real world, nobody is checking the Oxford style guide to see if you conform, they just want to know what you’re trying to tell them.

Again, the purpose of writing is to express ideas.  Think about your audience and the most impactful way to deliver your message.

4. Don’t Get Bogged Down On Your First Draft

The hardest thing about writing, or anything else for that matter, is that we always compare initial efforts to finished products and, not surprisingly, those efforts always seem to come up short. As Pixar President Ed Catmull wrote in his book, Creativity, Inc., “early on, all of our movies suck.”

That makes it really hard to start something, because whatever you first put down is bound to be a disappointment. Your wording will be clumsy, your points will be unclear and you’ll begin to realize that your great idea is actually, as Fareed Zakaria put it, “a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them”.

In other words, your first efforts are always crap.  Yet that shouldn’t blind you to the fact that all great works start out that way.  As Vladimir Nabokov put it, “writing is rewriting.” The greatness comes not from the initial spark of inspiration, but from the long hours spent honing it down to reveal its core. But before you do that, you need to dare to be crap and produce a first draft.

In other words, writing is work.  As in most things, talent is overrated.  You produce good work not from having a knack for a clever turn of phrase, but by putting in the effort to express your ideas clearly.

– Greg

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