(by Paula LaRocque)
Section One: Writing Mechanics
- Accuracy aside, simplicity, clarity, and brevity are the most important criteria for all writing. They form the bedrock of all good communication, and have for time immemorial.
Chapter 1: Keep Sentences Short, Varied, and to One Main Idea
- Vary sentence length to avoid tedium, but a safe average is probably around 20 words, with longish sentences reaching around 25.
- Precede and follow a long or "difficult" sentence with short and crisp sentences. This gives the reader rest and adds variety like in natural speech.
- The average sentence length, grade level, and Flesch Reading Ease score of your writing could be the difference between readability and unreadability.
- Clarifying a subject-verb-object relationship is one way to rewrite a badly written passage.
- For clear and readable lists, get the subject and verb out of the way early, and keep list items parallel, where the first word of each list item begins with the same part of speech.
- A list fails when it begins a paragraph, hanging in a vacuum. Preface it with a sentence or fragment that sets it up.
- Keep to one idea per sentence. You can use simple main idea-subordinate-idea sentences, as long as both ideas together don't result in an unmanageable sentence.
- In technical writing, there's probably no reason to stretch sentence length beyond what bulleted lists can handle.
- Some long sentences that work well introduce a single idea first and then only expand upon it.
Chapter 2: Avoid Pretensions, Gobbledygook, and Euphemisms
- Most educated Americans prefer to read at or below the 10th grade level, and an appropriate Flesch Reading Ease Index score for most writing is 60 or 70.
- There's nothing intelligent about pretentious and abstract writing. One hallmark of intellect is the ability to make the complex easy to understand; anyone can be unclear.
- The wasted time and effort as well as the cost of mistakes and misunderstanding make fuzzy writing an expensive habit wherever it flourishes.
- Euphamisms at best amuse and at worst alienate. They don't soften language, but make the reader suspicious. Simple words seem more sincere and soften best.
- A long word is the right word if it's the best word.
- Say what something is not is misleading; say what it is.
- Stop trying to impress and try instead to communicate, thereby using concrete and not abstract phrasing, and disabusing ourselves of the notion that big words sound more intelligent, more professional, and more serious.
Chapter 3: Change Long and Difficult Words to Short and Simple Words
- Many of our most ancient words are one-syllable utterances. Such words tend to be concrete and emotive.
- The clearest, most stirring writers and speakers depend upon plain, short words. Such words usually don't go to war with each other; they have a nice mesh.
- The clarity that comes with honest, basic expression benefits all writing. Utter simplicity offers the bedrock of authenticity.
- The more words we know, the surer and freer we are to choose the plainest, simplest, and right words.
- Use complex words when they're the best choice for the context. But whenever we have a choice, we choose the shortest words.
Chapter 4: Be Wary of Jargon, Fad, and Cliché
- Good jargon is a specialized term for a similarly specialized audience. The challenge for the communicator is translating jargon into plain English for a lay audience.
- Good jargon sets forth the complex in economical, albeit specialized, language. Bad jargon sets forth the simple in bloated language.
- Wrapped in jargon, inanities can actually sound smart, which is always hurtful to good communication and a sham.
- The problem with language fad and cliché is such expression grows flat, predictable, and dull over time. Mimicry is the antithesis of freshness and originality.
Chapter 5: Use the Right Word
- How we use words matters if only because we may be judged ignorant (by some) for what they consider a misuse.
- Avoid alright and alot, and use all right and a lot instead. Awhile is an adverb, while a while is a noun.
- "The whole comprises the parts." Avoid comprise of; instead use consist of, like "The whole consists of the parts." But "The parts constitute the whole."
- Forthcoming means available or ready when needed, while forthright means candid, direct, and straightforward.
- Prerequisite is a requirement or precondition, while perquisite is a benefit beyond one's salary, or perk.
- Prescribe means to order, direct, or mandate, while proscribe means to prohibit.
- Refute means to disprove with conclusive evidence, while rebut means to deny or dispute, but doesn't imply any evidence.
Chapter 6: Avoid Beginning With Long Dependent Phrases
- When a sentence begins with a preposition, verb, verbal, or with certain conjunctions and adverbs, it begins with a dependent phrase rather than the subject, thereby delaying its point.
- Such sentences aren't caught because no one reads the "backing-in" phrases; our eyes skip ahead to the subject.
- Backing into the first sentence of a piece is not attractive, but doing so later for transition and variety in sentence structure is sensible as long as the resulting sentence is clear.
- To fix a backed-into beginning, simply start the sentence with the subject.
- Especially avoid beginning a structure with a long, unanchored list. Instead, place the list after the subject, clarifying their relationship.
- The worst fault of backing-in sentences is that they hide the subject. Readers learn some corollary thing about the subject before they even know what that subject is.
- If a sentence backs-in to something or someone unknown, the reader is bewildered instead of interested.
- Only back-in when we've considered the alternatives, we know what we're doing and why, we have specific stylistic purposes that the backing-in structure satisfies.
Chapter 7: Prefer Active Verbs and the Active Voice
- Just because a sentence has an auxiliary verb or a "be" verb does not mean that it is passive.
- The passive voice may be more effective than the active voice when the actor is irrelevant or gets in the way of the main point.
- Sometimes replacing a handful of weaker words with a single, strong verb leads to the active voice.
- Writing in active voice is clearer, more vigorous, and shorter than writing in the passive voice.
Chapter 8: Cut Wordiness
- While a conversational style contributes to good writing, it is also wordy.
- Cutting prepositional phrases tightens writing. For example, replace in regard to with about, in the event that with if, were in agreement with agreed, and so on.
- Sentences that begin with it and there constructions are often wordy, and these constructions can be omitted.
- Imprecise or unnecessary adverbs and qualifiers also can lead to wordiness, such as using moved quickly instead of rushed or hurried.
- Phrases like "many," "most," and "what many described as" do not add specificity and can be omitted. Likewise, omit words that specify the obvious.
- Pointless verb strings and unnecessary passives, or any handful of words instead of one active verb, can also lead to wordiness.
Chapter 9: Avoid Vague Qualifiers
- The word very and its siblings like extremely, totally, completely, entirely, really, quite, rather, somewhat, and fairly help us get closer to our meaning when we can't think of the perfect word.
- If a word with a vague qualifier is really just fine standing alone, then the qualifier should be removed. The word left standing alone becomes stronger and more assertive.
- Words like dead, alive, and unique have no degrees of meaning, like pregnant, and should not be qualified.
- Sometimes intensifiers such as very are simply inflationary, or a way of exclaiming rather than explaining. Prefer the latter, adding vital and concrete information.
- A good test for whether we have the right word is whether it can stand alone. If it can't, then find a replacement.
Chapter 10: Prune Prepositions
- A sentence generally can bear three prepositional phrases, but it breaks down rapidly if more are added after that, yielding an annoying singsong.
- Some prepositional phrases can be rendered adjective-plus-noun. For example, members of the faculty becomes faculty members.
- If trimming prepositions sacrifices incidental information, it can easily be placed in subsequent sentences.
- Even when excessive prepositional phrases don’t damage clarity, they damage flow.
Chapter 11: Limit Number and Symbol
- Limit to three the numbers in a sentence if the reader must compare, contrast, or calculate with those numbers.
- Numbers are even more confusing when they have different forms like percentages, fractions, written out, numerals, etc.
- Symbols like dollar signs, decimals, percentage symbols, acronyms, or abbreviations are also visually uninviting.
- Graphic explanation like bulleted lists, tabulated material, charts, and white space is both clearer and more attractive than prose with numbers and symbols.
- Two exceptions to the three-number guideline include dates, and when each number in a consecutive run has the same form and identifies the same thing.
Chapter 12: Get Right to the Point. And Stay There.
- If a story is inherently dramatic, tell it simply and swiftly. A florid style or rhetorical devices such as repetition can seem melodramatic, and may even trivialize the tragic or poignant.
- An opening anecdote should be short and pertinent. It should reveal something important about the story's theme and thus open a way in to the story, instead of getting in its way.
- Be wary of frustrating the reader with unanswered questions, instead of creating in him or her a healthy sense of curiosity.
- Failure to get right to the point and stay there is a chief cause of reader annoyance, whether from overwriting and wordiness, an ill-advised anecdote, or a dithering, vague style.
Section Two: Storytelling Devices
Chapter 20: Write Fast, Edit Slow
- We cannot forgive slow, because fast is interesting and slow is dull. Slow makes us wait for the first shoe to drop.
- Reading aloud forces us to listen, helping us locate the slow parts that interfere with the reader's progress, or stifle a speedy and seamless flow of writing.
- Such speedbumps include errors in content or form, distractions like awkward phrasing, the wrong word, and dense, wordy, fuzzy, repetitive, tentative, or extraneous passages.
- Proper research, finding a focus or theme, dividing your work into pieces, devising a beginning, middle, and end, and making an outline can help you write fast-moving prose.
- Most serious pace problems come from lack of focus and direction. Write a sentence that captures the essence of a section or chapter, and use it as a roadmap.
- One of the best way to "remove all things that are not the story" is to keep them out of the story in the first place. Fast writing helps keep extraneous material out.
- Don't edit as you write, or you'll lose momentum. You can edit slowly, because writing problems won't disappear as inspiration and spontaneity do.
Chapter 21: Speedbumps
- Mistakes, failing to get to the point or present material logically, excessive length, obtrusive or tangential material, bad diction, and packing too much into sentences can lead to slow reading.
- The worst place to find speedbumps is at the beginning of the trip. Slow starts lose many readers, and clumsily executed anecdotal beginnings are among the worst offenders.
- Multiple anecdotes at the beginning is confusing because the readers is left guessing what the story is about. Get them over with quickly or have them follow the main point.
- Also mind not having a point, or failing to express that point briefly and clearly, or interrupting the work on the way to the point.
- Subjects and verbs should be close together, as should verbs and objects.
- Who, what, when, where, and why can wait if they’re going to get in the way of the message. Such information is not as important as writing well.
- Writing entails organizing into families of related thought, but one-sentence-per-paragraph writing orphans every sentence. And each has the same weight, so the thesis is not clear.
- Parenthetical or bracketed material is a major intrusion when striving for a conversational, story-telling style.
Chapter 22: Logic and Speedy Reading
- The writer and reader must proceed in lockstep. If the writer is slower than the reader, the reader gets impatient. If the writer gets ahead, readers may get lost.
- Before embroidery comes the fabric, and the fabric of good writing is the tightly woven stuff of accuracy, clarity, brevity, precision, and logic.
- Illogic and loose connections can drive readers away and damage the writer's credibility.
- The essence of illogic is the non sequitur, which is an inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premise, such as in an if-then sentence.
- Non sequiturs also arise from a comment following an unrelated comment, and even conjoining the two with but.
- Trouble also arises from illogical word pairs, mishandled figurative expressions, and using arguably to introduce sweeping, illogical, and insupportable claims.
Section Three: A Handbook
Chapter 23: A Brief (But Not Necessarily Easy) Quiz
- Use adjectives rather than adverbs with sense verbs or with linking verbs such as forms of the verb to be, seem, appear, become, etc. For example, the food smells bad, but she swam badly. But bad describes condition or passive states, such as he felt bad, where bad modifies the subject he.
- Only place a comma between adjectives if it could be replaced by and. For example, a beautiful baby girl, and a large, ugly dog are both correct.
- Use possessive pronouns before gerunds, which are words that end in "ing" but act as nouns.
- Like is not a conjunction; use it as a conjunction to compare nouns and pronouns. Use as, as if, or as though to introduce clauses, or a group of words containing both subject and verb.
- When using the phrase "one of those [nouns] who," the subject of the following verb is who and not one, and so the verb should adopt the plural and not the singular form.
- The word as should not follow equally, or verbs such as named, called, elected, etc.
- Subjective pronouns are I, he, she, we, they, or who. Objective pronouns are me, him, her, us, them, or whom.
- Myself is a "self" pronoun that differs because it is neither a subject nor object, but a reflexive like I hurt myself, or an intensifier like I myself am staying at home.
- Removing other people from the sentence and letting the pronoun stand alone, or replacing the pronoun with another one, quickly reveals whether it is a subject or object.
- If a pronoun is preceded by than, and placing a verb after the pronoun makes grammatical sense, then choose the subjective form.
Chapter 24: Dispelling the Myths
- The infinitive is to plus a verb. The split infinitive separates the two, typically with an adverb, such as to boldly go. They are often unattractive, but they are not wrong.
- Ending sentences with a preposition is fine, but omit the preposition if it is a gross redundancy, such as with Where is it at?
- Avoid ambiguous contractions like he'd, we'd, and I'd. The first can mean either he would, or he had. Avoiding contractions also makes text more emphatic or stately.
- Omitting the serial comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.
- Regarding none, if it clearly means no one or not one, it's singular. If the stress is on not any, or is on more than one, or if the following noun cannot be construed as singular, treat none as plural.
- If each person in a couple is acting individually, then couple is plural. But if two people are acting as one, then it is singular.
- Collective nouns like company, team, and committee refer to an it, not a they, which can be awkward. Adding a plural noun to the collective one, like faculty members, can remedy this.
- Retain that with sentences containing both attribution and time, and following words such as announce, believe, thought, reveal, declare, understand, assert, assume, allege, and so on.
- Use a before a consonant sound and an before a vowel sound. And so an NCAA policy, a eulogy, an herb, and a herbicide are all correct.
Chapter 25: Style Guide
- Use a.m. and p.m. instead of AM and PM.
- Anno and annus mean year, so use first anniversary instead of one-year anniversary and 25th anniversary instead of 25-year anniversary. Three-week anniversary and one-month anniversary are incorrect.
- It's backward, not backwards. Likewise, it's toward, not towards.
- It's the better of two, and the best of three or more.
- Countries have citizens, while cities and states have residents.
- Avoid the colon after a be verb, like The three objectives of the new plan are:
- Place a comma before a conjunction midsentence if what follows the conjunction could stand as a complete sentence.
- If a city and state, or a month, day, and year appear midsentence, then place a comma both before and after the state or the year. But no comma is necessary between month and year when the day is absent.
- et al, e.g., and i.e. should be lowercase and italicized.
- Use commas both before and after etc. when it appears midsentence.
- Use hang on to or hold on to, but not hang onto or hold onto.
- Holdup is a noun, while hold up is a verb.
- Likely is not an adverb and should not be used as a substitute for probably. It's an adjective, parallel to probable rather than probably.
- Makeup is a noun, make up is a verb, and make-up is an adjective.
- Mini generally has no hyphen. mid generally has no hyphen unless followed by a capital letter or numeral. Non is generally not hyphenated except before a proper noun or to avoid awkward constructions, like nonnuclear.
- Write out the numerals one through nine, while use numerals for 10 or more. Avoid numerals at sentence beginnings.
- One of the only is an illiteracy; it should be one of the few.
- Use percent in text, and the symbol % for charts, graphs, tabulated material, lists, and the like.
- Write out state names in text, and reserve postal abbreviations for lists, charts, or graphic material.
- Don't mark deletions at sentence beginning; just start the quotation there. An ellipsis at sentence end is four spaced dots, the last being the period.
- Avoid the constructions the reason is because and the reason why. The text within or following them can stand alone.
- Hyphenate re-create when meaning to create again rather than fun or leisure activity.
- Round trip is a noun, while round-trip is an adjective.
- If you are including sic. or many brackets in a quote, it should be paraphrased or made a partial quote.
- Drop single from single most, single best, and single biggest.
- Replace the past decade with the last decade.
- These and this point forward, while those and that point back.
- Don't use a hyphen between times; instead, use from/to, or between/and.
- Capitalize the first and last words of a title and all the principal words between. Lowercase articles, to, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions fewer than four letters. Capitalize longer prepositions like between, toward, beyond, among, with, and from.
- The initial article A, An, or The in titles can be omitted if the article follows a possessive noun or pronoun, or if the article follows an adjective or another article.
- Avoid using verbal agreement for oral agreement, as the preferred meaning of verbal is words, both written and spoken.
- Wait for, and not wait on, unless one is waiting on tables.
Last modified 18 April 2022