Here is a little advice on writing.
The various recommendations aren’t original – they’re drawn from various sources I’ve read – but this summarises the advice I’ve found most useful in writing for magazines including Reader’s Digest, as well as occasional books, and web pages. I hope you find it useful.
Writing articles for publication, including on the web
Keep your words as short and sweet as possible. Favour Anglo-Saxon. Without good reason, you don’t perambulate, you walk.
Don’t shy away from using “I” and “you” if they’re applicable.
“An experiment was conducted,” is best left to science writing – and maybe not the best science writing at that. “You” can appeal directly to your readers.
Use active verbs.
“An experiment was conducted,” – bad.
“I conducted an experiment,” – better.
If you quote people who are speaking, typically use “he said” etc, rather than “she sighed”, “he smiled” and so on. People pretty much ignore the words “say”, “said” – focusing instead on the words spoken.
“Short sentences are better than long ones.” I read this years ago – in a manual about university expeditions – and it’s worth remembering. Likewise, Strunk and White’s advice: “Omit needless words.”
Vary your sentence structure, to help give rhythm to your writing. And write long sentences as and when they seem appropriate.
Though paragraphs should be restricted to one topic, their length can vary depending on your target publication. Some magazines prefer long paragraphs, others short ones.
If you’re writing for the web, you should tend to keep your paragraphs short – as they’ll look less intimidating than big blocks of text.
Plus, people reading online tend to skim through text, rather than read word-by-word: this too is surely easier when paragraphs are short. You can do even more to lay out (and boldface) your text for skimming readers, but in my view this is overdone on Sun Microsystems’ Writing for the Web pages.
In a paragraph with spoken words, there may be no need for a preamble about who’s speaking; it will be stronger if you open with speech, then give the “he said” bit, maybe followed by more speech.
Focus Control, and Structure
Crucially, maintain “focus control”. I read of this in a nifty book called How to Write Like a Pro, and it’s a key element of writing that some who advise on writing perhaps overlook. Focus control is about knowing where your text is, and where it’s going, at every place – so your reader finds the text progresses without nasty stops and starts and spurious sidetracks.
That’s not to say you can’t have surprises. But these should be deliberate, not the result of sloppy thinking and writing on your part. There’s plenty more to read, and on the web it’s all just a click away.
Unless you’re writing something very short, consider structuring even an article into “chapters”. Each chapter can tell part of your story – whether fiction or non-fiction. You can neatly close one chapter, then begin the next without necessarily having a linking sentence.
Especially if you’re aiming for a long article, you’ll probably find it best to make plans before writing the first sentence. There are probably several ways of doing this, and it’s up to you to find what works for you.
For myself, if I have an important article to write, I start by scribbling notes on the subject I’m about to cover. I see which pieces of information and anecdotes fit together – so making potential chapters – or are obviously closely linked. Then, more scribbling, as I sketch a possible structure for the article, arranging the material by chapters.
To the Pub; and to Writing, and Revising
Right, now I hopefully have the likely chapters arranged, with some idea of how my article will end, how to begin it? I’m blessed if I know; so it might be time to go to the pub.
Or, better, it’s time for a walk. When I reckon an article’s important, and perhaps complex, I find it tough to just do some notes and then plunge right in. Instead, I like to read all the material, then mull it over away from my notebook and computer.
Eventually, though, the mulling has to stop, and I’ve got to start writing. And so, back to the notebook, to scribble out how the opening chapter might go. Especially that dreaded first sentence.
Then, to the computer, and a blank page in Word. And the first sentence, which for me is often the hardest sentence of all to write (one journalist told me he sometimes started after the first sentence or paragraphs, then returned, to finish at the start).
Happily, once I have a first sentence I’m happy with, the rest of the article is easier. Not easy, necessarily – I might still take time, perhaps revisting and rewriting those chapter notes. But at least the page is no longer blank; I’ve started, so I’ll finish.
And then, it’s time to read through the piece, and to revise it, including by ensuring there is focus control, and chopping out any needless words that may have intruded. After that, another revision, and maybe another – after all, Hemmingway rewrote the ending to one novel over 40 times – and it”s time to submit to an editor, or publish for your intended audience.
Read – and Learn
Crucially, too: read. Read magazines, books, newspapers… Especially good ones, that you like, with styles you respect and would maybe like to emulate. As you read, try to see what the writer is doing – watch the focus control, the structure, the way quotes are used.
As author Wilkie Collins noted, text that is easy to read may have been tough to write: don’t just enjoy the read, but see what makes the article or book work so well.