Journalists get taught the ‘show me, don’t tell me’ rule: quotations, examples and similes – in that order – work better than dry description and explanation. And always, always, sleep on an apparently completely finalised draft, if that is an option for you. You will invariably improve a piece the next morning when you are able to revise it with a fresh pair of eyes. This may all sound too abstract and disjoined. But more practical advice follows in the sections below on the actual principles and laws of writing.
1. First up: accept that useful writing is hard to do. If you are not finding it hard: you might be typing, but you are not writing. And it is unlikely that anyone will read what you type with much interest. Good writing is never done in a hurry and the best writing is usually only achieved after multiple drafts and some heartbreak.
2. The secret to good writing is to write short, active, declarative sentences in clear, active language. Anything worth saying is communicated in this way. Vague, wordy, over complex sentences will turn people off and lose their attention. Try to never write a sentence with more than four clauses or sub-sections and, even then, use lots of punctuation.
3. Bad writing equals bad thinking and vice versa. If you start to write without at least a rough sense of what it is that you want to say, get ready for a lot of heartbreak.
4. Never expect to produce a first draft that is ready for publication or an editor. That never happens. It takes time and a lot of writing, re-writing and deleting to achieve conciseness and clarity of expression. Mark Twain once received the following telegram from his editor: “Need two page story, two days.” Twain replied: “No can do two pages, two days. Can do 30 pages, two days. Need 30 days do two pages.”
5. Resist the urge to explain too much under the false pretence of ‘comprehensiveness’. Pick the most important argument that needs to be made and make it. Keep it simple, understated and to the point. Write to a set word count, and never, ever, give someone more words than they have asked for.
6. Be direct. You need to get into your arguments straight away: your introduction should usually be a miniature of the overall structure of the piece. A wordy opening that tries to explain things using a lot of history or background information is called ‘throat-clearing’ by professional writers.
7. An agreed structure can literally save months of time and acrimony. Your argument can, and almost always will, change as you write. But the initial structure will help you settle down, focus and begin.
8. You think you are finally finished. You are worn out and exasperated. You cannot go on. This probably means you have just completed your first draft. Now you know what you do not know. You need to give yourself three times the amount of time you realistically think it will take to write something. And still more time will be needed to circulate and receive comments on drafts and to take account of these in new drafts.
9. Take your ego out of the process. To write well is an emotional process and you can get very attached to your drafts. But pride of authorship only ever hurts; it never really helps, to paraphrase Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. There are often little expressions and sentences in a piece that you feel very attached to, that you are very proud of, that are really you. Sadly, these usually have to be cut. You must have the presence of mind to kill off these ‘darlings’ yourself – or someone else will to your great despair.
10. Everyone, without exception, needs a critical editor and several fresh pairs of eyes to proofread anything remotely serious. If your editor has not seriously challenged some of your assertions or use of language, then they are doing you a professional disservice.
1. One sentence must be directly related to the next or the piece will not flow properly. Vaguely or completely unrelated consecutive sentences are called non-sequiturs and are also commonplace in most poor writing. If you really want to change the subject, start a new paragraph.
2. Avoid repetitions. Untrained writers do this all the time in an attempt to drive their point home. Actually, you undermine a good argument or point by repeating it too often.
3. Exaggeration or over-statement also undermines your point. A well-structured, well-argued piece will speak for itself. If you have a slightly guilty feeling at the back of your mind that one of your sentences is a bit of an exaggeration, then it is. Moderate or cut.
4. Avoid using ‘passive’ language. For example: “The EU’s democracy promotion efforts have been mainly focused on North Africa.” Passives usually involve the use of ‘has’ or ‘have’ (‘has introduced’, ‘has proven’). If you have passives in your writing, it usually means that you need to change the sentence around to make it active and bring the subject of the sentence further forward. For starters, try setting the sentence in the present tense and see if that reads better. “North Africa is the main focus of the EU’s efforts to promote democracy.” Be specific, definite and concrete: this is the best way to hold a reader’s attention.
5. If you are a native English speaker, trust your ear more than your brain. Say a sentence out loud to yourself slowly. If it sounds awkward, or you run out of breath, that is how the sentence will read: awkward and breathless. You will have lost the reader as a willing collaborator.
6. Never use jargon – ‘horizontal process’, ‘co-decision’, ‘CAP’, ‘open method of co-ordination’ and so on – unless completely necessary. Jargon terms are always shorthand for something else and hence they mean nothing by themselves. Jargon is the first weapon of the obfuscating bureaucrat or dissembling politician. This kind of language is therefore the arch foe of all seekers of clarity since its raison d’etre is just the opposite.
7. Do not use abbreviations: don’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t etc. These do not read professionally when writing policy analysis.
8. Welcome to the split infinitive debate: most grammarians say that when you are using a verb in the infinitive, “I told Ellen to go where no man has gone before”, then you should never insert anything else between the ‘to’ and the ‘go’. So, the famous Star Trek strap-line, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, is considered incorrect usage by the experts. Although this is not a clear cut law, do try to observe it because so-called split infinitives often sound bad or lead to over-emphasis.
9. Hopefully this will already be obvious but never use exclamation marks. If you do, you will destroy any semblance of respectability or sobriety in the preceding analysis (!)
10. As George Orwell wrote in his seminal 1946 essay Politics and the English language: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”