The Pen Commandments

After many years as a pen for hire, I try to remember a few simple rules before putting that pen to paper. Here are 10 of them.

  1. Read up. Want to be a better writer? Become a better reader. When you read widely, you gain knowledge you can use in your own writing, and an appreciation for good writing. What moves you as a reader can inspire you as a writer.
  2. Write tight. Edit until there’s no fat left on the copy…then edit a little more…and a little more. As William Strunk Jr. wrote in The Elements of Style, a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. Visualize a bed, with the sheets pulled so tight that you can bounce a dime off them. That’s how tight the copy should be, so keep pulling at the edges.
  3. Say goodbye to gobbledygook. Every field has its own jargon and buzzwords. Avoid them, even if you’re writing for an internal audience or people in the industry. They can make your message vague and convoluted. Any reader appreciates clear writing.
  4. Do your homework. The more information you gather, the more you learn, and the more it gets you thinking – sometimes in unanticipated and rewarding new directions. You never know where you’ll unearth the one nugget that adds a fascinating dimension to what you’re trying to communicate.
  5. Explore the language. Don’t fall back on worn out ways of describing something. Some expressions get tired – and so will your readers if you keep using them. We have a vocabulary of about 20,000 words, and use maybe 2,000 in a given week, even though the English language contains more than 250,000 words. Try out some new ones.
  6. Keep it simple. That doesn’t mean simplistic. It means you’re expressing what you mean as unambiguously as possibly. Be precise. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, offers this pearl: “I utilized a multi-tined tool to process a starch resource.” Translation: “I used my fork to eat a potato.” Just say what you mean. The ideas and thoughts that get the most attention are the ones that stand on their own, without unnecessary ornamentation.
  7. Be the audience’s advocate. For a writer, it’s more important to be able to talk to the experts than it is to be an expert. When researching, ask the questions that the audience wants and needs to know. Translate the answers in a language that the audience can relate to.
  8. Engage, entertain and enlighten. We’re inundated with facts, figures and messages from every medium imaginable. A single edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in a lifetime in 17th century England. So what will sink in? Information that engages – promises some kind of relevancy. Information that entertains – holds our attention. And information that enlightens – reveals something useful to us. Do those three things, and any form of communications, from an article to a conversation in the hallway, will penetrate the intended audience.
  9. Be ruthless…and gracious. Margaret Mitchell re-wrote Gone With the Wind nine times. It’s impossible to get your message right the first time. So be ruthless with your own copy, yet accept criticism graciously. Everyone involved in a project should share the same objective – to create the best communications piece possible.
  10. Avoid clichés like the plague.

 

The Pen Commandments