If there’s anything writers love more than having written, it seems, it’s giving advice on how to write. It’s a nice way to feel helpful and useful and, for those who sell consultancy or editorial services, it’s a good way to build relationships with your future clients and be seen to be relevant.
But so much writing advice on the internet is facile nonsense. If I have a rule about reading writing advice, it’s that if the author lays out a set of rules without talking about exceptions to those rules, you may as well not bother reading on. The vast majority of writing advice is stylistic advice, and style, like everything else, is a tool and its proper use depends on context.
The latest piece to annoy me is “10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them”, by Josh Bernoff, which at first blush seems like a great list, but really isn’t. Now, I have to say up front that there’s no particular reason why I got cross about this list in particular. Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m sure Bernoff is a lovely chap who’s very good at his job, but this list has really very little to commend it.
1 Write shorter.
The author here conflates several issues: length, concision and burying the lead.
If you’ve been commissioned to write 750 words, then the correct length for your piece is 750 words. Submitting 500 words because you’re “writing shorter” will not endear you to your editor. If you can’t make your piece fit 750 words either because there’s not enough to talk about or too much, then you need to go back and talk to your editor.
If you’re writing a blog post, or have no word limit, then your piece needs to be as long as it needs to be. That’s hard to judge when you’re a beginner, but this is where the concept of concision comes in. Is your writing economical? Do you make the best use of your words? Are there any extraneous details you could cut?
Sometimes, of course, you will choose not to be concise. You will choose to use repetition for effect, because it is a useful rhetorical device that can serve an important function. But it should always be a deliberate choice that you make, knowing why you’ve made it and how it will read.
In his advice on how to fix this problem — “Delete your ‘warming up’ text and start with the main point” — Bernoff is actually talking about burying the lead (or lede if you’re American). In news journalism especially, it’s important not to ‘back into’ your story. Start with the most important point that you want to make, and add detail as you go.
This is the basis of the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure, about which many books have already been written. The purpose of this structure is not just to get to the point rapidly, and to thus hook the reader, but also to ensure that all the important stuff is up top and the copy editor can cut sentences, or even paragraphs, from the bottom with impunity.
However, there are times when you don’t want to get to the point in the first paragraph. Certain styles of feature writing, for example, prize a long and intricate set-up before getting to a big reveal much later in the article. So whether you reveal or obscure your point depends entirely on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.
So don’t write short: Write to length. You should also write concisely, and don’t bury the lede, except when you consciously choose otherwise.
2 Shorten your sentences.
This should really read, “Shorten your sentences, except for when you need to use longer sentences.”
Sentence length is tool for controlling how readers react to your words. Short sentences are fast. Sharp. Active. But longer sentences slow readers down, giving them time to digest and reflect, and to perhaps tie two concepts together into something new and exciting.
Writing only in short sentences robs you of dynamic range, and leaves the reader feeling a bit stressed and breathless. Mixing long and short sentences gives you the opportunity to play with your pacing and to give the reader breathers, so use the sentence length that works for the effect that you are trying to create.
3 Rewrite passive voice.
Don’t just write words. Write music . . . pic.twitter.com/QGBxb82E27
— John Hagel (@jhagel) April 21, 2016
There is a general loathing of the passive voice these days which is rather unwarranted. Bernoff says “Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness”, without recognising that sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.
Again, the passive voice has a specific impact on the reader, and it’s your choice as a writer to use it where it is appropriate. Sometimes, you’re going to want to conceal the identity of an actor, perhaps because you don’t know it, or it’s not important, or to reveal it would be to put the emphasis on the wrong thing.
“The car was stolen” puts the emphasis on the car, not on the person who stole it. Perhaps who stole it is irrelevant to the wider story that you’re trying to tell. Perhaps it’s an unknowable fact, the car was stolen so long ago we can no longer find out who stole it. Perhaps you want to keep your powder dry and reveal who stole the car later on in a climactic scene.
Do not be afraid of the passive voice. Learn to recognise it, and use it when it is appropriate.
4 Eliminate weasel words.
“Words like ‘generally’ and ‘most’ make your writing sound weak and equivocal.”
This seems like a hard one to argue with, except I have a science background, and scientists hate absolutes, even if they have the evidence to back things up. Sometimes, so-called ‘weasel words’ are actually honest words that define the limitations of our knowledge. Bernoff says:
For example, this Wall Street Journal native ad piece includes the sentence “Most companies with traditional business models probably have a few radical developers on staff.” Rewrite as “Every company has a radical developer or two.”
But does he have evidence that every single company has a radical developer in their ranks? Really? The WSJ hedges their bets because they cannot claim to know the types of developers employed by every company, and neither can Bernoff. Instead, he has provided the reader with a sweeping generalisation that he cannot back up with data. Indeed, as an editor I’d reject such certainty without a solid reference to back it up.
When you find yourself using hedging words, and you will, ask yourself why. Such words and phrases can be used to cover up the insecurity of the writer, to moderate overconfident claims, or to indicate uncertainty in the data. If your data is uncertain, for example you have two data sources that give different figures, then say so. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t work and it’s best to hedge, but at least explain why you’re hedging. It’s OK to be uncertain, as long as you explain why.
If you’re moderating an overconfident claim, then you should reconsider whether you want to make that claim at all. Find a different way to make your point which does not rely on making a sweeping generalisation that you can’t stand up.
If you’re trying to cover up your own insecurities, that’s when you need to eradicate hedging words. You do not serve yourself well by prefacing everything with “I think” or “generally” or “the tendency is.”
Again, sometimes hedging is necessary, but you should always be on the look out for equivocation and ask yourself whether it is performing a useful function, or whether it is just making you look insecure or weaselly.
5 Replace jargon with clarity.
Another favourite bug bear of pretty much every non-fiction writer is jargon. And yes, jargon can sometimes be meaningless drivel, but not always. One man’s jargon can be another man’s technical language, so before you toss out all the jargon, consider your audience: Will they understand technical language, or are you writing for a generalist audience? If the latter, does the jargon merely need to provide a clear definition before you go on to use it throughout the piece, or is it incomprehensible even with a definition?
Consider the word ‘murine’. It means ‘relating to or affecting mice or related rodents’, so when biologists talk about ‘the murine model’, they are talking about a biological model that uses mice and/or related rodents to stand in for humans. But you can’t just swap in the phrase ‘the mouse model’, because house rats are also used in the murine model. Using ‘the mouse and rat model’ is more accurate, but clunky. All you need to do as a writer is define ’murine’ and then away you go.
It’s also important to remember that converting jargon to non-jargon is often a lossy process; you might actually lose information if you’re not very careful. Take Bernoff’s example, where he replaces SAP’s
“As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage”
“New technology creates new ways to do business”.
Well, Bernoff’s might be shorter, and the originally might be a mess, but it contains information Bernoff misses out. “Digital transformation” is not just about technology per se, it’s not about robots or self-driving cars, it’s about digital information. “Maturity” is a key concept too, telling the reader either that they’re late taking the digital transformation seriously or that they can feel safe knowing that it’s not a fad, depending on their existing mindset. “Within their industry” is also important, as this is saying that it’s not about moving sectors but about getting one up on your existing competitors… and so on.
Now I’m not saying SAP’s quote could not have been worded better. It absolutely could have. But Bernoff’s version gains little and loses much.
To use or not use technical language is a choice that needs to be made every time you come across a technical term, and is entirely dependent on your audience and their existing level of knowledge. Indeed, dumbing down technical content for a technical audience will achieve nothing more than make you look inept and make them feel that you are talking down to them.
6 Cite numbers effectively.
Probably the only bit of advice I can fully agree with. If you are going to use statistics, do it properly. And if you don’t understand statistics, either get some training or find someone who knows their numbers.
7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”
Again, a simplistic rule that’s not actually a hard and fast rule, but a decision that’s highly contextual. Whilst there is a move towards informality in business communications, it is not something to be assumed. Whether you use personal pronouns or not depends entirely on your client’s brand voice, what you’re writing, who your audience is, and all the other things you should be taking into account as a professional writer.
Again, Bernoff’s rewritten example loses information. “No bag or item larger than 16” x 16” x 8” will be permitted inside the Park” gives you the exact dimensions for the bag you’re allowed to carry with you, so you can make a judgement as to whether your bag is too big or not. Bernoff’s version, “Security staff won’t let you in the park if your bag is too big” not only omits that essential information, it also makes an impartial rule into a personal decision made by security staff against you.
Sometimes, omitting pronouns serves a purpose. In this case, it depersonalises a rule and defuses potentially confrontational situation by not bringing the security staff’s decision making process into the frame at all.
8 Move key insights up.
See 1, burying the lead.
9 Cite examples.
Well, yes, examples can make text “come alive”, but only use them if they are relevant and fit in with your brief. Don’t be cramming them in for the sake of it.
10 Give us some signposts.
Bernoff recommends that “After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: ‘Here’s how I’ll explain this.’ Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!”
If you’re writing a long piece, use an intro to set up your main thesis, and then use subheadings to break up the text into sensible sections. People can and do easily scan subheadings to see what they’re in for. It’s not hard.
A well structured article doesn’t need an index, which is what a numbered list is. And if you do find yourself creating an index, then you have to ask whether you’re writing an article or a report, and whether your article might benefit from being split out into a series of pieces instead.
What you really need to do
It’s always very tempting to look for shortcuts in the process of learning to write, especially if you want to get paid to write. But the best way to learn your craft is to do it, to work with a good editor who has more experience than you do, and to read extensively in whatever oeuvre or genre you’re writing in. When you stumble on lists of rules like this, the first thing you should do is ask when they don’t apply. Think about how you would decide whether or not you are going to apply a rule, and what would happen if you did the opposite.
Your job as a writer is not to slavishly adhere to random lists of rules on the internet, but to understand your commission or brief, to write clearly and elegantly, and to think for yourself.