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Ask HN: How do you write great sentences, paragraphs, or articles?
140 points by ekpyrotic on Nov 25, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments
Writing advice often reiterates the same general rules: active voice, economy of expression, favour the concrete over the abstract.

These broad suggestions come at the expense of advice on micro- and macrostructure. We're missing a trick here. In particular, I believe great non-fiction writing out-punches the good because it manages not only to articulate ideas succinctly and clearly, but to show how they overlap and interconnect.

In business, while a good product is essential, it is almost always not enough. The product has to be presented to the consumer in an intuitive and sensible way. Often a product will have more than one USP, and its success hinges on which USP you chose to emphasise.

The same might be said of ideas. An argument---or point---will be convincing only insofar as it is presented to the reader in a coherent way.

To that end, do people have any tips, book suggestions, or exercises that will help writers improve their articles' unity, coherent, flow, logical structure, etc?




When I write a sentence, I use five stone questions1.

  Does it say what you mean?
  Can it be clearer?
  Can it more closely match overall tone?
  Can it be made more novel?
  Can it be made more beautiful (prosody)?
The five priorities at which the questions aim are meaning, clarity (which includes brevity), tone, novelty (avoiding cliche), and prosody (and other aesthetics).

When I've first drafted a sentence, I start from the top of the list, and ask these questions in turn. Asking them forces me to think about an answer; it prevents laziness. As soon as the answer to question suggests a possible change, I make that change, and start again from the top. I repeat until time constraints force me onward.

This is a great process, because if I have very little time, I end up concentrating only on meaning. If I have all the time in the world, I get to also play with the sound of the words, and the play of the tongue.

Questions about meaning, clarity, tone, novelty, and beauty can also be fruitfully applied at paragraph and treatise levels; but my greatest concern is usually for the sentence.

1. http://diiq.org/five_stone_questions.html


The article "The Science of Scientific Writing" (www.unc.edu/~haipeng/teaching/sci.pdf) forever change my writing.

It's writing for the unconscious psychology of the reader's expectations. It also has a great list of points to keep in mind while writing.

1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.

2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.

3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.

4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.

5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.

6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.

7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.


Agree, this is the way to do it. Backed by actual scientific research on how people read (surprisingly/sadly rare).

If you can actually follow all of those rules in a written document, it will be clear and easy to read. It's harder to do than it might look.

(Also, I believe Gopen has a couple books expanding on this article.)


Based on this recommendation I read the article and found it extremely insightful. The authors claim that you can re-structure your writing to make it easier to understand without dumbing it down or even removing jargon. Just by following the recommendations listed in the parent comment. They also have good before/after examples for illustration.

I highly recommend the article for anybody who has to convey complex ideas with words.


I also have four modes of writing:

writing from scratch in a tex file

editing in the tex file

reading pdf and making notes in the tex file

reading and making notes to pdf on tablet


Try this out:

1. Get the book "Adios Strunk And White". Strunk And White is a horrible book to learn how to actually write English well. It's full of contradictions, has some bad grammar in it, doesn't follow its own advice, and tries to make English a proscriptive language rather than dynamic like it is. The Adios book basically breaks you out of the S&W mode of thinking and gets you thinking about different forms and techniques you can practice without being proscriptive.

2. Do object writing every day. There's a site http://objectwriting.com/ that has some, but you can also hit http://wordnik.com/random to get a random work. You then try to write for 10 minutes about or with that word using all your senses, including your kinetic and sense of self.

3. Blog something every day. Doesn't matter what it is but spend at least 30 minutes writing about something.

4. Learn about story structure. A good book is "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller" and should fit the coder mind really well. Another book is Joseph Cambell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" to learn core mythical story structures.

5. Study subtext and context. If this paragraph is about what to study, the subtext is that I think most programmers can't write for shit because they're too logical, and the context is I'm telling people this on hacker news. Universally I find programmers terrible at both subtext and context of the written word.

6. Spend all the rest of your time learning to not censor yourself so that you have a voice that's yours, not the voice you think you should have.

7. Margaret Atwood had the best advice about being blocked. Paraphrased it's, "Blockage is either a problem of voice or structure. If it's voice, change who's telling the story. If it's structure, change the opening scene." She's damn right, but what do you expect from Margaret Atwood? Shitty advice?

8. Try writing in one form as if it's another. For example, write prose like it's poetry. Write poetry like its prose.

9. Get better at describing or saying the absurd. Stare at something and then describe it from unique points of view or in bizarre ways.

10. Keep a notebook and write down every idea you have, then try to make it happen. Also a great thing for songs and poems. I should actually do this more.

There ya go.


The most important advice I forgot:

Actually live a life full of experiences worth writing about.


Some really good advice here, zedshaw, thank you!

One thing I might add is, develop a pipeline for writing (1) don't judge your first draft, (2) schedule time to review each draft and edit ruthlessly, (3) edit once more before publishing.

The most important way I have improved my writing is to give myself permission to just write when working on the first draft. Write without any judgement and trust that the subsequent steps in my workflow will catch any issues and produce polished writing.

Edit: A book recommendation "Weinberg on Writing, the fieldstone method" by Gerald Weinberg. Excellent advice from his experience writing several books as a consultant and technology writer.


3. Blog something every day. Doesn't matter what it is but spend at least 30 minutes writing about something.

Do you suggest it be a publicly readable "something" that gets blogged, or does it not matter if it's only for yourself, in your view?


I think blogging publicly will get you over the fear of being judged, and doing it in your real name helps even more.

But, that can be a tall order for some people. You don't have to publish everything you write. You could totally write 10 crap articles and publish 1 good one.


I think I'd agree with you.

One aspect that I think can sometimes be troubling, is whether it's fine to just have a blog that is a miscellaneous collection of stuff covering a variety of topics, versus a blog that is about X, Y or Z at the outset. I guess this is just "the blogger trap" ( http://www.marco.org/2009/04/05/avoiding-the-blogger-trap ), but I get the impression that a blog for a specific subject would have a better reception, versus "I'm just going to write about whatever" which might have less reliability, in a sense.


Strunk And White is a horrible book to learn how to actually write English well. It's full of contradictions, has some bad grammar in it, doesn't follow its own advice

Can you give some examples?


I'll leave that to someone more qualified than me, Geoffrey K. Pullum:

http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/2549...

He "is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language".

But, go ahead and write like Strunk if you want to sound like a stiff 1890s dandy.


In addition to the "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" article that Zed links, Language Log[1] is a great source if you want to learn more about the problems with prescriptivism and Strunk and White in particular. Geoffrey Pullum is one of the founders, and he writes there often.

[1] http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/


11. Write drunk; edit sober. - Ernest Hemingway


Here is a well-reviewed book on this topic:

    http://www.amazon.com/Style-Clarity-Chicago-Writing-Publishing/dp/0226899152/
From the editorial reviews:

"Telling me to 'Be clear,' " writes Joseph M. Williams in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, "is like telling me to 'Hit the ball squarely.' I know that. What I don't know is how to do it." If you are ever going to know how to write clearly, it will be after reading Williams' book, which is a rigorous examination of--and lesson in--the elements of fine writing.


Joseph M. Williams's "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" is by far the best book on learning HOW to put sentences and paragraphs together. It teaches principles that I've never seen anywhere else -- principles for making my writing easy to understand.

Then it teaches methods for applying those principles.

So instead of teaching rules, it teaches how writing can be clear. Instead of "don't use passives" it shows when a passive verb makes the writing easier to read. It teaches how much new information to put in a sentence and where to put it. And it shows how to connect this sentence to the next for simple flow.


This link goes to an older edition of the book; it's since been split into a short version ("basics of clarity and grace") as well as a longer version ("lessons in clarity and grace") -- the longer version has exercises (I think) and the shorter one doesn't. I own the shorter version and haven't felt a need to look at the longer one.

In any case, this book is great and helped me immeasurably in writing my dissertation in grad school. It gives some advice on sentence structure that I haven't seen elsewhere (like when and why the passive voice can be useful) but also gives a lot of "formulaic" advice on how to organize the entire document. I say "formulaic" because he essentially gives you a formula, which is exactly what I needed and seems to be what you're asking for.

FWIW, I own or have read well over 30 books on writing and this is easily the best one on general---i.e. subject-agnostic---writing.


Williams' book is all that 'Skunk and White' should have been. Consistent, actionable, readable.


And contrary to the OP's assertion, there is no "missing trick" here.


In high school, I was lucky to have multiple teachers who were sticklers for imparting the essential building blocks of strong writing. We spent a lot of time "in the weeds," rote-learning vocabulary, sentence patterns, paragraph construction, and finally, structures for the expository essay (above and beyond the academic essay we mastered in school.)

The surprising thing, even to someone like me who considers herself a good writer to begin with, was how important working through each "level" of writing was. While I haven't reviewed the foundations in a long time (I probably should), because I spent so much time painstakingly memorizing the contents of each earlier on, I can now write quickly and confidently and usually be pretty close to correct.

Here are some books I'd recommend for each level:

1) Vocabulary - Wordly Wise (the older the version of the book, the better the word lists), such as here: http://www.amazon.com/Wordly-Wise-Book-Kenneth-Hodkinson/dp/...

2) Sentence structure - The Art of Styling Sentences, http://www.amazon.com/The-Styling-Sentences-K-D-Sullivan/dp/...

3) Paragraph construction - Paragraphs and Essays (the part on paragraph construction and patterns is very straightforward, basic, and clear, I don't think it's worth buying the whole book though), http://www.amazon.com/Paragraphs-Essays-With-Integrated-Read...

4) Expository essays - Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry (this is the textbook NYU uses to teach "Writing the Essay"), http://www.amazon.com/Encounters-Exploration-Inquiry-Pat-Hoy...


bloggergirl, you are hellbanned. For no particular reason, near as I can tell.


Here is what she said:

bloggergirl 21 hours ago | link [dead]

I'll add to this list my all-time favorite writing companion: Virginia Tufte's "Grammar As Style". It's been out of print forever, which is tragic, and, when you can find it, it usually sells for over $100 - even in rough shape. "Artful Sentences" is meant to replace "Grammar As Style", but I prefer the original. If you want to tie all the rules together so you can understand why we even have grammar in the first place and how truly magical grammar can be to shaping a sentence or paragraph, track down this book.

Interesting: Virginia Tufte is the mother of data visualization guru Edward Tufte.

(Other good books for writers and writers-in-training: "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamont, Stephen King's "On Writing" and a collection of letters on writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald, also called "On Writing". Oh, and please don't hate on White's "Elements of Style" --- it may be old, but it's foundational.)


Write a lot. While it sounds obvious, the fact is that most people find ways to avoid doing the hard work of actually writing. Ideally the writing is public, but better to write in private than not at all.

Read good writing. You need to develop good taste and good taste is developed and refined by reading good writing. Publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review and Esquire have distinct and powerful voices worth studying. Same goes for pg's essays, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Cal Newport.

Edit and revise. I used to hate revising my work. One and done was my motto. But I've learned that it's only through numerous revisions that great writing is born. There's usually opportunity to 2x your writing in the revisions.

Write for your reader. While all writing is in some form, an exercise for the ego, strive as much as possible to write for the benefit of your reader. Remember that they are here to be informed, entertained and moved - focus on doing that and like a compass you'll always move toward great writing.

Good luck!


You already covered "favour the concrete over the abstract" but I do think "show, don't tell" can't be reiterated enough.

The biggest problem I find when editing other people's writing is the use of redundant assertions, e.g. "The Acme App is blazingly fast", when factual statements will do: "In the same time it took for CompetitorApp to load, the AcmeApp had already performed 2 qunitpleflops of foos"

A harmful side effect of the "tell" approach is the huge amount of time people spend thesaurus-hacking: trying to find different adjectives to say the same thing, over and over.

I know your question is about overall coherency and flow, but unfortunately many writers fail at the basic general rules, which makes it difficult to polish the body of writing as a whole.

For a practical step, I suggest writing the entirety of the piece without adjectives, and perhaps without concern for transitions. If the writing is nonsensicial or uninteresting in its barest form, then the writer should focus on better content. The style is easy to add later.


There are a number of tools available, but as with programming, it's primarily a question of being able to recognize great writing. Once you can recognize great writing, you can more or less just iterate: 1) Write 2) Is it great? (yes) Done (no) Go to 1.

Bad programmers can't recognize good or bad code, so they stop once it works. Same for bad writers.


Use short sentences. And break traditional rules. Like using "and" or "but" at the beginning of a sentence. Favor verbs. Avoid superfluous adjectives.

Paragraphs can be brief.

Bring people into your writing, wherever possible. That is, express your ideas through relatable stories involving people, wherever possible.

Many of these tips were yanked from Cliff Stoll, author of "The Cuckoo's Egg". As well as a book called, "The Art of PlainTalk", by Rudolph Flesch. Stoll was responding to criticism that his first book had been ghostwritten -- few could believe the guy could actually write.

Lastly, write frequently. A writing teacher of mine used to have us "free write" every morning for fifteen minutes. That's where you start writing about the first thing that pops in your head, and you don't stop writing until the time is up. Give it a try.


Basic writing advice:

http://apostate.com/how-to-say-nothing-in-500-words

Macro structure:

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Though it inclines towards fiction, I find it useful with non-fiction as well.


For an ironic take on rhetorical devices have a look at this blog (in particular the older posts):

http://writebadlywell.blogspot.it/

Each post is an example of a writing technique... overdone. I find it brilliant in how it manages to be hilarious and insightful at the same time.


Just like with coding, improving your wordcraft is a two-fold process: read and write. If you are reading a lot of quality work from various genres (articles, blog posts, short stories, journalism, poetry et al), you will be constantly learning new words, sentence structures, phrasings, all the tools of writing. Then, by writing a lot you will be able to put these new techniques to use and figure out what works best with your particular approach to writing. I learned to write effective fiction and poetry (I've been published in literary magazines and been invited to read at several events) by close-reading all my inspirations and then practicing writing in their style. Once I got a feel for what made Reverdy "Reverdy", I was able to approach my own work in the same manner which results in magnitudes of improvement.

It is also imperative to constantly be rereading your older work, not only as a measure to see how much you've improved but also as a way to reinforce positive progress. If I can read an article from a few months ago that I wrote and not want to close the browser window immediately, then I consider that a worthy article and it boosts my confidence.

That being said, I have found that flow-charting ideas is good for building up the structural integrity of a piece, especially if it is more on the analytic side. You have assertions (themes, viewpoints) and then linkages between them (facts, observations). By building a flow-chart you can see how they weave and if your implications make sense. A visual overview is very helpful in this regard. It keeps your writing tight and succinct. Again, this is just a personal opinion - the writing process is a difficult and stressful one because there really are no universal "tricks" or approaches to quality, worthwhile work.


Buy Dragon Naturally Speaking and start dictating. You can pump out an amazing amount of words when you don't have to write them down.

Then edit your giant pile of words into something better, instead of starting from a blank page.

The more you "write" the better you'll get. This is a hack for writing faster so you can speed up your progress.


I do this, though I don't have dragon (yet). I just record on my iphone, and then use a free app (ExpressScribe) for transliterating it.


The best single source I've come across that helps with writing, is "On Writing Well":

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

It has plenty of examples and advice on various types of writing.

Beyond that, my advice is to simply read good texts. One starting point would be:

http://www.amazon.com/American-Essays-Charles-B-Shaw/dp/B000...

Or, for something newer:

http://brevity.org/misc/bestswi.html

While doing a quick search, I also came across this:

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2009/05/20/need-examples-...

Which seems to be a great starting point.


What I love about On Writing Well is that it tells you what to do while also being a perfect example of that advice is action.


Bona fides / credibility: I'm an award-winning novelist and occasional journalist. (Though I'm also a TechCrunch columnist, which presumably cripples my credibility if you're a knee-jerk hater of all things TC...)

The single best way to improve your writing is to read a lot of great writing. For nonfiction, I recommend, in particular:

- George Orwell - John McPhee - Ryszard Kapuscinski - Gail Collins

The second best way to improve your writing is to learn how to see what is wrong with it. (Or, as Hemingway once said, "The one thing a writer needs most is a first-rate bullshit detector.") Don't focus on writing well, at least not at first. Focus on learning how to read like a first-time reader, and on _editing_ well. In time the writing will follow.


Read all the time; write all the time.

As far as 'process', play with different stuff and find what works for you. I find it does help to outline a bit -- but only in the most informal way. I edit better on paper. Hunter Thompson actually typed The Great Gatsby to get a feel for Fitzgerald's rhythms. Fuck around until something fits.

Edit your copy ruthlessly. I will routinely change 90% of my copy between first and final drafts.

Keep your audience in mind: who you're writing for should affect every word.

Write as tight as possible.


KISS. Too much writing in the non-fiction world, whether it be academic, scientific, or related to business, is far too complex for its own good. This is seemingly to overwhelm, to simultaneously weed out and impress those who are not deeply versed in the subject, but in almost no cases is that a positive development. For academia and science, the point of your work should be to encourage knowledge and learning, which complex language in no way helps. In business, the last thing you want to do is assume a level of expertise from a customer, except in very specific and rare circumstances.

I am aware that there are certain fields and types of works that have to use difficult phrasing and structure for the purpose of limiting ambiguity, but often such writing is found in cases where such strictness is not necessary. So, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

P.S. - Not trying to be rude, but your initial post is a great example of writing at a more complex level that is in anyway necessary. Micro- and macrostructure, the usage of an undefined and unnecessary acronym in USP? It doesn't matter whether it is a safe assumption that your audience knows what you are talking about, as you never know when that audience may shift without your knowledge.


Rewritten to be less complex and avoid unnecessary use of an acronym (not picking on you, just figured your good advice would be more easily read if it was written simpler):

Keep it simple, stupid.

Too much non-fiction writing is overly complicated. It seems like people write elaborately in order to overwhelm and impress those less familiar with the subject, but this is a bad idea because complexity interferes with communication.

There are certain types of writing that depend on the use of complicated phrasing or structure to limit ambiguity, but much of the time such strictness is unnecessary. So keep it simple.


I wouldn't consider the use of KISS to be unnecessary. It's sufficiently well-known to effectively be considered a word (sort of the way en cia is used in Spanish), and I define it, albeit not explicitly. I also read way too many military documents to have an issue with acronyms, as their usage as an easily pronounceable vocalization for often complex wordings really helps language flow. Again, I don't have any issues with acronyms themselves, simply their usage when they aren't defined.

And I would argue you don't simplify my comment at all, although you do make it more concise. I consider simplicity to be the primary concern with writing, however being as quick to the punch as possible is also an extremely valuable trait. It must be noted though that they are not the same thing. Often times, especially with technical writing, they are at loggerheads.

With all that said, your re-write is actually quite a lot better. Thanks.


Just having fun...

Non-fiction writing is plagued by unnecessary words and complicated structures. Extra words aren't impressive; they're confusing! Legal documents are a rare exception that use complex structures to limit ambiguity (or to create it). Unless you're drafting an air-tight contract, complexity will only contaminate your message.


As a person whose core skillset is writing, not programming, I feel more qualified to comment on this particular HN thread than most others which I prefer to demure on.

I love the question about how to write well. It's the craft I've dedicated my life to, and I'm grateful to see a group of really smart people investing time in the skill. It validates the effort I've poured into becoming the writer I am today. Particularly since I've chosen to be a writer in the startup community, which sometimes makes me feel singled out or awash in a sea of programmers :-)

To start, writing is often broken down into discrete rules like Grammar and Syntax as well as Word Choice and Sentence Length, all of which could be summed up as the overall Style of a particular piece of writing. I love the Nabokov quote below because he's one of the all-time greats, and although Hemingway is my favorite author of all time, the critique of leaving things out is valid. One of the supposedly set-in-stone commandments of writing, particularly for the web is to focus on brevity above all else because the audience is presumed to have the attention span of a gnat, particularly when Mark Zuckerburg's mind-melding software is constantly clamoring for your attention and mental processing power...but I digress.

My approach as a writer is to place all of the stylistic and grammatical elements of writing in a distant second place to a thorough understanding of your audience. Understanding who you need your app's content to connect with is the only thing that matters, and will give you all the data you need to write grammatically, and choose the right words, or use synonyms. To put another way, writing is just communication. Good writing only means communicating effectively.

Understanding your audience tells you which rules of grammar your audience don't care about and that you can therefore break.

Have you ver read a sentence on a website that ended a sentence with a preposition and wondered what the hell the writer was on?

Of course, I'm singling out poor grammar in the previous sentence as a way to make a point. I broke a rule simply as a tactic to get your attention, and then point out that if I've got your attention, then my writing style was effective. I can only get your attention if I know what you're paying attention to, because I've done the work to deeply understand what motivates you.

HackerNews is largely a developer audience. Developers are a detail-oriented bunch, and I take that into account whenever I post here. In the above example, by making a calculated error and hiding it in the middle of several paragraphs, I'm essentially leaving my message hidden in plain sight, because I know that most of my readers on this post have spent hours in front of their computers paying attention and even exploiting tiny details as they bend software to their will.

Yep, leaving a preposition at the end of the sentence is grammatically incorrect, and even grates on most people who are detail-oriented for a living. But that actually makes it effective.

If I were writing this the same way I wrote my honors thesis on the Pick-Up Artist Community, I wouldn't have left a single preposition hanging out there. Different audience. My style had to reflect the purpose.

Your style and your message are affected by the following things, in the following order:

1) Your audience - Perform a customer development, or what I call "rhetorical analysis" on your audience to get into their heads. Survey them to develop a profile of who they are and how they want to communicate with them. This is why Ramit Sethi of iwillteachyoutoberich.com is constantly surveying his lists. He finds patterns of language in the responses and uses them in product development and marketing.

2) Your communication medium - Use words differently in email than on Twitter. Write your blog posts differently than your white papers. Consider the constraints of the communication medium and learn to exploit them. For example, Twitter's 140 characters means certain grammar rules are expected to be broken. But there are rules about breaking those rules as well. "U wont git far if u luv 2 tweet lik dis."

3) Your communication mode - a fancy way of analyzing the "genre" of your communication. Basically, what's the feel or the sense of your communication. Different modes in literature are poetry and prose. Different modes in startups are the mode used when you ask for an introduction as when you develop your business plan.

4) Your goals with each communication - what do you actually want to accomplish, and then how can you approach that goal in such a way that it will resonate deeply with your audience, fit into the given medium, and be in line with the context and reader expectations of the communication mode?

Before I sit down to write anything, I mentally (or literally on paper) do a rhetorical analysis of my audience, the medium, and my goals. Here's what I came up with for this comment on HN.

Audience: Hackers, entrepreneurs, startup folks, wantrapreneurs, highly intelligent, subtle, intensely focused and motivated to read long pieces IF they are learning something, LEARNING is a primary motivator, Opinionated and reality-based so high need to provide specific examples to general rhetorical principles, detail-oriented from years of writing code, or simply by birth.

Medium: HackerNews forums. Highly trafficked, vibrant discussions, sometimes full of intense disagreements, an appropriate forum for a larger comment, ONLY if every word is carefully chosen. Brevity would be preferred, but long-form prose will be tolerated if writer managed to be interesting and informative along the way.

Mode: Deductive reasoning, dry and analytical, ethos of "sharing" and "contribution" over "self-aggrandizement" or "self-promotion." Smart, accomplished people sharing what they've learned over the years, contributing insight to the community in one giant effort to support one another's growth. Sometimes hostile to marketing or sales. Beware of trolls...

My goals: To share my strategy to be successful at my craft with a group of fellow startup folks who I admire and am motivated to spend time around. To add my own life experience to the mix in hopes of helping someone become a better writer. To increase my own visibility and prominence in the group over time, and develop a good reputation in the long term. To feel smart (not relevant to writing effectively, but shared in the spirit of honesty).

I could keep writing about this, apparently, since my ideas keep flowing, but this is a monster post already, so I want to simply thank you all if you've managed to read this far. I hope we can talk more in the comments.


Yep, leaving a preposition at the end of the sentence is grammatically incorrect

No it isn't. Latin-based grammars trumpeted this "rule" for many years[1], but those days and that theory of English grammar are long gone. In Churchill's words: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

Edit: I don't disagree with the gist of your advice, of course. This is just a bizarre illustration of "know your audience," and would be even if the grammatical rule you chose were correct. "Know your audience" is about much more than grammar.

1. The reasoning being that in Latin it's impossible to end a sentence with a preposition, and thus, obviously, to do so in English is simply badwrong.


Another (oft-cited) example:

"What did you bring that book that I don't like to be read to out of up for?"


You temporarily lost me at the first line with "...prefer to demure on". (Goes to dictionary, discovers that you may have meant the slightly more coherent "demur on" which means "take exception to" or "hesitate, delay" rather than "demure on" which isn't grammatically correct as far as I can tell, since demure isn't an intransitive verb.)

Good points otherwise.


I love how all these replies are proving OP's points about HNers being extremely detail-oriented.


Brevity and succinctness are much-valued and underappreciated traits of good writing.


I could keep writing about this, apparently, since my ideas keep flowing

I'd love to hear more.


Vladimir Nabokov, whose prose style ranks among the best, said: “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.”

The vast majority of writers and bloggers today use a truncated writing style (perhaps reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver).

You can present your ideas like this, clearly and coherently, but the best essays and articles do something more than just articulate ideas.


Avoid starting sentences with the same word as a nearby sentence, and paragraphs with the same letter as a nearby paragraph.

Don't make sentences too long. Just start a new one.

Learn how to transpose matter-of-fact statements/paragraphs into witty or memorable text by juxtaposing tones or images on what the reader was expecting. See Michael Lewis's books for an example, or Charles Stross's blog (antipope.org).


An argument must be coherent to the writer too! That often means getting clear on what your most compelling point is.

So it's worth knowing about this phenomenon:

Typically, once a writer warms to their topic, they make their most compelling point. You need to find that point and move it to the beginning of your writing, usually the headline.

For newer writers, it often occurs somewhere around the third paragraph. (Some writing coaches will simply have you delete everything you wrote before that, and open with it.)

For more emotional writers, or folks who are worked up about their topic, it often occurs very near the end.

For experienced writers failing to put their main point in the headline it's in the first sentence or paragraph.

Some writers get used to this phenomenon, write freely, and then simply remove most of what they've written once they realize they're onto their most compelling point.

Read a lot of blog posts, and you'll be amazed how many writers make this oversight, usually consistently in the same way. Learn your own pattern, and you'll learn to find your most compelling point.


Put your absolutely most important point at the top.

Make your words, sentences, paragraphs and articles as short and simple as possible. People don't read, they skim.

(Where you used "reiterates," I would have used "repeats" or "gives.")

Read what you write, and move your lips when you do it. A good sentence sounds good.


A couple of non-fiction ideas I recall from my (very enjoyable) freshman writing class. Consider as rules-of-thumb.

* Write about what you enjoy writing about. If you're bored it'll probably rub off on readers.

* Begin with a summary of where you're going. (Here's where your hooks go.) This is where you remind yourself what you aim to say ... and, coincidentally, your readers.

* Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Readers can then scan for interests. We've all got too much to read.

* Memorize Strunk and White. Clear, concise, to the point. Cut out the fat and cut to the chase.

* Notice which writers capture your attention and leave you glad you read them. Learn by tearing apart how they did it. Notice which writers are gasbags ... and tear apart what they're doing wrong.

* When you're done, stop.


Writing can be dissected analytically but there is always a component of emotional appeal that makes writing connect.

One of the best examples I can think of is the story of Sugru:

http://sugru.com/story

To practice writing with emotional appeal, I suggest you practice public speaking. For instance, go to a public forum like a lecture or zoning board meeting where there is a formal Q&A period (with a microphone set up). Listen to the discussion/lecture and wait in line for the mic and attempt to articulate an argument/point of view that is short and draws on a personal story and makes a point.

I also recommend Stephen King's "On Writing"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Writing

Good luck!


Short answer, I usually don't.

Longer answer, the more I write on HN the better my writing probably becomes because I get feedback from "my" audience in the form of comments and votes.

Over the past week, I read And So It Goes, a biography of Kurt Vonnegut. He spent fifteen years as a full time writer before Slaughterhouse Five was published. He had been writing press releases for GE before that. He had written for his campus newspaper while in college. He had worked for news bureau. It didn't come overnight.

I don't know much about writing well, but writing better is hard work. I suspect that the 10,000 hour rule applies. When reading PG's latest essay, keep in mind that he has been a published author for nearly twenty years.

Good luck.


Off topic, but that was a nicely written bio. Vonnegut's life was a lot more complicated than I had imagined from reading his books.


Practice writing that has an observable effect. For example, write Facebook statuses and see who "likes" or "comments" on them. Think about how you write emails and to whom. See what styles and contents tend to be effective. Try different variations.

(Don't draw conclusions too soon; there is a lot of random variation in responses.)

Also I agree with what everyone else recommends. But, in my experience, there's no substitute for these real-world experiments that appear in my day-to-day life.


Get a copy of The Elements of Style. It's like K&R for writing. Then practice. Join a local writing group. Write essays. Keep a journal. Write letters to the editor or guest columns for the local paper. Blog. Etc. Like anything else, the way to learn something is to do it.

Edit: also read a lot, and try to identify writing that resonates with you, and then work out why that is.


The Elements of Style is to K&R what The Voynich Manuscript is to On the Origin of Species. Elements of Style is good to read to see one person's ideas on style from a century ago, but it's not a guide to writing.

If you have a need for guidelines but don't want to develop your own, many major publications publish style books. For example: The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style. APA and MLA work too.


For the NYTimes, I write about tech history and history of science. I see 3 common problems with "startup" writing, i.e., the language of young college males:

1. Do not condescend. I immediately broke this rule above—it gets attention, but it doesn't convince. E.g., tweet-length commentary about complex subjects is condescending.

2. Delete rhetoric.

3. Graphics are a good hook, but they rarely explain anything.


  Give up pursuing eloquence, unless
  You can speak as you feel! One's very heart
  Must pour it out, with primal powers address
  One's hearers and compel them with an art
  Deeper than words. Clip and compile, and brew
  From the leavings of others your ragout
  Of rhetoric, pump from your embers
  A few poor sparks that nobody remembers!


I often use "write it down. Now, edit it so that you have the same content in half the words. Then, repeat that" to make my writing more coherent. A 75% reduction may not be attainable, but aiming for it makes you think about what you want to say and what not, and gets rid of words and phrases that do not provide content.


Macro advise: read a lot of material similar to what you hope to write. Write a lot, you only get better with practice. Collaborate with a good editor.

Books: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Shertzer's The Elements of Grammar, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.


I suggest not bothering with Strunk and White past a quick skim. It is, at best, inconsistent and self-contradictory.

This article makes the case: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/2549...


You mean how to become a good copywriter? Learn how to sell first. Then its easy as pie.


You should read the book by Barbara Minto named "The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving." See http://www.barbaraminto.com/textbook.html


Avoid cliches. A cliche being a phrase that is familiar but content-free or even contradictory. Like, "I don't mean to be a jerk, but ..."

This helps tune your focus on making each word participate in creating meaning in the head of your reader.

Also, avoid creative analogies.


Read successful blogs, books and marketing sites and look how they use words and sentences. Then write, write and write again. Each new sentence your write, the better you will become. There is no shortcut to learn this.


Here's a great guide to writing clearly/concisely:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/y8862uack1he3f9/How%20to%20Write%2...


Read Stephen King's "On Writing", the chapter "Toolbox".

Stick to the point. People read in soundbites, so don't squander what little time you have their attention.

Don't repeat words, use synonyms.


> Don't repeat words, use synonyms.

I disagree with this and think that it's even problematic in the common case.

First of all, if you have to resort to synonyms, you should wonder why you need a similar word: is it because you're repeating the same kind of content/sentiment? If so, what happens when you remove the redundant content -- check to see if that makes the writing tighter.

Secondly, I think proper repetition words, including pronouns, can form a useful rhythm and coherency within sentences.

As a total random example I read yesterday: this amusing Tim Rogers review of Metal Gear Solid 4: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=430

> In closing, let us praise the one certifiably great thing about Metal Gear Solid 4, and the one shining beacon that fills us with faith in Kojima’s future productions: the flow of the dialogue. It’s occasionally hilarious how well Kojima is able to write rhythmic dialogue. It clips and breezes along; the most portentous sentences become urgent poetic moments that transcend the base stupidity of the plot. Of course, you’d never know this if you played the game in English — the script appears to have been translated by the Elephant Man banging his head on a keyboard. There’s a line where Naomi says “If you want to change your fate, you’ll have to meet your destiny”. What the shit? In Japanese, she uses the same word for “fate” (unmei) twice, one instance of which being the first word of the sentence. This is to lend the sentence some kind of parallel structure. Even given the flipping idiocy of the moment, it makes for a neat little verbal-ironic turnaround: “The only way to change your fate is to go forth and meet it.” In other words, the only way Snake can possibly outlive his terrible fate (death) is by running straight at it, instead of letting it crash into him while he sits there doing nothing. This is a nice little sentence that no doubt has already inspired several dozen fanfiction-writing Japanese fourteen-year-olds. In English, it’s a dud; the translator must have majored in newspaper journalism, had a professor tell him to never use the same word — even (ESPECIALLY) “the” — twice in one sentence. However, this isn’t reporting — this isn’t regurgitation of earthquake statistics. It’s “art” (term used loosely). The moral of the story is that there’s no concept of the word “it” in Japanese, which is why so many sentences resort to (eventually poetic) repetition. We mustn’t forget this — this is perhaps one of the keys of Kojima’s artistic conscience, here, seriously (okay, not so seriously).


Just to note: John Merrick was eloquent and gentle.


i go with the "less or more" - it might not have more information per se, but more people will read more of it

can you express the same idea using less words for the sentence in question?

can you eliminate or combine sentences/paragraphs to still get the essential point across ?

sacrifice some extra information for the sake of clearer focus

having said that, i like to add non-essential information which is humourous - to keep the reader entertained and engaged


Practice

You get better at a craft by doing it until you're good enough to know what you're missing. You'll know what kind of tips to look for at that point.


Read great novels of all era's.

Also, cultivate good email relationships with people from far away that you love and respect.


Make every sentence work with the whole in moving the reader towards your intended goal.


there are many thoughtful and useful long responses to this question, but I would like to paraphrase the advice my best writing teacher gave me:

to write well, do as much reading and writing as you can.


Step 1: Don't use unexpanded acronyms or anything like "USP."


Jakob Nilsen guarantees that if you don't follow these rules only your mom will read your text.

- Use words that make sense to your audience.

- Convey one idea in each paragraph.

- Introduce the paragraph’s idea in the first sentence so people can quickly decide whether to read the paragraph.

- Use meaningful headings.

- Highlight keywords.

- Use bullet lists.

- Keep text short, simple, and informal.

- Start text with conclusions, and include a summary of its content.




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