(More) tips for writing well

Published Wed, Jul 8, 2009 by Austin Govella. Updated Wed, Jul 8, 2009.

As an editor, I’ve noticed several recurring bad habits you heathens would do well to disabuse yourselves of immediately.

Almost without exception, these bad habits instantiate themselves as a series of stock phrases and constructions that reflect a lack of focus, a lack of fully developed argument, or the kind of intellectual laziness that sets in as you slog through your first draft.

These things happen, That’s ok. Editing helps you save yourselves from these offenses before your thoughts hit the world and everyone knows your dirty secrets. but you can edit yourself, and you should. Use the following checklist as a guide to tightening up both your words as well as and what you mean.

16 things to check when you edit

Be vicious when you edit. Vicious. Follow these recommendations with zealous fervor. They help your writing say what it should in a way we’ll understand.

1. I think, I’d say, im my opinion, what I’ve found, in my experience… Yeah. We know. You wrote this. These are your thoughts. If they’re not, provide a reference. If they’re yours, the byline is enough to remind us.

2. Delete all adverbs and adjectives unless they’re absolutely, totally, inherently necessary. Each unnecessary word weakens your impact and clarity.

3. Remove prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases are less important than your main point. If it’s not important enough to deserve its own sentence, it’s not important enough to read.

4. Active not passive. Kill “to be” verbs. All of them. Always.

5. Kill -ing words. Restructure your sentence so the -ing is an active verb.

6. Lead with the bottom line up front: BLUF. Then include an example, re-state the bottom line, include an illustration, and when you end restate the bottom line. For every point you make, follow this pattern. That’s bottom line, example, bottom line, another example, and then the bottom line (again).

7. Telegraph and signpost what you will say and why we care. We’re not reading mystery novels. We want to know who died, how, who killed them, and why we care up front. That way, we know why we want to read before we begin.

8. Use clear, informative headers. Cute or artsy might be pleasant on the first read, but when we reference it later, the cute header makes it a pain to find things. What you’re writing is worth going back to, right?

9. Introduce new terminology in the intro. If you’ve created a new term or applied a new phrase to describe something, define it at the beginning, and use the new terminology throughout your writing. Readers need the entirety of your piece to learn and assimilate the new phrasing.

10. Typically, sometimes, often times, usually… Yeah. We know. You don’t have to tell us.

11. Say “you” and “your”. Don’t use nouns when talking about your audience (like “User Experience Practitioners”). And don’t use “one”. Speak to us.

12. Ditch clunky words. Instead of “via”, write “using”. Instead of “upon”, say “on”.

13. Remove cliches and common phrases. Every time you take a common phrase shortcut, you’re telling us it’s not worth our time.

14. Use contractions. Write with proper grammar, and people will read. Write like you talk, and people will listen.

15. No pronouns. Repeat the noun over and over again. If you get tired of that, use synonyms.

16. Delete your best lines. We don’t care about poetry, wit, or slyness. We care about what you want to say.

After you edit…

The finished piece should be so tight, terse, concise, and clear that it’s boring.

Boring.

Then sand off the rough edges.

Write like you talk. Where the concise feels awkward, add conversational. Where tight lacks nuance, tease details. Where terse is cold, be warm.

The first 16 recommendations remove fluff and force you to think and communicate. Once you’ve finished editing’s intellectual work, go back and make sure you write like you talk. Writing begins a conversation. If we feel like you’re talking to us, we’ll listen.

Talk About "(More) tips for writing well"

Michael Beavers said:

Thank you for editing my piece a few years back, Austin. You helped me talk good.

Wed, Jul 08, 2009 at 03:51 PM

Liz Danzico said:

My favorite editing tricks involve getting a new perspective on the text, almost like seeing it for the first time (which is part of the value of having an editor in the first place):

1. After you finish editing it, read it one more time backwards. Not the words, but read the last paragraph, then the one before it, and so on, all the way to the beginning. You’ll see the paragraphs out of order, giving you context on the text unlike what you had before.

2. Take the text to a different format. If you were editing it on the screen before, print it out. If you were editing it in print, read it on screen. If you were editing in a coffee shop, take it home. Changing context is all you need to see something differently.

So change context however you can. And do it often.

Wed, Jul 08, 2009 at 04:04 PM

Austin Govella said:

Liz,

Those are great. I have a really tough article I’m editing now that I’ll try the context switching on. I’ll probably try a new format AND a new location.

Reading the piece backwards sounds especially good for material you’re self-editing (like blog posts).

In a similar vein, I often change context by letting something to sit for several days. The different head space helps provide a new perspective.

Wed, Jul 08, 2009 at 04:40 PM

Loren B said:

If everyone on the web wrote this way, I’d certainly read more of it. Thanks!

“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser goes into much more depth on a lot of this. He also recommends reading your work out loud to gain fresh perspective.

Thu, Jul 09, 2009 at 04:34 PM

Dennis Schleicher said:

Thanks Austin. Great ideas for me to use on my blog. Could you create a nice little widget that shows me how many I violate in each post? (I am guessing I am double digits!) I will try to work on one in each new post. Thank you again. I’ll buy you lunch next time we meet up.
—Dennis

Tue, Jul 28, 2009 at 11:06 PM

Cennydd Bowles said:

Austin – better late than never, but thank you for this post. I refer to it all the damn time.

Fri, Jun 04, 2010 at 08:14 AM