Writing good content is a skill. It takes years to master the craft. William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style tells us to omit needless words and be clear.
That’s pretty hard, though, right? How do we know which words, phrases or sentences to delete?
It’s a challenge for us writers. Today’s fast-paced and evolving writing styles – from 140-character tweet to punchy Instagram captions to emojis – demand us to write short, sweet, and fast.
Focus, Wit, and Polish
Roy Peter Clark‘s How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times has been useful to me for the past weeks. Here’s a nugget from the book that will comfort every writer who’s been struggling to reconcile long-form blogs and short, punchy copies.
“Writing in short form does not require the sacrifice of literary values. The poet Peter Meinke talks about the power that comes from focus, wit, and polish. Focus is the unifying them. Wit is the governing intelligence. Polish creates the sparkle that comes from careful word choice and revision. The demand for good short writing is not an innovation. That need can be traced, through countless examples, back to the origins of writing itself.”
These countless examples are the prayers, epigrams, short poetic forms, lyrics and among others.
Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity
Another author, whose works I admire because of the practical, simple, and timeless tips, is the late William Zinsser. His book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing NonFiction is a must-read for aspiring and veteran writers. (I’ve read this 8 times already).
His article Writing English as a Second Language is full of meaty advice taken from his talk to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He shared his four principles of writing good English: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.
Here’s an excerpt:
“The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.”
Clarity means if you don’t understand what you’re writing, then either re-write it or skip it.
For Zinsser, “If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”
Simplicity means you use words that are part of our daily conversations. Avoid syrupy, fluffy words. Use adverbs sparingly. (Guilty of this, especially when writing about places and food).
For Zinnser, “Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.”
Brevity is all about short and long sentences. Let’s face it. We think long sentences with words derived from Latin (e.g. +ion) make us clever writers, especially in the technology and business writing. Innovation. Facilitation. Maximization. (I’m guilty of this!) Instead of usage, use. Instead of assist, help.
One to two syllable words and up to 20 words in one sentence will make our reader’s life easier.
For Zinnser, “Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”
And lastly, humanity. To be ourselves when we write. It takes a lot of practice and hard work to discover our writing voice. The more we write, the more we improve our style and voice.
As Zinnser put it, “Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.”