Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Tips For Aspiring Writers

Good writing always strikes a balance between: simplicity, clarity, and beauty. Three principles that are simple enough to keep experienced writers on route, and complex enough to send inexperienced writers off course.

So as a reminder to myself, and as a service to aspiring writers, here are 15 concrete tips to improve your writing.

1) Never forget that a reader’s easiest decision is to stop reading. This means that every sentence, from start to finish, has to hold the reader’s attention. So care deeply about your audience: Who are your readers? What are their values and beliefs? What words, examples, and anecdotes will work best to convey your message? Without this intimate sense of your reader, your prose will be lacking. 

2) Just because your school textbooks were jammed with stuffy language, doesn’t mean you need to emulate that style to sound mature and intelligent. In fact, that turd turgid style of writing makes you seem inauthentic. You wouldn’t ask your friend if you could “utilise the lavatory.” Only use big words if they help express your message.

3) Every piece you write has a goal. If not, you shouldn’t be writing it. So before you put words to paper, your intent must be clear: am I writing to inform, persuade, entertain, or inspire? That intent is the glue that holds your prose together. Without this conscious approach, your prose will lack conviction and will likely end with a sizzle.

4) If you’re writing on behalf of yourself, offer an opinion. Do not waste the reader’s time weighing up alternative views. If the reader wanted non-committal news, he’d tune into PBS

5) When you’re fresh out of school with little expertise and no reputation, keep your opinion to a minimum. You’re still a rookie and need to clock in more hours before you become an authority. Until that time, stick to the 80-20 rule: 80 percent new information, 20 percent opinion.

6) Here’s one I know you’ve heard before: avoid passive sentences. Why? Because a passive sentence takes longer to understand than an active one. Take the following passive sentence, “Pete was told by Jim to hand over the keys.” Comprehension is a bit slow. So let’s speed it up by making it active, “Jim told Pete to hand over the keys.” Now the words drew a sharp picture in an instant. Keep it active.

7) Although you’re doing all the work, writing is a dialogue. And if the reader doesn’t feel heard, she stops reading. So raise the biggest objection to your argument. Don’t grab a straw man. By dismantling counter-arguments, you’ll strengthen your case and become more trustworthy.

8) You’re paid to be a stickler. Read each sentence aloud and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the 6th president of Madagascar is Hery Martial Rajaonarimampianina Rakotoarimanana. But correcting after publication feels bad and hurts your reputation.

10) Think Ernest Hemingway, not Oscar Wilde. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.

11) Every organisation that hires you probably already has a running conversation with its readers. Before starting your contribution, consider how your piece will advance the discussion.

12) People like fresh, not worn out. Yet most writers repeatedly use antiquated phrases like, “At the end of the day…”, “As quick as a flash…”, “Low-hanging fruit…”, “Getting your ducks in a row…”, and so on. These phrases may not even make a blip on your radar. But once you remove hackneyed phrases from your prose and come up with your own, you’ll instantly recognize how stock phrases torpedo your writing.

13) Writing is tough. Winston Lord was once a speechwriter for the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and was working on a particularly important speech for his boss. After a few days of work, he dropped off the finished speech on Kissinger’s desk. Only to find it on his own desk the next morning, together with the note, “Is this the best you can do?”  Visibly flustered, Lord went back to work and eventually handed over a new draft. Only to hear Kissinger ask, “Are you sure this is the best you can do?” Lord was rejected a total of EIGHT times before he retorted, “Henry! I’ve beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft! I know it’s the best I can do; I can’t possibly improve one more word!!!” To which Kissinger calmly answered, “Well, in that case, now I’ll read it.” The art of writing lies in efficiency.

14) The reader is always right. If a reader tells you a sentence is confusing it probably is. Yes, even when it’s a sentence or paragraph you’re particularly proud of. You can’t be a writer if you’re not prepared to axe your word babies.

15) As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens once wrote, “I’d wish you luck, but good writing depends on conscious choices, not luck. Make good choices.”

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach