Writing well is one of the most important skills you can use in your life. Fundamentally, writing is about influence. You can influence someone to feel a certain way, persuade someone to join your cause, comfort those who need comforting. You can use it to convince a potential employer to accept you for an interview, communicate a vision to your own company, sell things, or teach people things that they will benefit from for their own life. Writing is about so much more than just the simple act of conveying a factual concept, just like talking is so much more than just the words that are spoken. Even when you’re reflecting upon your own life, writing well helps you better clarify your own thoughts better. So doing it well is extremely important.
I have my own personal style of writing that I like to use, adapted from many years of writing articles and essays and websites and letters. You’ll have your own voice, too, so you don’t have to copy me - but these are some subjective principles that I use that may help you write better.
- Write in the same way that you would speak, with regards to thinking about how to use grammar. There’s an inherent musicality to the way that you write. Don’t make sentences too long. Vary their length. Use commas at the times when you would take a breath, like now. Full stops in short sentences are declarative. The impact of a full stop is also affected by the length of a sentence, and so you won’t really feel the impact of this one as much, as an example. A semi-colon is great for ideas that slip into one another; they give you a bit more space to breathe and continue a thought. I tend to personally use hyphens where a comma yields a little bit too much of a pause — after all, there’s a delicate balance in how much you’d want to disjoint your ideas, and not every idea warrants a complete sentence by itself.
- Write in the same way that you would speak, with regards to thinking about how much formality to use. Do you remember in school where you would just try to include the most complex words possible so that it would seem like your essay is better? I find the opposite is true in real life. The only reason for using complex words is when they more concisely illustrate a concept, or capture a certain aspect of what you’re trying to say with significantly better clarity. But it’s not complexity itself that’s beautiful — using the perfect word at the perfect time.
- Repetition and variation are both aesthetically pleasing, used sparingly. You see it in music all the time. It seems to be something that’s just psychologically a little satisfying. I just did it with my last two points, after all. But if you repeat it too often, it feels too contrived. And annoying. And frustrating. And unnecessary. And wasteful. Like this. Amateur writers who want to seem cool sometimes overuse repetition, but the feeling that the reader gets is kind of the same feeling that you get when someone tries to explain the reasoning behind why an unfunny joke is funny. You’d understand, but you wouldn’t laugh.
- Analogies often illustrate the point with much better feeling than just factual statements. I used the “unfunny joke” analogy before to capture that feeling, which you’d instinctually grasp - since it’s a universal thing that has happened to someone at least once in their life. I certainly could have explained in pure factual terms something like, “…the feeling that the reader gets is an uncomfortable nauseating uneasiness that comes from being forced into being pushed into feel something deliberately.” But your brain has to convert a whole bunch of words and transform that into a feeling. Rather than that, I’ve instead opted to just remind you of a time where you’d have felt the same feeling, and made you remember that instead. This is a really imperfect method of doing that, as it requires an implicit assumption of the other person’s experiences. For example, if I was to simply say “it’s like that feeling of satisfaction that you get when your code finally runs after two hours of debugging”, the impact of that feeling on a programmer who’s actually been in that situation is way more than someone who just objectively understands that getting things working is satisfying. Convey a feeling by understanding who you’re talking to.
- Don’t waste words. Often people think of the author Ernest Hemingway, who was known for his restrained writing. The old fable goes that some other writers had a bet with him that he couldn’t make a story that would make them cry with just six words. So he accepted the challenge, and wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” And they cried and he won the bet. Unfortunately, this legend was actually made up, but the point it illustrates is still valuable. I definitely don’t try to keep my words anywhere near as brief or restrained as Hemingway of course, but I think that ascribing a particular value to words is really important; the more words that surround a particular sentence, the less the impact of that individual sentence.
- It’s already implicit that your writing is your opinion, so don’t waste too many words re-stating that fact. Using phrases in an article or essay such as “I think that”, “my opinion is”, “I could be wrong, but…” isn’t the best. It’s okay if you’re writing, for example, an email — where you’re assigning a certain “confidence” value to a thought and deliberately trying to make it look like a subjective opinion, differentiating it from a concrete fact. But compare the following two examples:
– I think that in order to succeed, my opinion would be that you need a certain kind of tenancy and persistence in order to push through to success.– In order to succeed, you need a certain kind of tenancy and persistence in order to push through to success.When writing, I feel you’re trying to balance personableness on one hand and declarative confidence on the other. One might be inclined to think that the first statement is written poorly — and it is, when it comes to pure conciseness. But that’s only if your aim is pure conciseness. My aim, instead, is to sound like someone you’d actually trust: a human, composed not atomically out of declarative statements, but instead as an imprecise blend of subjective feelings and more objective insights. This will depend a lot on your actual personality, too.
I’ll keep on contributing to this article as I don’t feel as if it’s complete, but these are just some principles that I think about when writing.