The Pen Commandments

After years as a pen for hire, I try to remember a few rules to make writing count. Here are 10 of them.

Read up

Want to be a better writer? Become a better reader. Whatever you consume, you’ll accumulate knowledge and perspectives you can use, and better understand effective (or poor) composition. What moves you as a reader can inspire you as a writer.

Write tight

Machines work best when they have no unnecessary parts. Likewise, a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. Be ruthless. Visualize a bed with the sheets so tight that you can bounce a dime off them. That’s how tight the copy should be, so keep pulling at the edges. A little more. And more.

Say goodbye to gobbledygook

Every field has its jargon and buzzwords. Avoid them.

Paint a picture

Writing is merely the craft of using words to communicate ideas. The task is really storytelling. Vivid details and imagery stir an audience.

Distinguish communication from information

As one journalist once said, the words are often used interchangeably but they mean something quite different. Information is giving out; communication is getting through. Make it applicable, credible and understandable.

Explore the language

Some phrases get tired – and so will the audience if you keep using them. The English language contains more than 250,000 words. We have a vocabulary of about 20,000, and use maybe 2,000 words in a given week. Try out some new ones. Be fresh.

Keep it simple

That doesn’t mean simplistic. It means expressing yourself as unambiguously as possibly. Do you utilize a multi-tined tool to process a starch resource? Or do you use your fork to eat a potato? The thoughts that get the most attention are the ones that stand on their own, without unnecessary ornamentation. Just say what you mean.

Break through the clutter

Researchers found that we’re exposed to the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of data every day (and rising). With that barrage of words passing through our eyes and ears, from all media, how do you penetrate the audience? By ensuring that your writing:

  • Engages – promises relevancy, i.e. how does this matter to my life?
  • Entertains – holds our attention with something beyond the facts and figures.
  • Enlightens – reveals something useful that we can apply or consider differently.

Let it flow

J.K. Rowling re-wrote chapter one of the first Harry Potter book at least 15 times. Nobody gets their message right the first time all the time. Don’t worry about the audience yet. Don’t be self-conscious. Don’t try to edit while you’re writing. Your first job is to write for an audience of one – yourself. When you’re done, you’ll have something there. It won’t be perfect. But it’s a start.

Avoid clichés like the plague