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Basic Writing Rules: The Foundation of Good Writing (Ch. 1)

Good writing can be thought of as a pyramid.  At the foundation, these basic rules underlie more advanced ones.  As you start writing, make sure that you remind yourself of these basics.  Then, as you continue to write, return to these to make sure that you are still following them.  That said, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Write clearly.

No other writing rule is more important.  After all, the point of writing is to communicate.  So before anything else, ask yourself this:  Do I know what I am saying? Is my writing clear?  Will others know what I mean?

Grammar is secondary.  Few writing teachers will tell you this, but all writing rules were meant to be broken.  There are cases when you will break grammar or style rules, and historically speaking, these have changed over time.  That secret is worth mentioning in order to make this point:  Grammar is used to support clear writing.  In other words, we use grammar so that texts are clear and understandable.  To avoid linguistic chaos, grammar offers basic rules that we follow when writing.

Writing clearly means getting to the point (i.e., don’t hide it until the end), using proper terms (usually words that readers will know), avoiding fluff (e.g., pointless content used to pad your text). Check your writing to make sure that you are being clear.  When in doubt, ask someone else to read your document to check for you.

Write concisely.

As a second rule, make sure that you write concisely.  Be simple.  Be direct.  In other words, say things in as few words as possible.  While there are exceptions to this rule — e.g., you want to superfluously describe the beauty of a flower — in almost all cases, be concise.

In the past, readers appreciated longer sentences.  For example, in first century, sentences would continue for a paragraph or longer.  However, as time has passed, readers have changed.  In modern times, readers expect sentences that are clear.  This allows the reader to quickly process information.

This rule applies to both sentences and paragraphs. Experiment with short sentences. Seriously. You can use them for powerful effect.  Then, once you have shortened sentences, ensure that paragraphs are also concise.  In general, limit paragraphs to 4 to 6 sentences.  You might also try shorter paragraphs, such as a 3-sentence conclusion or a 1-sentence paragraph if writing a novel or news article.

Write consistently.

Maintain the same style throughout your writing.  Do not randomly switch voice, tense, mood, tone, formatting, and so on.  Rare exceptions to this rule should be done intentionally.

Readers will adjust to you as a writer.  For example, if you have a casual tone, your readers will expect that tone to continue throughout the text.  Likewise, if you are writing a serious research paper, then readers will expect that throughout the document — and not expect a random joke in the middle of the text.

Consistency applies to your personal writing style, as well as your document formatting (which is also referred to as “style.”) Be sure to maintain standards throughout your text.  For example, if you use MLA, APA, Oxford, Chicago, or another style, then keep to that.  Do not mix styles.

Write contextually.

Consider your readers — in particular, who they are, what they know, and what they expect.  When writing, imagine the “ideal” audience for the text. Obviously, some others will also read it, but there will be a primary readership.  It helps to clarify this in your mind prior to writing.

For example if you’re selling pumpkin seeds, you might think: “I will write this advertisement for middle-aged women who own a home and have an interest in gardening.” It would not make sense to target your language to a junior high boy.  You’d want to use language (vocabulary, references, images, etc.) that relates to older women rather than younger boys.


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