100 ways to improve your writing by Gary Provost

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100 professionally approved ways to become a reckoned writer.

Submitted: August 18, 2017

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Submitted: August 18, 2017

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Table of Contents 


Title Page 
Copyright Page 
Acknowledgements 
Dedication 
Introduction 

CHAPTER ONE -Nine Ways to Improve Your Writing When You’re Not Writing 
CHAPTER TWO -Nine Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block 
CHAPTER THREE -Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning 
CHAPTER FOUR -Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy 
CHAPTER FIVE -Ten Ways to Develop Style 
CHAPTER SIX -Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power 
CHAPTER SEVEN -Eleven Ways to Make People Like What You Write 
CHAPTER EIGHT -Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors 
CHAPTER NINE -Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors 
CHAPTER TEN -Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You 
CHAPTER ELEVEN -Seven Ways to Edit Yourself 


Questions That Every Writer Must Answer 


—Where do good ideas come from? 

—Should sentences and paragraphs be long or short? 

—When should rules of grammar be obeyed, and when should they be stretched? 

—Why does one piece of writing succeed, and another fail? 

—How can you look at your own work and judge it fairly? 

Whether you are a student writing a paper, a copywriter writing an ad, a business person 
writing a letter, a reporter writing a news story, an author writing a short story, novel, or 
nonfiction book, you will find all the ways to write it better in 

100 
WAYS TO 
IMPROVE 
YOUR 
WRITING 


GARY PROVOST is a teacher of writing, as well as the author of over 1,000 stories and 
articles and ten fiction and non-fiction books, including FATAL DOSAGE and THE 
FREELANCE WRITER’S HANDBOOK, available in a Mentor edition. 


MENTOR 
Published by New American Library, a division of 
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, 
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First Printing, October 


Copyright © Gary Provost, 1972 


All rights reserved 
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Acknowledgments 


Some of the material in this book appeared in different form in Writer’s Digest magazine. I 
want to thank Bill Brohaugh, Rose Adkins, and Tom Clark at Writer’s Digest for their work on 
the original articles. 

At New American Library I want to thank Channah Taub, Andrea Stein, and Helen 
Eisenbach, each of whom watched over the book at some point. 

And special thanks to Claudia Reilly, who edited the book at New American Library, and to 
Jon Matson. 

Also I want to gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint the following material: 

Excerpt from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Copyright © 1975, Ray Bradbury. Reprinted 
with the permission of Doubleday and Co. 

Excerpt from Psychology Today, Copyright © 1983. 

Excerpt from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright © 1926 Charles Scribner’s 
Sons; copyright renewed 1953 Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan. Reprinted with the 
permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons. 

Excerpt from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Copyright ® 1926 Charles Scribner’s 
Sons; copyright renewed 1954 Ernest Hemingway. Reprinted with the permission of Charles 
Scribner’s Sons. 

Excerpt from the Boston Globe by John Bierman. Copyright © 1983, John Bierman. Reprinted 
with the permission of John Bierman. 

Excerpt from “Kelly’s Gift” by James Ricci, Reader’s Digest, June 1983. 

Excerpt from No Time For Sergeants by Mac Hyman. Copyright © 1954 by Mac Hyman. 
Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc. 


Excerpt from The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Copyright © 1972 by Ira Levin. Reprinted with 
the permission of Random House, Inc. 

Excerpt from The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Copyright © 1978 by James Crumley. 
Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc. 

Excerpt from “How to Get More for Your Money” by Barbara Gilder Quint, Glamour, 
February 1981. Courtesy Glamour, copyright © 1981 by the Condé Nast Publications Inc. 

Excerpt from Ping by Gail Levine-Freidus. Copyright © 1983, Gail Levine-Freidus. 

Excerpt from Popcorn (Bradbury Press) by Gary Provost and Gail Provost, copyright © 1985, 
Gary Provost and Gail Provost. 

Excerpt from On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Copyright ® 1983 by the Estate of 
John Gardner. Reprinted with the permission of Harper & Row. 

Excerpt from Everything You Want to Know About Your Husband’s Money and Need to Know 
Before the Divorce by Shelley Aspaklania and Gerson Geltner. Copyright © 1980 by Shelley 
Aspaklania and Gerson Geltner. Reprinted with the permission of Harper & Row. 

Excerpt from “Walking on Water,” by Frank Rose. Copyright © 1982, Frank Rose. Reprinted 
by permission of the author. 

Excerpt from “The Height Report” by Ralph Keyes. Reprinted by The Sterling Lord Agency, 
Inc. First appeared in Esquire. Copyright © 1977 by Ralph Keyes 

Excerpt from the Boston Globe, copyright © 1983. Reprinted with the permission of the 
Boston Globe. 


Dedication 


As a free-lance writer I live and die by the mailbox. During the past twenty years I have sent 
and received more than forty thousand pieces of mail that had some part of my heart attached 
to them. And during that time there haven’t been more than one or two mishaps concerning the 
handling of my mail. Though I have laughed at post-office jokes and have made a few myself, 
the fact is that the United States Postal Service has the highest success record of any business I 
have ever dealt with. For that reason this book is dedicated to the men and women of the post 
office at South Lancaster, Massachusetts 01561, and to postal workers everywhere. 


Introduction 


This book will teach you how to write better ransom notes. 

It will also teach you how to write better love letters, short stories, magazine articles, letters 
to the editor, business proposals, sermons, poems, novels, parole requests, church newsletters, 
songs, memos, essays, term papers, theses, graffiti, death threats, advertisements, and 
shopping lists. 

If your writing does not improve after you read this book, you have not failed. I have. It is 
the writer’s job, not the reader’s, to see that writing accomplishes whatever goal the writer has 
set for it. 

One bit of advice I will give you in this book is “Make yourself likable.” Readers who like 
you are more inclined to trust you, to laugh at your jokes, cry over your anguish, sign the 
petition, buy the product, put the check in the mail, or do whatever else it is you are trying to 
get them to do through your writing. 

I want you to like me so that you will follow my advice—and recommend my book to your 
friends. And that’s important for you to know because it means I am on your side. I’m not here 
to tell you that you’re writing wrong. I’m here to show you how to write right. 


CHAPTER ONE 


Nine Ways to Improve Your Writing When You’re Not Writing 

1. Get Some Reference Books 
2. Expand Your Vocabulary 
3. Improve Your Spelling 
4. Read 
5. Take a Class 
6. Eavesdrop 
7. Research 
8. Write in Your Head 
9. Choose a Time and Place 

1. Get Some Reference Books 
It would be a shame to bring an entire writing project to a halt just because you didn’t know 
how to spell gyroscope or schnapps. So get a dictionary and keep it in the room where you 
write, no more than an arm’s length away. In fact, get two. Get a hard cover for its 
comprehensiveness and a paperback for convenience. 

Also, get an encyclopedia. If you can’t afford a big set, get a single volume encyclopedia. 

And get a thesaurus. Thesaurus means “treasury”; the thesaurus you buy will be a treasury 
of synonyms, words that are close in meaning to the one you want. It is a book that will lead 
you to that perfect word you know is loitering on the outskirts of your brain. 

Roget’s Thesaurus is arranged in two sections. The first section contains hundreds of 
clusters of related words and phrases. The second section is an index listing all the words in 
the first section alphabetically and telling you where they appear in that section. 

Let’s say, for example, that in a letter you want to assure the owner of the company you 
work for that you will most certainly try to recover the four billion dollars you lost on the 
papier-mâché deal, but recover isn’t quite the word you want to use, and you’re not sure what 
is. So you whip out your pocket edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, turn to the index, and look up 
recover. There you’ll find the numbers 660, 775, and 790. You turn to cluster 660 and you find 
recover along with its cousins rally, revive, pull through, reappear, and others. If you don’t 
like anything you find there, you turn to the other numbers, and the thesaurus will lead you to 
redeem, get back, salvage, and so on. 

You can find thesauruses in paperback and hard cover, and Roget’s is not the only one. I do 
not recommend the ones that are arranged solely in dictionary form. They are easier to use but 
only about twelve percent as useful. 

After you have acquired a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a thesaurus, you can acquire 
other reference books as time, taste, and money allow. Their importance depends largely on 
what sort of writing you do and how much. 

Here are a few reference books you might find useful. 


Finding Facts Fast by Alden Todd (Ten Speed Press) is a good reference book for any 
writer who has to do research. 

The Statistical Abstract of the United States will tell you how many tomatoes were grown in 
New Jersey last year and a good many other things you might not find anywhere else. You can 
order it from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. 

The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace (Bantam) is 
fun to read and rich with useful information. 

The Help Book by J. L. Barkas (Scribner’s) will tell you who provides what services and 
where you can get more information. 

The King’s English by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Oxford University Press) is an 
excellent grammar text. 

Words into Type (Prentice-Hall) will guide you through every aspect of manuscript 
preparation, from matters of usage and grammar to matters of editing and proofreading. 


2. Expand Your Vocabulary 
Everybody has heard tips for improving vocabulary. Learn a new word in the morning and 
use it three times before sunset and it’s yours, etc. There are many books that will help you 
stretch your vocabulary. The best known one is Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by 
Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis (Funk and Wagnalls). Read that book or one like it. 

But the most important vocabulary for the writer is not the one that will take in uxorious 
tomorrow and soubrette the next day. It’s the one he or she already has. For the writer of 
average intelligence and education, learning new words is much less important than learning 
to use easily the words he or she already knows. 

Think for a minute. How many synonyms can you come up with for the noun plan? 

There are program, itinerary, scheme, design, agenda, outline, and blueprint. If you 
concentrated for a minute, you might have come up with ten words that you already knew. But 
how many of them would have come easily to mind while you were writing a letter to the boss 
about your potentially lucrative new ... uh ... plan? 

The only way to make your vocabulary more accessible is to use it. If you want all those 
short but interesting words waiting at the front of your brain when you need them, you must 
move them to the front of your brain before you need them. 

Stop to think about other word possibilities when you write, and eventually they will come 
so quickly that you won’t have to stop. 

Pause before you speak. Then insert some of those good but neglected words. 

And when you drive home from work at night, pick out an object along the road and see how 
many synonyms you can think of before you pass it. There’s a house over there. But it’s also a 
dwelling, an abode, a building, a bungalow, perhaps, or maybe a cottage. It’s a home for 
somebody, it’s headquarters for a family, and it’s a shelter and a structure, too. 


3. Improve Your Spelling 
There aren’t many firm rules that apply to the spelling of English words. Mostly, good 
spelling is a matter of forming the right mental associations and developing an eye for words 
that look a little weird. 

In the dictionary, look up any word that you’re not sure of. If you have been misspelling it, 
write it correctly ten times. Invent a visual image for the correct spelling. For example: The 
Sahara desert 
only has one s, like Sahara, but the dessert 
after a meal has a second s, like a 
second helping. 

How will better spelling improve your writing? Well, for one thing, you won’t write desert 
when you mean dessert. 
More important, it will improve your writing by reducing the number 
of times you annoy the reader. A few misspelled words will jar the reader’s concentration, and 
a lot of misspelled words will wreck your credibility. Right or wrong, the reader will perceive 
you as ... well, stupid, to put it bluntly. If you don’t have the respect of the reader, your writing 
will not work. 

Fifty of the Most Commonly Misspelled Words: 

 

4. Read 
If you are an a architect, you should certainly read architectural literature. If you are in 
computers, you must keep up with what’s being written about bits and bytes, demodulation 
and interlaced fields. Reading the books and trade magazines of your particular field will not 
only keep you informed, it will show you how experienced writers are turning the jargon and 
the complexities of your vocation into readable prose. 

But no matter what your field of expertise, you should also read books, magazines, and 
newspapers designed for the general reader. 

Though the daily paper contains much that is swill, it also contains some good writing. 
From it you can learn to write leanly, you can learn to get to the point, and you can learn to 
compress several facts into a single clear sentence. 

If you read paperback detective novels and romances, you will discover how writers create 
curiosity, and build tension. You will also learn how to construct an event, a person, or a place 
with just a few well-chosen words. 

Read major novels. You will see how words can be used to communicate subtleties and stir 
emotions, how words can be arranged one way to make you worry, another to make you laugh. 

Read magazine articles and you will see how quotes are pared down from lengthy 
interviews until they contain nothing but the words that matter. Notice how opinions are 
supported by facts. Watch to see how the writer makes his points by calling on outside help 
such as scientific reports, quotes from books, surveys, etc. 

Read. And listen to what you read. Listen for the sound of the language, the music. Note the 
punctuation, the spelling, the logical progression of information. And find the things that fail, 
also. Listen to how two similiar sounds close together can cause a disturbing noise in your 
head. Hear how the use of the wrong word wakes you from your reading spell. Be a critical 
reader, and look upon all that you read as a lesson in good writing. 


5. Take a Class 
If you don’t believe that good writing can be taught, you shouldn’t be reading this book. If 
you do believe good writing can be taught, you could benefit from a class. 

You don’t have to sign up for a three-credit course at the local university. You can find a 
creative writing or English composition course in most adult education and extension 
programs. 

There are specific courses designed for particular types of writers. For example, there are 
business writing courses that thoroughly cover the formal English required in business 
correspondence. A course in nonfiction writing will provide you with some research 
techniques that you wouldn’t get elsewhere. And a course in writing for television would be 
invaluable if that’s your interest, as there are many rules of form a scriptwriter must follow. 

Generally, a writing course is as good or as bad as the teacher. Good teachers and bad 
teachers are found at all levels, so ask around. 

Whether it’s a course at the local high school or a course at Harvard, in my opinion you 
should steer clear of any teacher who speaks with a British accent but has never been to 
England and any teacher who insists you must read Moby Dick before writing your first paper. 
Point yourself toward the eager, unpretentious teacher who is actually publishing stories, 
articles, and books. 

“But why,” you ask, “should I take a writing class at all after reading a wonderful book like 
this?” 

Good question. Three answers. 

1. With a teacher and other students reading your work, you will be better able to 
learn what your particular faults and virtues are. 
2. Knowing that the class or teacher is going to read your work, you will work harder 
at making your writing good. 
3. Your own writing mistakes are often invisible to you, but they will become 
obvious when you see them in the work of fellow students. 

6. Eavesdrop 
Be nosy. Listen to conversations on the bus, in the elevator. Screen out the words sometimes 
and listen only to the music. Tune in to teenagers’ conversations, and you’ll pick up the latest 
slang. Pretend to be reading on the park bench, and you’ll hear how words are used to convey 
more than they mean. Find out what people are talking about, what they care about. All of this 
will help you to communicate more effectively through your writing. 

This passage from my book The Dorchester Gas Tank is based on a conversation I 
overheard at a diner in Burlington, Vermont. 

“My neighbor’s daughter has just got back from Sweden,” Bernice says. Her words are 
slightly muffled because she has stopped in her conversation with Dora to slice open a 
roll of Italian bread and stuff it with provolone cheese, several thick slices of baloney and 
enough tomatoes, onions, etc. to sink a ship. Now she chomps on it as if food will soon be 
obsolete. 

“I didn’t know they went to Europe,” Bernice’s sister says. 

“Well it’s not really Europe. It’s in Scandinavia. It’s a Danish country.” 

“Oh yes,” Dora says, “the Danish country is very nice, but those people don’t like to 
talk to outsiders.” 

“Well, it’s a sub-language they speak,” Bernice says. “It’s like German, not fully 
developed.” 

“Very guttural,” Dora says. 

“My neighbor’s daughter says some of them are really awful. She went to a cathedral 
and one of them had stolen a crown from a statue of the Blessed Mother.” 

“From the Blessed Mother? That’s disgraceful.” 


 
7. Research 
Do your fingers sometimes freeze over the typewriter keyboard? Does the paper seem to 
stare back at you with an accusing eye? The problem could be that you haven’t gathered 
enough information. You haven’t gotten the facts. 

Almost everything you will ever write must be built on a foundation of factual information. 
That includes opinion pieces and most certainly includes stories, plays, and novels. 

Before you write, track down the bits of information you are going to need. Get the prices 
you must quote, the names of people you will mention. Find out when it’s going to happen, 
where it will be, who’s going to be speaking, and whether or not dogs are allowed. You cannot 
write securely on any subject unless you have gathered far more information than you will use. 

Here are four ways to get facts. 

1. Look it up. If the facts are not in the books on your shelf, try the company library 
or the public library. Through the library system, you have access to just about every 
piece of information in the world, though in some cases the information might have been 
printed only in Swahili. 
2. Ask somebody. Who has the information you need? Is it the chairperson of the 
canvassing committee? Is it the president of the company? Is it the president’s secretary? 
Ask yourself, “Who would know?” Then go directly to the most logical and best-
informed people. And if anybody begins an answer with “Well, gee, Harry, I think maybe 
that now that you ask, let me see ...” ask somebody else. 

3. Observe it. Sometimes the best way to acquire facts is to conduct an experiment. 
Do you need to know how many miles it is from the center of town to the church? Drive 
from downtown to the church and check your mileage. Will people in wheelchairs be able 
to attend the dinner at the Old Timer’s Café? Go to the Old Timer’s, have a drink. And 
while you are there, look for ramps, measure the doorways, check the rest rooms. 
Of course, there’s not always time for this sort of thing. In an emergency, ask 
somebody. Like a waitress at the Old Timer’s, or the minister who’s got to drive 
downtown to put the collection in the bank. 

4. Speak to the reference librarian. Most libraries offer a reference service. Use it. 
When you need information and you don’t know where to find it, ask the librarian. He or 

she will find it, or direct you to the source. Many libraries will handle reference questions 
over the phone, and that can spare you a good deal of frustration when your writing 
comes to a standstill because you don’t know where George Gershwin was born. Keep the 
library’s phone number handy. But remember that librarians are the servants of 
ignorance, not of laziness. Call the librarian if you need to know the biggest crops in 
Bolivia, but don’t call to ask how Bolivia is spelled. 


8. Write in Your Head 
When I was a reporter for a local newspaper, I used to leave a school committee or 
selectmen’s meeting around eleven P.M. in Hudson and drive eight miles to the newspaper 
office in Marlboro, where I would write my stories for the next day’s edition. 

Often I arrived after other reporters. But almost invariably I would write my stories, hand 
them in, and drive home before the others. I was able to do this, not because I am a faster 
typist, but because I started writing before I got to the office. I wrote the first draft in my head 
during the drive to Marlboro. In my mind I planned the lead, decided what information I could 
ignore, and organized my material. By the time I reached the office, I knew what I wanted to 
write, and when I sat down at the typewriter, it was like pushing the “play” button on a tape 
recorder. Everything I had recorded in my brain came out. 

So if you have a writing job, write in your head. Clear up the inconsistencies while you’re 
brushing your teeth. Get your thoughts organized while you’re driving to work. Think of a 
slant during lunch. And most important, come up with a beginning, a lead, so that you won’t 
end up staring at your typewriter as if it had just arrived from another galaxy. If you have 
spent time writing in your head, you’ll have a head start. The writing will come easier, and 
you’ll finish sooner. 


9. Choose a Time and Place 
For most writers the hardest part of any writing project is getting started. I often begin by 
staring at the typewriter as if it is some vile substance that has been spilled on my desk. Then, 
no matter how alert I was when I arrived at the typewriter, I become almost terminally 
drowsy. My eyes droop. My shoulders sag. Finally, I begin to think, “Well, maybe I should 
take a little nap first, then I’ll be well rested for writing.” Usually my puritan conscience 
cancels that plan. So I take on the expression of a man who has just been strapped into a 
dentist’s chair and begin to write. As soon as I have words on paper, agony departs. I love 
writing. It’s getting started that I abhor. 

I tell you this so that you won’t feel alone. You probably go through similar hell before you 
write. Almost everybody does. The way to eliminate most of these traumas is to write in large 
blocks of time rather than try to write for ten minutes here and ten minutes there. Look at your 
schedule. When will you be left undisturbed for an hour or two? Can you lock the door? 
Unplug the phone? You will get more writing done in an undisturbed hour than you would in a 
dozen ten-minute spurts. 

It is also important to find a quiet place to write. Few people can write their best when the 
phone is ringing and the kids are clamoring for whatever it is that makes kids clamor. A den in 
a noisy house would probably produce less writing than the back seat of a car in a quiet 
garage. So find someplace quiet. Is there a day when everybody else is out of the house? Does 
a friend have a cottage? Does your company have an empty office? 

If you can’t find a quiet place to write, use earplugs. 


CHAPTER TWO 

Nine Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block 

1. Copy Something 
2. Keep a Journal 
3. Talk About What You’re Writing 
4. Touch Your Toes 
5. Do Writing Exercises 
6. Organize Your Material 
7. Make a List 
8. Picture a Reader 
9. Ask Yourself Why You Are Writing 

1. Copy Something 
Yes, copy. From time to time take a few paragraphs from something that you enjoyed 
reading and sit down at the typewriter or with a notebook and copy them word for word. You 
will find yourself suddenly aware of the choices the writer made. You will look at the work 
from the writer’s point of view. In time you will feel like an insider, and you will say, “I know 
why he chose this word; I know why he made two short sentences here instead of one long 
one.” You will become more intimate with the writer’s words and with words in general, and 
your own writing will be better for it. 

If you don’t have a favorite passage to copy, use this one from The Great Gatsby 
(Scribner’s) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a favorite of mine. 

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that 
when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, 
his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a 
moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At 
his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. 

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of 
something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a 
long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted 
like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled 
air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable 
forever. 


2. Keep a Journal 
There is no one right way to keep a journal. But if you have some sort of notebook or diary 
that you return to often with your written thoughts, opinions, observations, and various bits of 
wit, you will have a place in which to exercise your writing muscles. 

You will learn to describe succinctly and clearly the events of your daily life. You will learn 
to pluck from each event just the details needed to create a sense of the whole. If you keep a 
journal, you will grow as a writer, and you will find that sooner or later, no matter what you 
have to write professionally, your personal experiences will play a part. 

Keep in mind, however, that a journal can be far more than just a diary. You can take notes 
from a conversation. You can take notes while you’re reading, or eating at a restaurant. You 
can even take notes while you’re watching television. I know of one woman who took notes 
while watching the National Cheerleading Competition on TV. She learned all the terms, and 
with the information she gathered, she was able to make a story about a cheerleader 
convincing. 


3. Talk About What You’re Writing 
When you’re looking for a job, you tell as many people as you can. There’s always the 
chance that one of your friends knows about a suitable job opening, or that someone knows a 
guy who knows a guy, etc. Same thing when you want to buy a house. You tell people what 
size house you’re looking for, how much you can spend, and what kind of neighbors you can’t 
stand. You do this because maybe somebody has heard about a house you’d want to buy. In 
effect, by telling people what you need, you plug into a huge computer loaded with all the 
relevant information your friends have accumulated. 

When you have a story to write, plug into that computer. Talk about your story. Tell people 
your subject and your particular slant. Chances are your friend Karen read a book last week 
that had a chapter on your subject, your cousin Louie might send you an appropriate 
newspaper clipping, somebody else might remember a fitting quote from George Bernard 
Shaw, and your brother James might remember something significant that he heard when he 
was in prison. 


4. Touch Your Toes 
Do a little warm-up exercise before you write. If your toes are too far away to touch, then 
stretch your arms or dance or jump up and down. Whatever. James Michener actually goes 
into physical training like a boxer before he begins a book, so the least you can do is take a 
few deep breaths, put your pulse rate into second gear, and deliver a supply of oxygen to the 
brain. All of this will improve the clarity of your thinking and the quality of your energy. 

Also, do not continue to write after you become fatigued. A tired writer at the typewriter is 
as dangerous as a tired driver behind the steering wheel. If your eyes begin to droop and your 
head wobbles, stand up and do some more exercise. That should rejuvenate you. If it doesn’t, 
take a nap. 


5. Do Writing Exercises 
Just as you need to get your body warmed up to run, you need a little writing exercise before 
starting a writing project. 

A writing exercise can be almost anything that turns thoughts into words. Make a list of ten 
rhyming words. Describe the inside of a Ping-Pong ball. But whatever you do, do it in a 
noncritical way. Turn off the editor in your head. The exercise is not supposed to be polished 
prose any more than a warm-up run is supposed to set a world record. 


6. Organize Your Material 
Certainly there is such a thing as being overorganized. Some writers organize their material 
so thoroughly that everything they write comes out looking like a hardware catalog. Your 
outline, whatever its form, should contain enough slack for creativity and space for new 
thoughts on your subject. 

But you should organize the material. Organizing will help lock in the logic of what you 
say, and it will speed the writing process. Organizing will help to create an overall unity in 
your story as well as several interior unities. 

There is no one right way to organize material for a story. Organization depends on the 
nature of the work and, more importantly, on what works for you. So I cannot offer you the 
best way to organize material. But I will give you a few tips: 

• Create a list of questions about your subject before you begin research, and keep 
related questions together. 
Go to many different sources for answers—even go to many sources for answers to a 
single question. Several answers to the same question are compelling when they are 
similar and fascinating when they are not. 

• Gather much more material than you will use. Just as high water pressure makes 
more water flow faster, the greater weight of material you have gathered will make the 
words flow faster. 
• As you create written material, whether you are photocopying at the library, 
transcribing taped interviews, or simply scribbling notes, write on one side of the paper 
only. That way you can slice up your material with a pair of scissors and rearrange it any 
way you want. 

7. Make a List 
Some writers will not write a magazine article until they have constructed an outline that is 
longer than the article they intend to write. Other writers begin with no outline at all, though 
they probably have a vague outline in mind. 

How long or detailed your outline is depends on the scope of what you have to write and 
how secure you are with the material. But an outline is just a list of elements you want to put 
into your writing, and for any story or article you should make some sort of list, even if it’s 
just three words scribbled on a scrap of paper. Write some key words for the issues you want 
to cover, the facts you want to point to, the questions you want to pose. Glance at the list as 
you work. This will help you decide what to write next. 

If, for example, you want to write a letter to your lawyer describing the skullduggery your 
husband has been up to since the divorce agreement was signed, you might scribble a list that 
looks like this: 

1. Cheated me on the car payments. 
2. Sends support checks late. 
3. Tells the kids lies. 
Even if you are writing something short, such as a press release, it’s a good idea to make a 
list of essential elements. Making a checklist: “Time. Date. Place. Price.” Newspaper offices 
are always getting press releases that don’t mention what time the pancake breakfast at the 
Boys’ Club begins. 


8. Picture a Reader 
Do you know who your reader is? Is your story going to be read by a professor who knows 
everything but has very little time? Or is the reader a layperson with no knowledge of your 
specialty? A little girl, perhaps? An immigrant? 

Before you write, figure out whom you are trying to reach. Who is the reader and what does 
he or she know? 

To write is not necessarily to communicate. Communication occurs in the mind of the 
reader, and if that reader is not familiar with your terms and your concepts, you might as well 
write them in Latvian. The computer terms that are impressive in a letter to your software 
engineer will be gobbledygook in a sales brochure aimed at people who have never used 
computers. 

Remember that when you write, the language you have to work with is not your entire 
vocabulary, but only that portion of it that you share with the reader. Just because you speak 
Portuguese doesn’t mean you should pepper your story with Portuguese phrases. This 
reminder goes not just for words but for historical allusions and the like. When you write, 
don’t think about how smart you are; think about how smart your reader is. To do that you 
must visualize him or her. Imagine your reader in the room with you. What is his education? 
What are his attitudes? How important is this particular story to him? Write as if you were in 
conversation with your readers. Listen to the dialogue that would occur. Are your readers 
going to stop you and say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, what’s a grumdocle?” 
If they are, 
then don’t use grumdocle, 
or explain it when you do. 


9. Ask Yourself Why You Are Writing 
Do not write until you know why you are writing. What are your goals? Are you trying to 
make readers laugh? Are you trying to persuade them to buy a product? Are you trying to 
advise them? Are you trying to inform them so that they can make a decision? 

If you cannot answer the question “Why am I writing this?” then you cannot wisely choose 
words, provide facts, include or exclude humor. You must know what job you want done 
before you can pick the tools to do it. And if you cannot state clearly at least one reason for 
writing your story, article, or paper ... don’t write it. 


CHAPTER THREE 

Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning 

1. Find a Slant 
2. Write a Strong Lead 
3. Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep 
4. Set a Tone and Maintain It 
5. Begin at the Beginning 

1. Find a Slant 
Do not try to write everything about your subject. All subjects are inexhaustible. If you try 
to write on every aspect of your subject, you will ramble. You will get lost in the writing, your 
wastebasket will overflow, and you will become a crazy person. Tie yourself to a specific idea 
about your subject, some aspect that is manageable. That aspect is called the slant. Here are 
some examples. 

 

2. Write a Strong Lead 
There is no precise definition of the lead. It can be the first sentence, the first paragraph, 
even the first several paragraphs of your article or story. The lead is whatever it takes to lead 
your readers so deeply into your story or article that they will not turn back unless you stray 
from the path you have put them on. 

Here are two leads that I have used recently. 

On a clear day in Salem you can stand in front of the Peabody Museum and stare down 
Essex Sreet all the way to the Hawthorne Boulevard. And, if you’re in luck, you might see 
something black coming around the corner, something black and bewildering, floating, 
like a hole in the sky growing larger as it comes toward you. For an instant it is as 
disturbing as a rustle in the night. Don’t be concerned. It is only Laurie Cabot. 

John E. Rock kills people for their own good. 

“It’s all hypothetical, of course,” he says, waving a hand at his Basic Four Computer 
in the Framingham office of Rock Insurance. 

Though the term “lead” is usually associated with non-fiction, the lead in fiction is just as 
important. Here is how Gail Levine-Freidus began her novel for children Popcorn (Bradbury 
Press). 

You know how sometimes you suddenly get the feeling that someone is watching every 
move you make? The feeling sort of sneaks up on you and gives you the creeps, whatever 
they are. Well that’s exactly how I felt in Mr. Pettigrew’s English class just as I was 
starting to work on the last section of our test. 


A lead should be provocative. It should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that 
something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed. It should 
create curiosity, get the reader asking questions. 

The character of a good lead depends largely on the nature and length of what you have 
written. A 500-word lead in an 800-word story is not a good lead, but it could be a great lead 
in a 3,000-word story. 

Your lead should give readers something to care about before it gives them dry background 
information. “Something to care about” usually means one of two things. Either you give the 
readers information which affects them directly, or you give them a human being with whom 
they can identify. 

Don’t begin a story in the company newsletter like this: 

On March 27 the Board of Directors met at the Holiday Inn in Podunk. All but two 
members were present. John Burdick of the Tymecomp Agency presented the results of his 
time and productivity study. Mr. Burdick has spent six months in the four plants surveying 
daily production, employee attendance records, and overhead costs. He has spoken to 
employees and personnel managers. He described the effectiveness of a variety of work 
schedules, and on his recommendation the board voted unanimously to put the company 
on a four-day workweek, effective June 1. 

Employees would have to read the whole first paragraph before they found what the story 
had to do with them. Most employees would not have bothered. 

The provocative information, the information that will hook the reader and compel him to 
keep reading, is at the end of the paragraph. It should be moved to the front, and the lead 
should be: 

On June 1 the company will go on a four-day work week. 


This next lead is from a story about a dangerous antitermite chemical. It was written by 
John Bierman and appeared in The Boston Globe. Instead of loading his lead with impersonal 
background material, Bierman brought his story immediately to life by giving the reader 
something to care about. Note the two important elements in Bierman’s lead: he made it 
visible—he showed us something; and he made it human—he showed us what the problem 
means to some real people. 

NEW YORK—Jeffrey Lever had his split level ranch house in East Islip, Long Island 
bulldozed to the ground with all its contents last week after it was discovered the house’s 
interior had been sprayed with a potentially lethal chemical. 

A lead like that will make your reader want to keep reading. 

One common mistake you should be aware of is the writing of two or three leads in the 
same story. Often a writer creates a good lead and then repeats all the information in the 
second paragraph, and again in the third. 

This also is from a story that appeared in The Boston Globe: 

Terminally ill nuclear power plant projects never die quickly. They are killed slowly by 
public criticism, hostile regulators, persistent conservation, climbing construction costs 
and an appetite for cash that Wall Street refuses to meet. 

Despite regulatory attacks, conservation, skyrocketing construction costs and 
threatened problems in raising cash, the nuclear plants rising on the beach at Sea-brook, 

N.H. are far from dead. 
The second paragraph of that article would have made the better lead. It contains all the 
information in the first paragraph plus a specific statement of interest to the reader. If the 
writer had inserted the phrase “problems which typically kill nuclear plants,” the first 
paragraph could have been tossed in the wastebasket. 


3. Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep 
Science has found a cure for cancer. 

Is that a good lead? It is if science has found a cure for cancer. But it’s not a good lead if the 
writer goes on to write, “Of course, nothing is definite yet,” and “Dr. Inman’s theories have 
not been fully tested,” and “The serum has never been tried on human beings.” Then the lead 
becomes a trick, a dishonest way of getting the readers into the story, and they will feel 
cheated after reading the article. 

A lead is not strong if it does not deliver on the promises it makes. Anybody can write a 
lead that will attract attention, but if the lead is not supported by what follows, it will do more 
harm than good. 


4. Set a Tone and Maintain It 
Almost every arena of activity conveys some message about the tone or mood in which it is 
to be experienced. You are not expected to laugh out loud at a hanging, but it’s okay to laugh 
at a Woody Allen movie. You shouldn’t scream when you find a great bargain at Macy’s, but 
it’s okay to scream at the carnival when the Tilt-a-Whirl spins you around. (Throwing up is 
also acceptable.) In life, mixed messages about tone, such as gag napkins at a wake, are 
disturbing. The same is true in reading. 

In your opening paragraph you set a tone. Your choice of words, your arrangement of those 
words, and your choice of information all convey to the reader some message about the tone of 
the story. In some way the writer, you, makes an announcement such as “This is urgent,” or 
“Let’s be practical,” or “Let’s laugh at this.” 

The following passage becomes “wrong” when the writer creates a sudden and jarring shift 
in tone. He begins with a tone that is urgent, cruel, and efficient, but he switches to a tone that 
is poetic, leisurely, and analytical. Readers, believing they knew the writer’s attitude toward 
the material, are suddenly not so sure! 

Myron slammed the gate behind him and walked straight up to the cop on duty. “Now,” 
he said, “I want that scum now.” The cop moved quickly to block the door. But Myron 
was quicker. He rammed a fist into the cop’s gut, and when the cop keeled forward, 
Myron sliced a karate chop into the back of his neck. The cop dropped with a thud. Myron 
yanked open the door to the cellblock. He ran down the corridor to cell 9. He pulled open 
his jacket and grabbed the pistol from his holster. “Arrivederci, scum!” he cried at 
Demetrius. There was a pitiful shriek, the blast of gunfire, then the panicky screaming of 
other prisoners who feared a massacre. 

It was cool there in the cellblock, as cool as those distant mornings back in Trenton 
when Myron was a boy. The air here was light and refreshing, like a sparkling tonic 
brought in to douse the heat of the day. Even the cement walls around the cellblock had 
been painted a cool and soothing aqua, and on one end a mural of colorful birds 
enhanced the sense of calm. Myron was pleased with what he had done. For a moment he 
pretended that he was still sitting on the highest branch of that old cottonwood tree in 
Trenton, and he sipped slowly the heady air of success. 


 
5. Begin at the Beginning 
Many writers work their way into a paper, letter, or story as if they were feeling their way 
into a dark house. They use the first few pages, and sometimes considerably more, as a kind of 
writing warm-up. There’s nothing wrong with writing three pages of junk before you get to 
information that matters, as long as those three pages are extinct before the final draft. In 
other words, don’t include your warm-up exercises with the manuscript. 

Study the beginning of your story carefully. You might discover that with the first 200 
words you are “getting around to telling the story.” Look at the first sentence. Is it 
substantive? Is it doing some work? Or is it merely background information about 
what you 
haven’t quite begun yet? 


Obviously, no one is going to stop reading a memo because of five unnecessary words, but 
many writers use three pages to say “I’m writing this because ...” 

Cross out every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. That is your 
beginning. 


CHAPTER FOUR 

Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy 

1. Use Pyramid Construction 
2. Use Topic Sentences 
3. Write Short Paragraphs 
4. Use Transitional Phrases 
5. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To 
6. Use Bridge Words 
7. Avoid Wordiness 
8. Steal 
9. Stop Writing When you Get to the End 

1. Use Pyramid Construction 
Writing in the pyramid style means getting to the point at the top, putting the “who, what, 
when, where, and why” in the first paragraph, and developing the supporting information 
under it. 

Newspapers use pyramid style because they are in the business of getting facts to readers as 
quickly as possible and because of the way news stories must be edited. When a newspaper 
editor has a seven-inch story that he or she has to put into a six-inch hole in the newspaper, 
that editor doesn’t run through the story with a pencil looking for useless adverbs or sentences 
that can be rewritten. He or she simply cuts an inch off the bottom. That is why each inch of a 
pyramid-style story should be less important than the inch that came before it. 

You should use pyramid style for any short report and for any story that might be cut. And 
when you do, don’t put anything in paragraph 12 that the reader must know in order to 
understand paragraph 7. 

GARY PROVOST 

 

2. Use Topic Sentences 
A topic sentence in a paragraph is a sentence containing the thought that is developed 
throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a 
paragraph. 

Deciding what to put in a paragraph and what to leave out will be easier if you first write a 
topic sentence. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to 
make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence. That is 
your topic sentence. Chances are that the topic sentence will fall neatly into the paragraph it 
inspires. But even if you don’t include the topic sentence in your paragraph, it will serve as a 
guide. When you rewrite your early drafts, ask how each sentence in a paragraph supports the 
topic sentence of the paragraph. If the answer is “It doesn’t,” then ask what other work the 
sentence is doing in the paragraph. If the answer is “None,” get rid of the sentence. 

Here are two paragraphs from magazine articles. The first paragraph begins with a topic 
sentence. The second paragraph ends with a topic sentence. But note that in each one all the 
sentences support or “prove” the statement made in the topic sentence. 

 

3. Write Short Paragraphs 
Your writing will be faster, livelier, and clearer if you write short paragraphs. The reader 
will welcome the break and the white space. You will be less likely to get tied up in verbal 
knots. Your thoughts will be better organized and more succinctly expressed. You and the 
reader will find it easier to locate specific statements. 


4. Use Transitional Phrases 
A transition in writing is a word or group of words that moves the reader from one place to 
another. The “place” might be the location of a scene, a spot in time, or an area of discussion. 
The transition should be quick, smooth, quiet, reliable, and logical. And it should bring to 
itself a minimum of attention. 

Transitions are important because they represent passage through a “danger zone” where 
you risk losing your reader. You use a transition to show the reader the connection between 
what he has just read and what he is about to read by implying the relationship between those 
two bodies of information. Here are some common transitional phrases: 

100 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING 


One other type of common transition occurs without words. It is the use of spaces, such as 
skipping lines, starting new chapters, etc. 


5. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To 
Writers often write long-winded and unnecessary transitions because they are afraid that the 
short phrase hasn’t said enough. In the example below, you can see how the writer slows down 
the story by trying to explain how Sam got to the church when all he needs to do is 
acknowledge that Sam got from his apartment to a church: 

Sam moved slowly down the stairs of the apartment building. He walked across the 
street and climbed into his car. He turned the ignition key and put the car in gear. Then 
he pulled out into Maple Street traffic. When he reached Wilder Avenue, he took a left 
and drove for three blocks. At Warren Street he waited for a red light that seemed to take 
forever. Finally he got onto Carver. He could see the Bethany Church up ahead. 

A better transitional sentence appears below: 

Sam drove to the church. 

Unless something important happened to Sam while driving his car over to the church, don’t 
describe the drive. A transition is simply a bridge and should be used to carry readers as 
quickly as possible from one place to the next. 


6. Use Bridge Words 
A bridge word is a word that is used in one paragraph and then repeated in the following 
transition. It shows you how the writer got from one thought to another, thus supplying you 
with a smooth bridge between thoughts. 

We use bridge words all the time to make conversations smooth. If your friend says, “Let’s 
pick apples Saturday. My brother Larry lives in California,” you will feel slightly jarred. You 
are distracted and will want to ask, “Why are you suddenly talking about your brother?” On 
the other hand, if your friend says, “Let’s pick apples Saturday. My brother Larry and I used to 
pick apples all the time. He lives in California,” the word “apples” provides you with a bridge 
across your friend’s thoughts, and you go along easily. 

Similarly, in your writing you can convince the reader of a logical connection between 
subjects by using good bridge words. 

In the March 1982 issue of Esquire, Frank Rose wrote an article called “Walking on Water,” 
an update on the California surfing scene. Here’s how he used the bridge word “sponsor” to 
make a logical transition into a discussion of media. 

Unfortunately, like the good surfing spots, most potenttial sponsors have already been 
taken. 

The scramble for sponsors makes surfers especially media conscious. 


7. Avoid Wordiness 
Wordiness has two meanings for the writer. You are wordy when you are redundant, such as 
when you write, “Last May during the spring,” or “little kittens,” or “very unique.” 

Wordiness for the writer also means using long words when there are good short ones 
available, using uncommon words when familiar ones are handy, using words that look like 
the work of a Scrabble champion, not a writer. 

The following example of wordiness, which I’ve taken from a letter that appeared in Dr. 
Adele M. Scheele’s “At Work” column, which appears in newspapers all over the country, 
shows how dull a writer becomes when he or she tries to impress a reader with “intellectual” 
language. 

In preparing a list of professional people whose opinion I respect, you are one of the 
first that comes to mind. 

It is my objective to more fully utilize my management expertise than has heretofore 
been the case.... 

The letter contains many of the writing mistakes we will discuss in this book, but its 
greatest fault is wordiness. 

The overall tone of the letter is apologetic, meek, uncertain. The writer is babbling. She’s 
trying to find words that are safe because they are vague and they sound very professional to 
her. By trying to impress the reader with her vocabulary, she is composing a letter that is 
almost incomprehensible. 

Instead of discussing herself, she discusses her “objective,” which is “to more fully utilize” 
her “management expertise.” She would have made herself clearer with simple words like 
“goal,” “use,” and “skills.” Instead of writing about her job, she writes about being confined 
“to the area of small business and self-employment in the apartment management field,” 


which doesn’t tell the reader what she’s been doing for a living, only what area she’s been 
doing it in. 

Here is a version of that letter that is clear, direct, and simple. It would get a warm 
reception in any office because the reader doesn’t have to struggle to understand it. 

I’ve made a list of professional people whose opinion I respect, and your name is at the 
top of the list. 

I want to use my management skills more fully. But since I’ve been running a small 
apartment management agency for the last six years, I’m a little bit out of touch with the 
job market. I’d like your guidance and advice so that I can evaluate the market for my 
skills.... 


8. Steal 
Be a literary pack rat. Brighten up your story with a metaphor you read in the Sunday paper. 
Make a point with an anecdote you heard at the barber shop. Let a character tell a joke you 
heard in a bar. But steal small, not big, and don’t steal from just one source. Someone once 
said that if you steal from one writer, it’s called plagiarism, but if you steal from several, it’s 
called research. So steal from everybody, but steal only a sentence or a phrase at a time. If you 
use much more than that, you must get permission and then give credit. Here are two example 
of acceptable, honorable ways to steal. 

Whenever people ask me what I did for a living before I became a writer, I reply, “I did all 
those crummy jobs that would someday look so glamorous on the back of a book jacket.” It’s a 
cute line, one of many I use often in order to keep myself constantly surrounded by an aura of 
cleverness. But I didn’t invent the line. I read it twenty years ago in a TV Guide article by 
Merle Miller, and I’ve used it ever since, rarely giving Miller credit for the line. 

The previous paragraph shows two examples of acceptable literary theft. The first is 
Miller’s line, which the paragraph is about. The other is the paragraph itself. It’s the opening 
paragraph for an article I wrote in Writer’s Digest (April 1983) called “Do Editor’s Steal?” I 
stole it from myself. 


9. Stop Writing When You Get to the End 
A novel ends when your hero has solved his problem. 

An opinion piece ends when your opinion has been expressed. 

An instructional memo ends when the reader has been instructed. 

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye 
sixteen times. 

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, 
“What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then 
cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the 
sentence that you must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound 
final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you 
are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing. 


CHAPTER FIVE 

Ten Ways to Develop Style 

1. Think About Style 
2. Listen to What You Write 
3. Mimic Spoken Language 
4. Vary Sentence Length 
5. Vary Sentence Construction 
6. Write Complete Sentences 
7. Show, Don’t Tell 
8. Keep Related Words Together 
9. Use Parallel Construction 
10. Don’t Force a Personal Style 

1. Think About Style 
In any discussion of writing, the word style means the way in which an idea is expressed, 
not the idea itself. Style is form, not content. A reader usually picks up a story because of 
content but too often puts it down because of style. 

There is no subject that cannot be made fascinating by a well-informed and competent 
writer. And there is no subject that cannot be quickly turned into a literary sleeping pill by an 
incompetent writer. 

You probably would not buy Ray Bradbury’s book Dandelion Wine (Doubleday) if while 
browsing in the bookstore you turned to the version on the left (A). Contrast it with the version 
on the right (B), Bradbury’s actual opening paragraph. You will see that while both paragraphs 
contain the same information, the version on the right has style, and that makes all the 
difference. 

 

2. Listen to What You Write 
Writing is not a visual art any more than composing music is a visual art. 

To write is to create music. The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in 
harmony, the writing will work. 

So think of your writing as music. Your story might sound like the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 
2, or it might sound like “Satisfaction.” You decide. But give it unity. It should not sound like 
a musical battle between the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Rolling Stones. 

Read aloud what you write and listen to its music. Listen for dissonance. Listen for the beat. 
Listen for gaps where the music leaps from sound to sound instead of flowing as it should. 
Listen for sour notes. Is this word a little sharp, is that one a bit flat? Listen for instruments 
that don’t blend well. Is there an electric guitar shrieking amid the whispers of flutes and 
violins? Imagine the sound of each word as an object falling onto the eardrum. Does it make a 
soft landing like the word ripple, or does it land hard and dig in like inexorable? Does it cut 
off all sound for an instant, like brutal, or does it massage the reader’s ear, like melodious? 

There are no good sounds or bad sounds, just as there are no good notes or bad notes in 
music. It is the way in which you combine them that can make the writing succeed or fail. It’s 
the music that matters. 


3. Mimic Spoken Language 
Writing should be conversational. That does not mean that your writing should be an exact 
duplicate of speech; it should not. Your writing should convey to the reader a sense of 
conversation. It should furnish the immediacy and the warmth of a personal conversation. 

Most real conversations, if committed to paper, would dull the senses. Conversations 
stumble, they stray, they repeat; they are bloated with meaningless words, and they are often 
cut short by intrusions. But what they have going for them is human contact, the sound of a 
human voice. And if you can put that quality into your writing, you will get the reader’s 
attention. 

So mimic spoken language in the variety of its music, in the simplicity of its words, in the 
directness of its expression. But do not forfeit the enormous advantages of the written word. 
Writing provides time for contemplation. Use it well. 

In conversation the perfect word is not always there. In writing we can try out fifteen 
different words before we are satisfied. 

In conversation we spread our thoughts thin. In writing we can compress. 

So strive to make your writing sound like a conversation, but don’t make it an ordinary 
conversation. Make it a good one. 


4. Vary Sentence Length 
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But 
several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting 
boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now 
listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a 
pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium 
length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a 
sentence of considerable length, a sentence that bums with energy and builds with all the 
impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen 
to this, it is important. 

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that 
pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music. 


5. Vary Sentence Construction 
Most sentences have a subject, a predicate, and an object, and early in life we were taught to 
present them in that order. The dog ate the bone. Dick and Jane jumped into the river. A man 
walked down the street. Et cetera. 

But identical sentence constructions bore readers. Certainly you should strive for clarity and 
not arrange your sentences in a way that strangles their logic. But you should also keep the 
primary elements of the sentence dancing so that they will create their own music. 

Below are two paragraphs in which all the sentences are constructed the same way. They all 
begin with the subject, move on to the predicate, and end with an object if there is one. What 
conclusion about the writer do you draw after reading them? 

The Welcome Wagon Lady twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna. She was sixty if she 
was a day. She had ginger hair, red lips, and a sunshine-yellow dress. She said, “You’re 
really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a 
better choice!” Her brown leather shoulder bag was enormous. It was old and scuffed. 
She dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink from it. There was soup mix. There 
was a toy-size box of non-pollutant detergent. There was a booklet of discount slips that 
were good at twenty-two local shops. There were two cakes of soap. There was a folder of 
deodorant pads. 

Joanna stood in the doorway. Both hands were full. She said, “Enough, enough. Hold. 
Halt. Thank you.” 

The sentences are all simple constructions—grade school concoctions. One of the marks of 
an inexperienced writer is his or her inability to move beyond these basic sentence 
constructions. If Ira Levin’s best-selling novel had opened with those sentences, odds are good 
it would have been a worst-selling novel. But, it didn’t. The actual opening of Ira Levin’s 
Stepford Wives (Random House) follows. As you read it, take note of the variety of sentence 
constructions. 


The Welcome Wagon Lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity 
(ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna 
and said, “You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You 
couldn’t have made a better choice!” Her brown leather shoulder bag was enormous, old 
and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, 
a toy-size box of non-pollutant detergent, a booklet of discount slips good at twenty-two 
local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deodorant pads— 

“Enough, enough,” Joanna said, standing in the doorway with both hands full. “Hold. 
Halt. Thank you.” 


6. Write Complete Sentences 
Usually, only a complete sentence expresses a complete thought. A complete sentence has a 
subject and a predicate. “The cat jumped off the roof” is a complete sentence. “The cat 
jumped” is also a complete sentence. “The cat,” however, is not a complete sentence. You 
should try to write complete sentences. 

However, if your high school English teachers told you that all incomplete sentences were 
unacceptable, they were wrong. Good writing often contains incomplete sentences. The 
incomplete sentence is a useful tool. Used wisely it can invigorate the music of your words. 
Like a chime. Or the beat of a drum. 

Here are two examples. The first is from my story, “The Eight Thou.” The second is from 
Ping by Gail Levine-Freidus. 

“Be damned if I know,” Charlie said. He got the cop laughing, then he patted him on 
the elbow and said, “Hey, look, you got a couple of cigarettes? I could be in this place for 
a long time. Years maybe.” 

This is the way Charlie liked to work them. Shoot the breeze. Crack jokes. Butter them 
up. Be cute. Then hit them for what you really want. He had charmed his way down from 
Burlington, Vermont, this way, thumbing and lying like a carnival barker all the way into 
Boston. His real dream was the West Coast. California. But he’d figured a big city like 
Boston would be the place to stop first and somehow hustle up a couple of hundred bucks 
for the cross-country trip. Unfortunately, the Boston P.D. hadn’t been quite as enchanted 
by his spiel as some of the people who had given him rides. He hadn’t been in town long. 
Ten days. And this was his third arrest. 

When I first arrived, I saw nothing. In time I discovered light. White light. And 
weightlessness. Then there was motion. For a while I felt as though I were flying. 
Soaring. Later, I sensed a stillness which held me nearly breathless. Yet, I was unafraid. 

Note that the partial sentences are used sparingly. Incomplete sentences do not fare well in 


large numbers or in groups. They draw their musical strength and often their meaning from the 
complete sentences that surround them. 

So write complete sentences ninety-nine percent of the time. But now and then if a partial 
sentence sounds right to you, that’s what you should write. Period. 


7. Show, Don’t Tell 
Throughout this book I will remind you that shorter is almost always better. This is an 
exception. It usually takes more words to show than to tell, but you can afford a few extra 
words for a tool this valuable. 

When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for 
themselves. Readers like to be trusted. Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, or 
think, or feel. Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not 
only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them. 

Look at the following letters from camp. Letter A tells; letter B shows. Which letter do you 
find more revealing: Which letter writer would you rather know—Irma, or Donna? 


Show, don’t tell. Even in business letters and memos. 

You want Barbara Resnikoff to get a promotion, but you need the board’s approval. Which 
memo would Barbara Resnikoff prefer to have you send? 

 

8. Keep Related Words Together 
Words that are part of the same information package are related, and they should be 
clustered together to avoid confusion. Adjectives should be placed near the nouns they 
describe so they don’t appear to be describing some other noun. Likewise, adverbs should be 
close to verbs they modify, and dependent clauses should be near the words on which they 
depend for meaning. 

 

9. Use Parallel Construction 
Though several consecutive sentences constructed the same way can bore the reader, there 
are times when you should deliberately arrange words and sounds in similar fashion in order 
to show the reader the similarity of information contained in the sentences. Just as the steady 
beat of a drum can often enrich a melody, the repetition of a sound can often improve the 
music of your writing. This is called parallel construction. 

Listen to the difference parallel construction makes in the following examples. 

 

10. Don’t Force a Personal Style 
Style is not something you can put onto your writing like a new set of clothes. Style is your 
writing. It is inexorably knotted to the content of your words and the nature of you. So do not 
pour the clay of your thoughts into the hard mold of some personal writing style that you are 
determined to have. Do not create in your head some witty, erudite, unmistakably exciting 
persona and try to capture him or her on paper. Also, do not try to write like Erma Bombeck, 
Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, or anybody else. If you fail you will look foolish, 
and if you succeed you will succeed only in announcing to the world that you are not very 
creative. Strive instead to write well and without self-consciousness. Then your style will 
emerge. It might be as specifically yours as your thumbprint, or it might be as common as 
sunshine. But at least it will be you. 


CHAPTER SIX 

Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power 

1. Use Short Words 
2. Use Dense Words 
3. Use Familiar Words 
4. Use Active Verbs 
5. Use Strong Verbs 
6. Use Specific Nouns 
7. Use the Active Voice ... Most of the Time 
8. Say Things in a Positive Way ... Most of the Time 
9. Be Specific 
10. Use Statistics 
11. Provide Facts 
12. Put Emphatic Words at the End 

1. Use Short Words 
Short words tend to be more powerful and less pretentious than longer words. Rape is a 
powerful term; sexual assault isn’t. Stop is stronger than discontinue. 

The fastest way to learn why you should use short words is to read anything by Ernest 
Hemingway. Hemingway, the Nobel Prize winner who lands on almost everybody’s list of 
great American writers, was a miser when it came to syllables and words. This paragraph, 
which I picked at random from his The Sun Also Rises (Scribner’s), contains only two words 
with more than two syllables. 

Finally, after a couple more false klaxons, the bus started, and Robert Cohn waved 
good-by to us, and all the Basques waved good-by to him. As soon as we started out on 
the road outside of town it was cool. It felt nice riding high up and close under the trees. 
The bus went quite fast and made a good breeze, and as we went out along the road with 
the dust powdering the trees and down the hill, we had a fine view, back through the 
trees, of the town rising up from the bluff above the river. The Basque lying against my 
knees pointed out the view with the neck of a wine-bottle, and winked at us. He nodded his 
head. 


2. Use Dense Words 
A dense word is a word that crowds a lot of meaning into a small space. The fewer words 
you use to express an idea, the more impact that idea will have. When you revise, look for 
opportunities to cross out several words and insert one. Once a month is monthly; something 
new is novel; people they didn’t know are strangers; and something impossible to imagine is 
inconceivable. 


3. Use Familiar Words 
Do you know what a mandible is? Your dentist does. He uses that word every day. 

So, if you are writing a story just for your dentist, use mandible. But if you are writing for 
everybody else, use the more familiar word, jaw. 

A word that your reader doesn’t recognize has no power. If it confuses the reader and sends 
him or her scurrying for the dictionary, it has broken the reader’s spell. 

Familiar words have power. By avoiding very long words, you avoid most of the words that 
your reader doesn’t know. But you should also replace short words if they are so rare that your 
reader might not know them. 

Even though delegate is longer than depute, it is better. Don’t write sclerous if you can 
write hardened, and if you have written that something is virescent, please go back and say 
that it is turning green. 

A couple of tips. A word is familiar if it came easily to you but is not part of some 
specialized knowledge you have, such as a computer term. A word is unfamliar if you never 
heard of it until you found it in the thesaurus or if you haven’t read it at least three times in the 
past year. 


4. Use Active Verbs 
Active verbs do something. Inactive verbs are something. You will gain power over readers 
if you change verbs of being such as is, was, and will be to verbs of motion and action. 

 

5. Use Strong Verbs 
Verbs, words of action, are the primary source of energy in your sentences. They are the 
executives; they should be in charge. All other parts of speech are valuable assistants, but if 
your verbs are weak, all the modifiers in the world won’t save your story from dullness. 

Generally speaking, verbs are weak when they are not specific, not active, or are 
unnecessarily dependent on adverbs for their meaning. 

If you choose strong verbs and choose them wisely, they will work harder for you than any 
other part of speech. Strong verbs will reduce the number of words in your sentences by 
eliminating many adverbs. And, more important, strong verbs will pack your paragraphs with 
the energy, the excitement, and the sense of motion that readers crave. 

Sharpen a verb’s meaning by being precise. Turn look into stare, gaze, peer, peek, or gawk, 
Turn throw into toss, flip, or hurl. 

Inspect adverbs carefully and always be suspicious. What are those little buggers up to? Are 
they trying to cover up for a lazy verb? Most adverbs are just adjectives with ‘ly’ tacked on 
the end, and the majority of them should be shoveled into a truck and hauled off to the 
junkyard. Did your character really walk nervously, or did he pace? Did his wife eat quickly, 
or did she wolf down her supper? 

 

6. Use Specific Nouns 
Good writing requires the use of strong nouns. A strong noun is one that is precise and 
densely packed with information. 

Be on the lookout for adjectives that are doing work that could be done by the noun. 
Adjectives do for nouns what adverbs do for verbs; that is, they identify some distinctive 
feature. They tell you what color the noun is, how it’s shaped, what size it came in, or how fast 
it moved. Adjectives do great work when they are needed. But they are too often brought in 
when they are not needed. The careless writer drags them in to provide information which 
would be more interesting if it came directly from the noun. (Who would you prefer to meet, 
Woody Allen or a guy who knows Woody Allen?) 

Before you write a noun that is modified by one or two adjectives, ask yourself if there is a 
noun that can convey the same information. Instead of writing about a black dog, maybe you 
want to write about a Doberman. Do you want to write large house, or is mansion really to the 
point? And before you put down cruel treatment, ask if you can make a greater impression on 
the reader with savagery, barbarity, or brutality. 

Read these two sentences: 

A man just walked into the room. 

A priest just walked into the room. 

Were you a little more interested when I told you the man was a priest? That’s because he 
became more specific, and you could see him better. If I had told you that a senator, a 
garbageman, or a Lithuanian had entered the room, you still would have found him more 
interesting than a mere man. 

Specific nouns have power. In fact, I recently bought a book because of a specific noun. The 


name of the book is The Last Goodbye Kiss by James Crumley (Random House), and I plunked 
down $2.75 for it after reading Crumley’s opening sentence. Read it yourself and see if the 
same specific noun that forced me to part with my money grabs you. 

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an 
alcoholic bull-dog named Foreball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, 
California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. 

What specific noun hooked me? Bull-dog. If Trahearne had been drinking with an alcoholic 
dog, I might not have bought the book. But the specificity of bull-dog brought into focus not 
only the dog, but also the bar, the beer, and the fine spring afternoon. Why? Because by telling 
me what kind of dog it was that drank with Trahearne, the author convinced me that he had 
actually seen the dog. I believed the author’s words. 

When you take out a general word and put in a specific one, you usually improve your 
writing. But when you use a specific word, readers assume you are trying to tell them 
something, so make sure you choose the specific word that delivers the message you want 
delivered. If your character is driving a car down the highway and you change it to a Jaguar, 
you increase interest, but you also characterize the driver. You build connotations of money 
and speed. So make sure you choose a car that is consistent with all the other messages you are 
trying to send the reader. 


7. Use the Active Voice ... Most of the Time 
When a verb is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is also the doer of the action. 

The sentence “John picked up the bag” is in the active voice because the subject, John, is 
also the thing or person doing the action of “picking up.” 

The sentence “The bag was picked up by John” is in the passive voice because the subject of 
the sentence, bag, is the passive receiver of the action. 

Generally the active voice makes for more interesting reading, and it is the active voice that 
you should cultivate as your normal writing habit. The active voice strikes more directly at the 
thought you want to express, it is generally shorter, and it holds the reader closer to what you 
write because it creates a stronger sense that “something is happening.” 

Listen to how the following passive voice sentences are improved when they are turned into 
the active voice. 


Try to use the active voice. But realize that there are times when you will need to use the 
passive. If the object of the action is the important thing, then you will want to emphasize it by 
mentioning it first. When that’s the case, you will use the passive voice. 

Let’s say, for example, that you want to tell the reader about some strange things that 
happened to your car. In the active voice it would look like this: 


Three strong women turned my car upside down on Tuesday. Vandals painted my car 
yellow and turquoise on Wednesday. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration 
launched my car into orbit around the moon on Thursday. 

The example shown above is not wrong, but it sounds choppy. To give the story a flow, you 
would want to use the passive voice, keeping the emphasis on your car: 

On Tuesday my car was turned upside down by three strong women. On Wednesday my 
car was painted yellow and turquoise by vandals. On Thursday my car was launched into 
orbit around the moon by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

In the passive voice, the car is given emphasis, and the story about what happened to it has a 
flow and rhythm lacking in the first example. 


8. Say Things in a Positive Way ... Most of the Time 
Usually what matters is what did 
happen, what does 
exist, and who is 
involved. So develop 
the habit of stating information in a positive manner. 

If you want your reader to experience the silence of a church at night, write “The church 
was silent.” If you write “There was no noise in the church,” the first thing your reader will 
hear is the noise that isn’t there. 

Look at the sentences below and see how much more effective each one is when written in a 
positive manner. 


Of course, there are times when the negative statement should be used. If it’s ten o’clock on 
a stormy night and your wife was due home at six, you won’t call your brother and state the 
positive: “Jennifer is out.” You’ll emphasize the negative: “Jennifer is not home yet.” 

In the sentences below, the negative sentence is stronger than the positive. 

 

9. Be Specific 
A specific word or phrase is usually better than a general one. The specific word etches a 
sharper picture and helps your reader to see what you are describing. 

Picture a box. 

Now picture a black box. 

Now picture a black box with shiny silver hinges. 

You can see the box more clearly as it becomes more specific. 

Of course, there must be a limit to this. I could tell you about a small black box with shiny 
silver hinges on one end and an inlaid marble top which has a crimson heart painted on it with 
the most darling cupids dancing around the heart, and so forth. You would see the box, but you 
would be bored by it and by me. 

Try to be specific without being wordy. Don’t make a sentence specific by hooking up a 
freight train of details to it. Make it specific by whittling all the possible word combinations 
down to those few that say what you want them to say. 

 

10. Use Statistics 
A few well-placed statistics will establish your credibility. If they are accurate and 
comprehensible, they will show the reader that you have done your homework and know what 
you are talking about. Keep in mind, however, that too many statistics will numb your reader’s 
ability to draw meaning from them. Statistics should be sprinkled like pepper, not smeared 
like butter. 

In the following paragraph from Everything You Want to Know About Your Husband’s 
Money and Need to Know Before the Divorce (Crowell, 1980) authors Shelly Aspaklaria and 
Gerson Geltner use statistics effectively. They establish credibility. But also, by providing the 
reader with the number of divorces, percentages of women receiving alimony, and some 
average amounts of alimony, they gave their reader the necessary context in which to view 
other information in their book. 

Divorce among couples married more than twenty years has risen annually from 
51,000 in 1965 to 72,000 in 1976. These “displaced homemakers” are becoming the 
nation’s “new poor” studies by Congress show. Nationally only one out of seven divorced 
women (14 percent) receives alimony. Of the millions of divorced women, only 250,000 
reported alimony income to the IRS in 1975. The average alimony in the United States in 
that year was $2,895. The highest average awards were made in Connecticut, about 
$9,728; Washington, D.C., $5,558; and Massachusetts at $4,122 annually. The lowest 
average alimony awards were granted in North Carolina, $954; Utah, $964; and 
Maryland, $1,194. 


11. Provide Facts 
In the following paragraph, the writer has drawn the right conclusions. His statements are 
factual. But because he is telling the reader his conclusions instead of providing the facts from 
which the reader can draw his own conclusions, the writing will not have impact. 

A lot of banks hand out gifts when you open an account. Since you know that they want 
your account, it’s reasonable to assume that that’s the only catch and that the gift is not 
costing you any money. But sometimes you lose money by taking the gift. In other words, 
you’re getting ripped off. 

The above information lacks the facts needed to prove the author’s point. Look below at an 
article Barbara Gilder Quint wrote on the same subject in Glamour Magazine’s February 1981 
issue to see how much more persuasive an author can be with facts. 

In New York City one major bank recently advertised a ‘free’ 19 inch TV set to people 
who would deposit $3,000 into a 3½ year account that would pay 7% interest. 

But at the same time, other banks were paying 12% on 2½ year $3,000 accounts—a 
difference of about $150 each year in interest on the $3,000, which raises the question of 
how ‘free’ that TV set is. 


12. Put Emphatic Words at the End 
Emphatic words are those words you want the reader to pay special attention to. They 
contain the information you are most anxious to communicate. You can acquire that extra 
attention for those words by placing them at the end of the sentence. 

If you want to emphasize the fact that redwood trees are tall, you might write, “Some 
redwoods are more than 350 feet tall.” But if you want to emphasize the fact that one of the 
attractions in California is the redwood trees, you would write, “Also found in California are 
the 350-foot redwood trees.” 

If you want to emphasize the amount of money that somebody owes you, you write, “By 
June first please send me a check for $107.12.” If you want to emphasize the due date, you 
write, “Please send me a check for $107.12 by June first.” And if you want to emphasize who 
the check is to go to, write, “On June first the check for $107.12 should be sent to me.” 

This is a lesson best learned by ear. Listen to how the impact of a sentence moves to 
whatever information happens to be at the end. 

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. 

I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. 

Ask what you can do for America, not what America can do for you. 

Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America. 


CHAPTER SEVEN 

Eleven Ways to Make People Like What You Write 

1. Make Yourself Likeable 
2. Write About People 
3. Show Your Opinion 
4. Obey Your Own Rules 
5. Use Anecdotes 
6. Use Examples 
7. Name Your Sources 
8. Provide Useful Information 
9. Use Quotations 
10. Use Quotes 
11. Create a Strong Title 

1. Make Yourself Likable 
In order to write successfully, you don’t have to become a great writer. But you do have to 
make yourself likable. If you are asking people to buy your product, take your advice, mail a 
check, or worry about the problem you present, you first want them to care about you. When 
you write well, you share a private moment with the readers. Present yourself to readers as 
someone they would welcome into their homes. Write clearly and conversationally, and strive 
always to present in your writing some honest picture of who you are. 

Readers will like you if you edit from your work French phrases, obscure literary allusions, 
and archaic words that are known to only six persons in the world. 

Readers will like you if you seem to understand who they are and what their world is like. If 
you write an article called “Getting Back on the Budget” for Woman’s Day, and you begin by 
advising the readers to go out and borrow $100,000, you will reveal your ignorance of the 
readers’ financial status. The readers won’t like you. (And of course the editors at Woman’s 
Day won’t like you and won’t publish your article.) 

Readers will like you if you use humor in almost everything you write. Of course, there are 
times when humor is inappropriate (on a death certificate, for example), but don’t hesitate to 
bring humor into your business correspondence and articles. 

Readers will like you if you show that you are human. In a how-to piece, for example, you 
might write, “This third step is a little hard to master. I ruined six good slides before I got it 
right. So be smarter than I was; practice on blanks.” 


2. Write About People 
People are why TVs get turned on. People are why books get opened. People are why 
magazines are purchased. And people are why the well-told tale has been listened to for 
centuries. 

People is the one subject that everybody cares about. 

What do other people think? How do they act? What makes them angry, happy, 
enthusiastic? How will they vote in the next election? How can I get them to fall in love with 
me, buy my product, support my plan? These are the questions readers ask. 

So try to put humanity into everything you write. There are times when you cannot 
comfortably dress your prose in flesh and blood, but those times are rare. Even a how-to 
article is about a person named “you.” 

Don’t write about the new bookkeeping system. Write about how the new bookkeeping 
system will affect people. 

If you are writing about the welfare crisis, begin with an anecdote about one family that 
lives in a car because they cannot pay rent out of their small welfare check. 

If you are writing a brochure to attract new members to your church, don’t write about the 
steeple and the organ. Write about the people who come to church suppers, the people who 
volunteer for committees, the people your readers will meet if they show up for church on 
Sunday. 


3. Show Your Opinion 
Few things are duller than a man or woman without an opinion. Your opinion is not always 
appropriate, but often it is the thing that gives writing its life and color. In fact, it is frequently 
dishonest to hide your opinion because it will find its way into your writing anyhow by 
influencing your choice of what material to include and what to ignore. 

I often color my stories with my opinion. I think it makes for more interesting writing. But I 
try to be fair, also. If I put my opinion into the story, I also include opinions of people who 
don’t agree with me. 

Below is the lead for an article I wrote about hitchhiking (Worcester Telegram). There’s 
nothing secret about my view of the subject: it’s all over the piece. But in that article I also 
included the views of policemen, parents, kids, and drivers. 

By any rational standard, the idea of hitchhiking—good Samaritanism in its purest 
form, people helping people, etc.—should be a good thing. 

And yet if you stop any ten people on the street and ask them about hitchhiking, you 
will hear the darkest sort of fumblings. You will hear that hitchhiking is a bad thing. 

Hitchhikers are muggers, you will hear, they are thieves and rapists. And if they are 
not, then they are fair and fragile prey for an army of savage cretins that haunts our 
highways. Either way, so the story goes, when hitchhiking takes place, someone is 
scheduled to end up in a shallow roadside grave bludgeoned into oblivion by some 
highway lunatic. 

With over 30,000 hitchhiking miles behind me, and perhaps another 10,000 miles of 
driving hitchhikers, I was anything but objective about this. It rankled me to the core that 
society had become so concerned about hitchhiking, and I was convinced that hitchhiking, 
like apartment living and late night walks, had been sensationalized all out of whack by 
TV and movies. Every time a hitchhiker shows up on TV, you can bet somebody is 
finished. 


By including my opinion in the article, I gave the reader a basis for discussion, either with 
other people or in his own mind. Even if the reader says, “I totally disagree,” I have made him 
or her think about my subject. I have accomplished my goal. I don’t care if the reader agrees 
with my opinion. The important thing is that he or she respond to it. If you can stir your reader 
up, then your writing has achieved some success. 


4. Obey Your Own Rules 
When you begin to write, you also begin in subtle ways to set down a list of rules, just as 
you set down the rules at the start of a game. Through your title or first paragraph you 
communicate to the reader certain guidelines about the subject, the scope, or the tone of the 
story. 

If your title is “Black Mayors in America,” you have set a rule that says, “Everything in this 
story is related to black mayors in America,” and you will be violating that rule if you write 
too heavily about mayors who were not black, black people who were not mayors, or black 
mayors who were not in America. 

If your story begins “Angelica put a spell on Mark three times, and suddenly he found 
himself craving her body,” you have set a rule that says, “Impossible things can happen here.” 
But if you are writing a contemporary love story, and you bring in a witch in chapter nine, you 
are breaking the rule that says, “This is a true-to-life story,” and you will lose your reader. 

If you begin your story, “Many people, it seems, weave from their own experience, hopes, 
fears, and deepest desires a fabric of conviction in UFOs that is so strong it cannot be ripped 
apart,” you have made a rule that says “the tone of this story is serious and respectful of the 
subject.” If you begin, “It seems as if every nut case from Tallahassee to Timbuktu has a 
scorched circle in his back-yard from a flying saucer landing—aliens must be particularly 
drawn to the mentally ill,” you have made a rule that says, “This is going to be a lighthearted 
look at the subject.” You must stick with the tone you have established. Readers won’t object 
to any particular tone or rule. They only ask that they be informed and that you don’t break the 
rules you set. 


5. Use Anecdotes 
An anecdote is a little story or incident that makes a point about your subject. The word 
comes from the Greek anekdota which means things unpublished, and ideally your anecdote 
should be an unpublished incident you discovered in your research. Anecdotes are great reader 
pleasers. They are written like fiction, often contain dialogue, and reduce a large issue to a 
comprehensible size by making it personal. Anecdotes crystallize a general idea in a specific 
way. 

Writing a short, colorful anecdote is one of the most compelling ways to begin an article, 
query letter, or business proposal, and a couple of well-placed anecdotes in your longer stories 
will break the lock of formality and win your reader’s affection as well as his or her attention. 

Here is an anecdote which I used to begin a magazine article about psychics (Sunday 
Morning). 

When Mal Brown of Leominster was a kid, he fell out of an apple tree, got one leg 
knotted in a branch, tipped upside down, and was yanked to a stop. 

It was a mishap that Brown believes could have killed or seriously injured him, but it 
didn’t. And he believes it didn’t because the Tibetan monk was with him. 

“That was the first time I saw the Tibetan monk,” says Brown, now the 35-year-old 
father of three daughters. 

Brown says the Tibetan monk, a vision that never speaks, has been with him all his life, 
helping him out in jams, appearing at moments of jeopardy, offering reassurance that 
danger will pass. 


6. Use Examples 
This book is full of examples. I say that something is true, and then I show you an instance 
of it being true. Because this is a teaching book, many of the examples are long. But examples 
are usually short in writing. Often they are tacked on to the end of a general statement. They 
do a lot of work, and they impress readers. Examples are used to back up your statements. 
They clarify your generalizations and help to prove that you are right. Finally, they show the 
reader what, exactly, it is that you’re talking about. 

Below is an example from Weight Watchers (April 1982) that shows how I helped prove a 
point I’d made about foot care. 

Most non-specialists don’t know much about foot care and that can lead to trouble. For 
example, Jed Norin’s bone spur was originally misdiagnosed as a wart by a general 
practitioner. 


7. Name Your Sources 
If your reader works in the downtown area of Austin, Texas, and you write that an 
earthquake will devastate downtown Austin on February 19, your reader is going to be 
extremely interested to know where you got your information. 

If you mention that you learned of the upcoming earthquake from Ramona Moon Dobbins, a 
Louisiana swamp witch who saw the whole thing in a vision while she was shuffling her tarot 
deck, your reader might not be too concerned. But if you mention that your information came 
from Dr. Winston Ruxbacher, Director of the United States Seismographic Study, your reader 
might decide that February 19 would be a real good day to skip work and visit an aunt in EI 
Paso. 

Your reader’s reaction to your information depends on your sources. 

Sources are the people you talk to and the literature you read while researching your story. 
You could mention all your sources in your article or paper, but if you do, you risk losing your 
reader’s attention. Lists of sources can become very boring very quickly. 

Decide who or what are your most valuable sources, and name only them. Good sources 
help build credibility and take on added importance when you are contradicting widely held 
assumptions, or when a crucial decision depends on your accuracy. 

You can note sources informally in the text, or you can include a note on sources at the front 
or back of your story. Such a note appears below: 

Sources 

In-depth interviews with Alexander Millis, President, National Wenfronckmonkin 
Institute, and Randy Freidus, host of the nationally syndicated television show, Your 
Wenfronckmonkin and You. 

Zen and the Art of Wenfronckmonkin by Jim Bellarosa 


Wenfronckmonkin in the New Age by Gloria Bunker 

“Wenfronckmonkin: A Male Perspective,” article in Macho magazine, June 1983 

Again, don’t include every book you read and every expert you spoke to, just the major 
sources of information. 

You should also include the source of opinions expressed in your story. 

If you are expressing your own opinion in a story, don’t try to hang it on the vague “There’s 
a growing feeling” or “Widespread opinion is.” But neither do you have to precede every 
sentence with “I think” or “It’s my opinion that.” If you write, “Sturge Thibedeau is the worst 
director in Hollywood,” that is obviously your opinion, since it is not a measurable fact. 

But if you’re going to disown the opinion and write something like “Sturge Thibedeau is 
generally considered to be the worst director in Hollywood,” back it up with something like 
“In a 1981 poll of one hundred top directors, ninety-seven rated Sturge Thibedeau as the worst 
director in Hollywood or anywhere else.” If you can’t back the opinion with something, then 
you have to wonder about where you got the idea in the first place. 

I’m not trying to improve your ethics, only your writing. A phrase like widely regarded 
means nothing to the reader unless he or she knows what you mean by widely regarded. Does 
widely regarded mean the writer and his brother? Does it mean three bad actors who got 
canned from Thibedeau’s films? Does it mean Sturge Thibedeau’s ex-wives? Or does it mean 
one hundred knowledgeable people in the film industry? 


8. Provide Useful Information 
Useful information is information that has “service value.” That means readers can do 
something after they read what you have written. They might bake a cake because you gave 
them a recipe, or they might start getting in shape because you gave them directions for ten 
exercises. Useful information is often nothing more than a list of places, dates, addresses, or 
routes. It’s not the kind of thing that marks the writer as the next Tom Wolfe, but it is the kind 
of thing that will make your writing saleable. 


9. Use Quotations 
“Familiar quotations,” wrote Carroll Wilson, in the preface to a book of quotations, “are 
more than familiar; they are something part of us. These echoes of the past have two marked 
characteristics—a simple idea, and an accurate rhythmic beat.” 

Though “quotation” and “quotes” are the same thing, we generally think of quotations as 
words that are notable enough to have been preserved through time. 

Use quotations when you need to enhance an idea with something poetic or reinforce a 
generalization or an opinion. 

Quotations will create the idea that you are not alone in your opinion, that somebody, 
perhaps even Abraham Lincoln, agrees with you. They will give you credibility by association. 

Don’t use a lot of quotations, however, or they will look more like crutches to hold you than 
planks to support you. 

How do you come up with good quotations? The most famous source is Bartlett’s Familiar 
Quotations, but there are a variety of paperback and hardcover books of quotations. Some are 
arranged by topic, some by author, some by both. Browse in the bookstore. Also, when you 
hear a quotation you like, write it down. Here’s how you might use a quotation: 

“Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.” 
The words were written by Langston Hughes, but they have special meaning today for 
Sturge Thibedeau. Thibedeau, who has long been considered one of Hollywood’s worst 
directors, achieved his lifelong dream yesterday with the release of Treadmill to 
Oblivion. 


10. Use Quotes 
Quotes are the words someone said to you when you interviewed her for your story, or short 
excerpts from some of the reading you did in your research. Quotes in your story will attract 
readers. The white space surrounding the quotes makes the typed or printed page less 
intimidating. And, more important, quotes create credibility. 

In an article in Esquire called “The Height Report,” writer Ralph Keyes provided his readers 
with a lot of nuts-and-bolts information to prove that tall men land better jobs, make more 
money, and are generally more successful than short men. Here are two examples of how he 
made those facts stronger and more credible by seasoning his article with quotes from various 
tall people. 

John Kenneth Galbraith says he’s experienced his tallness as a competitive asset on 
the job market. At 6’ 8.5” he explains, “My height gave me a range of opportunity that I 
would never have had otherwise, because people always remember the guy whose head 
stands high above the others when they are trying to think of somebody for a job.” 

“You send over two people who are equally qualified,” the Wall Street recruiter 
explains, “and they’ll pick the taller, bener-looking guy every time.” 

Quotes must be used judiciously. You can’t just hang one up every time you want to cover a 
hole in your story. Use a quote when the speaker’s words will achieve your goals more 
effectively than your own words. 

 

The people you interview often say things that are provocative, informative and 
entertaining. However, they rarely say those things in a concise way. They ramble. They 
repeat. They reiterate. 

If you quote people word for word, most of your quotes will be tedious and half of them will 
be incomprehensible. Unless national security is at stake, trim your quotes down to the words 
you need. It is perfectly appropriate to cut the fat from interviews and present to the reader 
only the meat of what the speaker said. However, cut carefully. A carelessly cut quote can 
change the meaning of the speaker’s words. You must remain true to the spirit of what was 
said, if not the form. 

 

11. Create a Strong Title 
A good title will make a reader curious. 

A good title is a guide. By telling something about the content of your story, it separates the 
appropriate readers for your story from those who would have no interest in it. 

A good title is short. Don’t write, “Investigative Techniques and Conclusions Concerning 
the Proposal to Extend Client Services.” Write, “Results of the Client Survey.” 

A good title hints at the limits of information in the story; that is, it suggests the slant. 
Don’t write, “How Sports Enriched My Religious Life.” Write, “A Christian Looks at 
Baseball.” 

A good title should reveal information, not hide it. Don’t write, “Tips on an Important 
Purchase.” Write, “Six Ways to Save Money Buying a House.” 


CHAPTER EIGHT 

Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors 

1. Respect the Rules of Grammar 
2. Do Not Change Tenses 
3. Know How to Use the Possessive Case 
4. Make Verbs Agree With Their Subjects 
5. Avoid Dangling Modifiers 
6. Avoid Shifts in Pronoun Forms 
7. Avoid Splitting Infinitives 
8. Avoid These Common Mistakes 
9. Be Sensitive to Changes in the Language 
10. Prefer Good Writing to Good Grammar 

1. Respect the Rules of Grammar 
To succeed as a writer, you must respect the rules of grammar. If editors or teachers have 
consistently found grammatical errors in your writing, the flaw in your work is not minor. It is 
fatal. Good writing and good grammar are not twins, but they are usually found in the same 
place. 

The rules of grammar exist to help you write well, not to sabotage your work, and you 
cannot write well without them. The rules of grammar organize the language just as the rules 
of arithmetic organize the world of numbers. Imagine how difficult math would be if three and 
three equaled six only once in a while or if a tenth was equal to ten percent only when 
somebody felt like it. Grammatical rules about tense, gender, number, person, and case 
provide us with a literary currency that we can spend wherever English is spoken or read. 
Grammar is a system of rules for speaking and writing a given language, and that system was 
not created just so that English teachers would have something to harass you about. It exists so 
that we can communicate well, and when you blatantly violate portions of the system, you are 
chipping away at the stability of the whole. 

While you should accept the fact that changes do occur in the language, you should also 
resist each change every step of the way. Change should not come easily. New words and 
constructions seeking entry into the language should be met by a mighty army of grammarians 
saying, “It’s wrong,” and the rest of us saying, “It just doesn’t sound right,” so that the trendy, 
the senseless, and the merely pretty fall dead on the battlefield, and only the truly valuable 
survive. Change, if I might switch my metaphor, should come gradually and rarely, or the 
language will fall like a table that has all its legs removed at once instead of replaced one at a 
time. 


2. Do Not Change Tenses 
If you begin to write in one tense, you should not switch to another. 

 

3. Know How to Use the Possessive Case 
Most nouns are made possessive by adding ’s: The dog’s paws, a child’s toy, the ocean’s 
beauty. However, if a noun ends in s already and is plural, simply add an apostrophe: The 
dogs’ paws, A singular noun ending in s may be made possessive either way: The actress’s 
role/The actress’ role. 


When joint possession is being shown, the ’s usually is added only to the last member of the 
series: June and Jane’s mother is coming to lunch. However, if what is possessed is not 
identical, each noun in the series should have ’s: June’s and Jane’s teachers are coming to 
lunch. 

With compound nouns, the ’s is added to the final word: 

My mother-in-law’s house is spotless. 

The Queen of England’s dogs kept barking. 

The personal pronoun it does not use an apostrophe in its possessive form: 


4. Make Verbs Agree With Subjects 
Plural subjects require plural verbs; singular subjects require singular verbs. When writing a 
long or complicated sentence, check to make certain your verb agrees in number with its 
subject. 

 

5. Avoid Dangling Modifiers 
A dangling modifier is a word or group of words that appears to modify an inappropriate 
word in the same sentence. The error occurs most often when passive rather than active verbs 
are used. 

 

6. Avoid Shifts in Pronoun Forms 
Be consistent in your use of a pronoun. Do not switch from singular forms to plural ones. 

 


7. Avoid Splitting Infinitives 
An infinitive is split when an adverb is placed between the word to and a verb. 


There are times when you will need to split an infinitive in order to make the meaning of 
your sentence clear. Do so, but do so only when the split is neccessary. 

 

8. Avoid These Common Mistakes 
In addition to major grammatical mistakes, there are a good many minor mistakes to be 
made, and nobody’s hands are completely clean. We all have a few grammatical rules that we 
can never quite nail down despite our “ears” for language. Many people cannot remember the 
difference between who and whom. (Who is nominative case, and whom is objective case, as in 
“Who is going to the prom with you, and with whom did she go last year?”) Many writers use 
like as a conjunction (She walks like she’s got a train to catch), even though most 
grammarians insist it be used only as a preposition (It looks like a luxury car, and it rides like 
a dream). And almost everybody gets confused about lay and lie. (And with good reason. Lay 
means to put something down, and lie means to recline, but the past tense of lie is, would you 
believe, lay.) 

Minor mistakes like these might confuse, disturb, or disgust your reader, depending on 
which mistakes you make, how often you make them, and who the reader is. It’s arbitrary. 
When I wear an editor’s hat, I don’t mind a writer using who instead of whom, or occasionally 
using like as a conjunction. On the other hand, I would be inclined to reject the writer who 
consistently used like as a conjunction (even though Shakespeare did it), or who wrote, “I lied 
down for a nap.” 

When it comes to minor grammatical mistakes, readers don’t all draw lines at the same 
place. But all readers have a limited number of grammatical mistakes that they will forgive, so 
you should at least aim for grammatical perfection except when you can improve the writing 
by breaking a rule of grammar. 

Many grammatical errors occur because the writer tries too hard not to make a mistake. 
Instead of trusting his or her ear for language, the writer reacts to some traumatic correction in 
childhood. Most of us, for example, once said, “Jimmy and me are going to the movies,” and 
had some impolite adult snap at us, “It’s ‘Jimmy and I are going to the movies.’ ” Many 
people were corrected so often that they now change all their me’s to I’s and write things like 
“The contract was given to Jimmy and I.” (It should be “Jimmy and me.” I is nominative, me 
is objective.) Or, having been bawled out for saying, “I played bad,” when he should have said, 
“I played badly,” the kid turns into an adult who writes things like “I feel badly about your 
loss,” when he means that he feels bad about your loss. The problem is that the writer recalls 
the specific words involved instead of the pertinent rule, which was not explained. 


9. Be Sensitive to Changes in the Language 
Even if you know all the rules of grammar, you’re covered only for today, not tomorrow. 
The rules change. Grammar is a living thing; it grows to meet new needs. 

An obvious example of this is something called the degenderization of language. The 
feminist movement has successfully lifted our consciousness about the fact that English 
pronouns of unspecified gender are always male, a fact that contributes to the idea that males 
are the regular folk and females are something else. It is good grammar but poor feminism to 
write, “A doctor should always clean his stethoscope before checking someone’s heart.” 

Several solutions to the problem have been suggested. Among them are he/she, his/her, and 
s/he. None has really caught on. What is catching on, however, is “A doctor should always 
clean their stethoscope,” an error in number that is perpetrated by people who would rather 
offend grammarians than feminists. It’s good feminism but bad grammar, and I don’t like it. 
In fact, to be perfectly honest about it, I hate it. But I’m starting to get used to it, and it seems 
to be earning its way into the language. If it proves to be made of hearty stuff, I will welcome 
it. 

The point is that it’s bad grammar today, but it might be good grammar ten years from now. 
Today’s rules have no better shot at immortality than thee and thou had. 


10. Prefer Good Writing to Good Grammar 
Keep in mind that good grammar, even perfect grammar, does not guarantee good writing 
any more than a good referee guarantees a good basketball game. 

“It is my objective to utilize my management expertise more fully, than has heretofore been 
the case” is acceptable grammar but poor writing because it is poor communication. The 
sentence should read, “I’m looking for a better job.” On the other hand, “I ain’t got no money” 
is terrible grammar but could be good writing in some context by communicating exactly what 
the writer wants to communicate. 

There are many writing situations in which inferior grammar makes for superior writing. 
You could use poor grammar to reveal the character of a narrator, as Mac Hyman did in No 
Time for Sergeants (Random House). 

The thing was, we had gone fishing that day and Pa had wore himself out with it the 
way he usually did when he went fishing. I mean he went at it pretty hard and called the 
fish all sorts of names—he lost one pretty nice one and hopped up in the boat and banged 
the pole down in the water which was about enough to scare a big-sized alligator away, 
much less a fish, and he spent most of the afternoon after that cussing and ranting at 
everything that happened. 

You could use poor grammar in an essay or an opinion piece to establish a certain tone: 
“Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard go at each other tonight in the Centrum, and it ain’t going to 
be pretty.” 

You can also use faulty grammar in a story or novel to characterize people, places, and 
events, or to establish a casual, conversational tone. In this example, poor grammar does both 
jobs: “Moose asked every guy in the bar if they had seen Helen. Nobody knew nothing. Moose 
looked like he was going to tear the place apart.” There are three grammatical mistakes in 
those three sentences, but they are all intentional and they are all doing some work. 


Whenever you knowingly use poor grammar, you should ask yourself two questions. The 
first: Is my meaning clear? If the answer is no, rewrite. The second question: What am I 
getting in return for the poor grammar? If you can’t answer that, don’t use poor grammar. 

So strive most of all for good writing, but make proper grammar your rule and improper 
grammar your exception. Don’t give easy access to every bizarre construction or chunk of 
senseless jargon that comes whistling down the pike. Never violate a rule of grammar unless 
you have a good reason, one that improves the writing. 

But never choose good grammar over good writing. There is nothing virtuous about good 
grammar that does not work. Your goal is good writing. Good grammar is only one of the tools 
you use to achieve it. 


CHAPTER NINE 

Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors 

1. Use Orthodox Punctuation 
2. Know When to Use a Comma 
3. Know When to Use a Semicolon 
4. Know When to Use a Colon 
5. Use Exclamation Points Only When Exclaiming and Question Marks Only when 
Asking Questions 
6. Know How to Use Quotation Marks 

1. Use Orthodox Punctuation 
Writing is not a visual art, so don’t use punctuation as decoration. Be creative in your 
writing, not in your punctuation. 

After writing an exclamation, use only one exclamation point. No! is every bit as effective 
as No!!! 

Avoid using unnecessary quotation marks. Some writers insist on placing quotation marks 
around slang words: My “old man” is going to give me some “big bucks.” If you wish to use 
slang or idioms, do so, but do so without quotation marks. 

Avoid using unnecessary dashes and ellipses. Some writers use dashes (——) and ellipses ( 
... ) to cover faulty sentence constructions and vague thoughts. Don’t. 

In the following letter, a young writer uses dashes and elipses the way drunks use whiskey. 

Dear Robert, 

Well ... How are you? I’m okay—I guess ... My mother came to visit last week—you can 
imagine how much fun that was ... All she did the whole time she was here was search 
around in my drawers. She was probably looking for drugs ... or something. Anyhow, you 
get the picture ... God!!! So—not much new to report. Take it easy ... but take it!!!! 

Love, Betsy 


2. Know When to Use a Comma 
Commas are used to add clarity to a sentence. Consider the sentence below: 

She was frightened when he kissed her and fainted. 

Without a comma, we don’t know who fainted. Perhaps she fainted when he kissed her. On the 
other hand, perhaps she became frightened because he fainted during the kiss. Only a comma 
will give this sentence meaning for us: 

She was frightened when he kissed her, and fainted. 

Ah, she fainted. 

When deciding whether a sentence you have written needs a comma, read the sentence out 
loud. Is a pause needed for clarity? Read the sentence without the pause—quickly, if you’re 
still not certain. If the sentence makes perfect sense to you read at breakneck speed, banish 
that comma. In addition to being wrong, overpunctuation is deadly dull. A good piece of 
advice: When your ear fails you and you can’t decide whether to add that comma, DON’T. 

Many otherwise good writers use too many commas. I think one of the reasons is because 
we were half-asleep in grammar classes as children and never bothered to learn the difference 
between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Unfortunately, while we must have been 
sleeping when the terms were explained, we learned just enough to get ourselves in trouble. 

Read the sentences below and see which ones require commas: 

1. My friend Pat goes to law school. 
2. A dance like the limbo requires a broomstick or pole. 
3. Animals that have fur are fun to pet. 

4. Do not use a comma unless a pause is needed for clarity. 
The answer? None of the sentences needs a comma. If you read the sentences out loud, your 
ears should have told you that pauses were not needed. But if you were once one of those 
children who slept half the time during grammar classes, you might have decided to add 
commas because the sentences looked a lot like sentences that need commas. 

Restrictive clauses and words do not require commas. Nonrestrictive words and clauses do. 
Restrictive elements define and limit a sentence. They must be present for a sentence to retain 
its intended meaning. Nonrestrictive elements, which are parenthetical, do not. 

Look at the following sentences. Notice that in each of the sentences with nonrestrictive 
elements, the material contained in commas could be removed without changing the 
sentence’s meaning. 


Here are some other rules to help you with commas: 

1. Use a comma following introductory words like Yes, No, and But. Realize, though, 
that there are times when such words are not being used as introductions to a sentence. 
2. Clauses joined by but require a comma: He wanted to eat out, but he didn’t have 
any money. 
3. Use commas between members of a series. 
4. Use a comma before a direct quotation. (If the direct quotation is long, use a colon 
rather than a comma.) 

5. Following a person’s name, set off by commas information indicating residence, 
position, or title. 

 

6. Use a comma to separate elements of a sentence that might be misread. 
When happy, men and women tend to smile. 

If I make a will, will I ever be able to change it? 

In addition to the rules above, there are many others. I’ve tried to review the ones that give 
writers the most trouble. If you have other questions about commas, I suggest reading Words 
Into Type (Prentice-Hall). 


3. Know When to Use a Semicolon 
The semicolon signals a distinct pause in a sentence. Use it when a comma would not give 
your sentence sufficient pause. 

1. Use a semicolon to separate closely related independent clauses that are not joined 
by a conjunction. 
Nushka looked at the clock; Nanette looked at the floor. 

Not all sailors love the sea; not all garbage men love garbage. 

2. Use a semicolon to separate word series that contain commas. 
They bought soda, potato chips, ice cream, and candy; several games and toys; and three 
record albums. 


4. Know When to Use a Colon 
Colons are used to introduce lists, formal quotations, and examples: 

Please bring the following items: cups, sugar packets, spoons, nondairy creamers, 
napkins, coffee, and coffeepots. We will bring everything else required to make the coffee. 

In Act I of Falling Bodies, Bernice speaks of a white cross: “We used to lie in our beds at 
night and watch this sign on top the life insurance building....” 

JoDean wants to become a nun for the wrong reasons. For example: She speaks endlessly 
about how upset her ex-boyfriend will be when she enters the convent; she speaks 
endlessly about how she will get to wear a habit; and she speaks endlessly about how nice 
it will be to have her own bedroom. 


5. Use Exclamation Points Only When Exclaiming and Question Marks Only 
When 
Asking Questions 


Most of us presume we know when to use question marks and exclamation points. But both 
punctuation marks have given many good writers trouble. 

Exclamation points should be used only after commands or statements of strong feeling. 
Only teenagers are justified in believing that each and every statement one utters is an 
exclamation. The rest of us should know better. Trust your sentences to reveal emotions. Don’t 
rely on punctuation to show how much feeling you bring to your writing. 


There are two instances when writers misuse question marks. First, a question mark should 
be used only to ask a direct question, not to express wonderment. Second, a question mark is 
not used to ask an indirect question. 

 

6. Know How to Use Quotation Marks 
All words taken directly from another’s speech or writing must be set off in quotation 
marks. 


Do not use quotation marks around words that are not directly taken from speech or writing. 

 

If a quote is contained within another quote, use single quotation marks around the inner 
quote. 


Use quotation marks around a word or phrase you intend to explain or define. 

 

Titles of articles in magazines, poems, songs, paintings, and sermons are set off in quotation 
marks: 


The words Yes 
and No 
are put in quotation marks only when they are directly quoted: 

 


CHAPTER TEN 

Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You 

1. Avoid Jargon 
2. Avoid Clichés 
3. Avoid Parentheses 
4. Avoid Footnotes 
5. Don’t Use Transitions to Conceal Information 
6. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain 
7. Don’t Hide Behind Your Words 
8. Don’t Intrude 
9. Don’t Play Word Games. 
10. Don’t Play the Tom Wolfe Game 
11. Don’t Play the Mystery Game 
12. Don’t Cheat 

1. Avoid Jargon 
Jargon is nonsensical language, unintelligible words, or phrases that somehow get a 
foothold in the language and are repeated so often that we forget they don’t mean anything. 
Shallow phrases such as in terms of, in point of fact, and interface situation, are jargon. 

We’re all guilty. I use jargon. You use jargon. From time to time every person utters 
something that is without meaning or doesn’t mean what he or she wants it to mean. In spoken 
language this is forgivable; after all, when we speak, we’re all working in the first draft. But 
writers should certainly be able to keep jargon under control. 

Because I can’t possibly cover thoroughly the subject of jargon here, I recommend two 
books: Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman (Bobbs-Merrill), and On Language by William 
Safire (Times Books). 

Here’s a tip: If you can make a man sound like an idiot simply by quoting him, he’s 
probably using jargon. 

 

2. Avoid Clichés 
Clichés are a dime a dozen. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They’ve been used 
once too often. They’ve outlived their usefulness. Their familiarity breeds contempt. They 
make the writer look as dumb as a doornail, and they cause the reader to sleep like a log. So be 
sly as a fox. Avoid clichés like the plague. If you start to use one, drop it like a hot potato. 
Instead, be smart as a whip. Write something that is fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and 
sharp as a tack. Better safe than sorry. 


3. Avoid Parentheses 
Parentheses are used to enclose material that would otherwise be an annoying interruption. 
If you are using parentheses more than three times in a ten-page story, you are either 
interrupting the reader too much, or you are using parentheses unnecessarily. The writer 
usually turns to parentheses out of laziness, not out of need, and there is usually an 
unobtrusive way to include the information without parentheses. 

Mark Twain wrote, “A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how 
to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it; ... a man who will wantonly use a 
parenthesis will steal. For these reasons I am unfriendly to the parenthesis. When a man puts 
one into my mouth, his life is no longer safe.” 

Twain, as you can see, didn’t much care for the parenthesis. 

I wouldn’t say you should never use parentheses, but I think you should use them rarely. 

 

4. Avoid Footnotes 
Footnotes are a requirement for research papers and are sometimes necessary for other 
kinds of writing. They are used to acknowledge sources, and sometimes they provide the 
reader with supplementary material that is valuable to the reader but not compatible with the 
overall tone of the story. 

Use them if you must for those purposes. But please don’t use footnotes as a junkyard for 
all the words you cut from the text but couldn’t bear to part with. Footnotes are distracting, 
ugly, and they frequently work against you because the reader can’t remember what he knows 
from the text and what he knows from the footnotes. 

The last word on this matter belongs to John Barrymore. He said, “A footnote in a book is 
like a knock on the door downstairs while you are on your honeymoon.” 


5. Don’t Use Transitions to Conceal Information 
As a writer, you have entered a covenant with the reader. The whole writing reading process 
depends on the writer and reader having faith that the other will not violate the terms of the 
covenant. If the covenant were written out, it would contain a clause concerning transitions 
that would look like this: 

Reader agrees that a transition such as “Sam drove to the church” can encompass all 
the routine acts of starting a car, taking left turns, etc. 

In turn Writer agrees not to use such transitions to deprive reader of information 
which belongs to Reader. 

In other words, you shouldn’t use the transition “Sam drove to the church” if later in your 
story you are going to mention that Sam had a horrible accident and killed a carload of 
lawyers while driving to the church. 

Don’t cheat readers on the grounds that you wish to surprise them later in the story. Readers 
know the difference between being cheated and being surprised. 


6. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain 
Many writers try to force transitions to do work that should have been done by the writer 
elsewhere in the story or article. 

In the 1930’s, adventure serials with cliff-hanger endings were popular in the London 
monthlies. At the end of one installment, the writer had his hero, Ben, trapped at the bottom of 
a dark and slippery twenty-foot pit with no tools, no ladder, and nobody around to hear his 
cries. For a month people all over London discussed Ben’s plight. How would good old Ben 
get out of this mess? Unfortunately, the writer of the serial was wondering the same thing, and 
by the time his deadline arrived he had not come up with a clever solution. So he began his 
episode with, “After Ben got out of the pit, he proceeded to walk toward the city,” a transition 
which put his readers into a lynching mood and did serious damage to the writer’s career. 

“After Ben got out of the pit” would be a perfectly decent transition if climbing out of a 
twenty-foot pit were as routine an activity as driving to a church. The reader will accept your 
acknowledgment of changes in time or place only if those changes could have been 
accomplished in normal, routine ways, or in unusual ways that you have made believable 
earlier in your story. If you tell us on page 1 that Superman can fly, we will have no trouble 
later on accepting the transition “On Tuesday Superman flew to Clinton, Massachusetts.” 

When you find yourself having difficulty moving from one section of an article to the next, 
the problem might be due to the fact that you are leaving out information. Rather than trying 
to force an awkward transition, take another look at what you have written and ask yourself 
what you need to explain in order to move on to your next section. 


7. Don’t Hide Behind Your Words 
You should be willing to put yourself into what you write. That doesn’t mean you should 
write everything in the first person, or that you should meticulously insert your feelings and 
observations into every memo. What it does mean is you should not be afraid to climb onto 
the page when your presence will strengthen what you have written. 

Let’s say there’s a disastrous hotel fire in Providence, Rhode Island, and you were staying 
in the hotel at the time. It would be unthinkable to leave yourself out of the story. You, after 
all, are an eyewitness. You felt the heat, you saw the people leap from windows, you heard the 
lower floors cave in beneath you. Your experience, your feelings at the time, can bring the 
reader right into an article like nothing else: 

At noon on August 3, I was in Room 1104 of the Westcott Hotel, just five floors above a 
flame that would eventually consume the entire hotel and take 118 lives. 

But if you were in Amarillo, Texas at the time of the Providence fire and were assigned 
three months later to write a story about it, your experience at the time is of no relevance to 
your article, and so it would be foolish to write the following: 

At the time of the Providence hotel fire I was in Amarillo, Texas swilling down piña 
coladas with William F. Buckley. 

If you decide it is best to put yourself into a story, do so with confidence and enthusiasm. 
Don’t creep shyly in with some absurd device like “This reporter witnessed the events,” or the 
pretentious “We” when you mean “I.” 

In other words, don’t be coy about involving yourself in what you write. 


8. Don’t Intrude 
If you are going to put yourself into an article, memo, or story, do it early. 

It’s okay to begin your profile, “I met Jane Fonda at the Top of the Pru in Boston. She was 
staring out at the Boston skyline. She was startled when I touched her.” 

On the other hand, you are intruding if you have written forty-three paragraphs about Jane 
Fonda, all without mentioning yourself, and suddenly let drop; “She turned to me then, the 
weariness showing in her face, and I thought for a moment that she would place her head on 
my shoulder.” 

Don’t make the reader ask the question: Where the hell did he come from? 

Here are some other types of intrusions you must avoid: 

1. Typographical and spelling errors, as well as blatant grammatical errors, will 
break the reader’s spell. They will remind him that he is reading: 
Now is the time for all goodmen to come to the aid of their country. 

2. Obscure words, difficult words, and words that don’t come within a mile of the 
meaning you are assigning to them will also break the reader’s spell. 
Van was the cotyledon of the family, and Donna, the youngest, was of course the coup de 
grâce. 

3. Using the same word in unrelated ways two or three times in a short space will 
also intrude on the reader’s trance. 
The night was still and quiet. From our position on the hillside we could see that the still 
was still there. 


9. Don’t Play Word Games 
Puns, double entendres, rhymes, inside jokes, and various other literary parlor tricks are 
amusing, and they can be good writing in a story that is intentionally whimsical. But generally 
you should stay away from them in your writing. They might make you look clever, but they 
will diminish the success of the writing. The reader sees too much of form and loses track of 
content. Quite often the reader will chuckle at your cleverness but will cease to take your story 
seriously. 

It is often when searching for the perfect title that a writer falls prey to word games. Don’t 
call an article about a coyote that has escaped from the zoo “Don Coyote.” Please. 


10. Don’t Play the Tom Wolfe Game 
If you have read any of Tom Wolfe’s early books, you know that Wolfe employed a lot of 
visual GIMMICKS like ZOWeeee!!!!!, lively little passages full of CAPITAL LETTERS, and 
unUSual Punk Chew A Shun....!!!? 

I call that the Tom Wolfe game, and it was fine for Wolfe. It was fun. It worked. It became 
part of his writing personality. It’s his. 

But ninety-nine percent of the time this sort of thing fails. It draws attention to the gimmick 
and away from the content. It reminds readers that they are reading, and it occasionally brands 
the writer a moron. 

Certainly the appearance of your story is not irrelevant. Clean paper, bold print, white space 
—all of these things affect the success of the story. But writing is not primarily a visual art. It 
is more like music than oil painting, and the extent to which it must depend on the shape, size, 
and color of those squiggly little lines is the extent to which it is not writing, but is something 
else. 

If you cannot state a good reason for doing SOMEthing LYKE Thhhhiiiissss!!!, don’t do it. 


11. Don’t Play the Mystery Game 
You are playing the mystery game when you withhold some vital piece of information 
because you think the reader will hang in there until the end just to find out what it is. More 
likely the reader will be distracted by the unanswered question and will not pay close attention 
to what you write. 

In On Becoming A Novelist (Harper & Row), John Gardner put it this way: “One of the most 
common mistakes among young writers is the idea that a story gets its power from withheld 
information—that is, from the writer setting the reader up and then bushwhacking him. 
Ungenerous fiction is first and foremost fiction in which the writer is unwilling to take the 
reader as an equal partner.” 

Every writing teacher has read hundreds of unpublished stories that begin with something 
like “The package arrived at two A.M. Sammy opened it in a frenzy; he stared at its contents 
and smiled.” The story goes on and on, and we hear a lot about “it” or “the contents of the 
package.” If we stick around long enough, we discover in the last paragraph that the package 
contained an adorable beagle puppy. 

Another common version of the mystery game occurs in the first-person story. We don’t 
learn until the end that the speaker is not a person at all but a 1957 nickel or an oak tree. This 
is silly stuff. Gardner describes it as the writer jumping out at the last minute and yelling, 
“Surprise!” It’s also an extremely efficient way to drive away readers. 

Similarly, when writing a paper for a school assignment, bring the statement you wish to 
prove into the paper’s beginning, and then prove your statement. Don’t wait until you are 
almost finished with your paper to mention what it is you are writing about. 


12. Don’t Cheat 
Readers expect writers to be honest. Don’t let them down. Even when writing fictional 
stories, don’t mislead readers or hide facts from them. Especially, don’t lie. 

Adhere to the guidelines below, and readers will reward your honesty by believing in your 
words. 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN 

Seven Ways to Edit Yourself 

1. Read Your Work Out Loud 
2. Cut Unnecessary Words 
3. Think About What You Have Written 
4. Ask Yourself These Questions 
5. Follow These Rules of Form for Titles 
6. Prepare a Perfect Manuscript 
7. Use Common Sense 

1. Read Your Work Out Loud 
Before you turn in anything you have written—whether to a teacher or an editor—read 
aloud every word. 

Often when you write and rewrite and constantly rearrange information, your ear for the 
sound of the writing becomes corrupted. Reading out loud will return to you the true sound of 
your story. You will hear the sour note of the word that’s “just not right,” and the drastic 
changes in tone will cry out to you for editing. You’ll notice that you are breathless at the end 
of one long sentence, and you will know that you must break it up into two or three. Listen for 
the music, variety, and emphasis of your sentences. You will discover that some of them are 
confusing and need a word added or removed for clarity’s sake. And you will see that a 
sentence like “Who knew that Lou cued Sue, too?” might not look 
funny, but it sure makes a 
funny and distracting noise in the reader’s head. 


2. Cut Unnecessary Words 
Let’s pretend your mechanic called you up and said, “Mr. Duckworth (assuming your name 
is Mr. Duckworth), your car is ready. I’ve put in a new carburetor, an alternator, two hoses, a 
couple of clamps, and three unnecessary parts.” 

What would you think of such a phone call? 

Hmnn. You might think it’s time to get a new mechanic. 

You don’t want unnecessary parts in your car. They do no good, and they slow you down. 

So you certainly don’t want unnecessary words in your writing. They do no good, and they 
slow you and 
your reader down. 

Every word you write should be doing some work in the sentence. It should earn its keep by 
providing some portion of the total information you are trying to communicate. A word is 
unnecessary if it’s doing no work, if it’s doing work that doesn’t have to be done, or if it’s 
doing work that’s being done by another word or phrase nearby. 

Read what you have written and cross out every word that is not contributing information. 
Sometimes you will cross out two words and replace them with one. Sometimes you will cross 
out ten words and replace them with five. But most of the words you cross out will require no 
replacement. 

 

3. Think About What You Have Written 
It’s very easy when you are locked in the passionate embrace of the writing muse to write 
something that sounds really dumb. The writer routinely includes the banal, the inaccurate, 
and the just plain stupid in early drafts simply by forgetting that what one meant to say is not 
always what got written down. 

But when the passion cools a bit and the writer spreads his or her papers out on the table, 
curious phrases will suddenly show themselves: Did she mean to write, “There was literally an 
ocean of people ...”? Of course not. But she did. Did he intend to write, “He could care less 
...”? No. He meant to write, “He couldn’t care less.” 

You will make mistakes in your early drafts. That’s okay. But before you type a final draft, 
let at least a day pass, and then think carefully about what you wrote before turning to your 
typewriter. You may find that what you thought was brilliant prose on Tuesday borders on the 
moronic by Friday. On the other hand, you may discover that what seemed trivial when you 
wrote it is, in fact, profound. 


4. Ask Yourself These Questions 
Before typing a final draft, ask these questions: 

. Is it clear from the beginning what the paper is about? 

. Does each paragraph advance the subject? 

. Do the important ideas stand out clearly? 

. Are more details, examples, or anecdotes needed? 

. Is the information sufficiently clear? 

. Are there sweeping statements that need to be supported? 

. Do any technical terms need explanation? 

. Is there needless repetition? 

. Is the tone consistent? 

. Are any of the sentences too involved to follow with ease? 

. Are any of the words vague? 

. Are there grammatical errors? 

. Are there punctuation errors? 


5. Follow These Rules of Form for Titles 
Before typing a final manuscript, review these rules for titles: 

1. The title of a book-length manuscript should be typed on a separate page, together 
with the author’s name. Set the title at the very center of the page. The author’s name 
goes below the title. 
2. Titles of short manuscripts should be centered at the top of the first page of your 
paper or story. 
3. Capitalize titles in the following manner: 
The Needs of Some Chickens 
The Ballerina: A Study of America’s Most 
Beloved Dancers 
Of Mice and Men 


Prepositions that have fewer than four letters should not be capitalized unless they are the 
first word of the title. Similarly, only capitalize definite and indefinite articles if they are 
the first word of the title. 

4. Use italics (underlining) for titles of books, magazines, movies, and plays. 
5. Use quotation marks around the titles of articles, short stories, poems, songs, and 
other short pieces of writing. 

6. Prepare a Perfect Manuscript 
If you are proud of the words you have written, you will want to present them in the best 
possible manner. 

Use 8½” x 11” white bond paper of good quality. Don’t use onion skin or erasable paper— 
the print will smudge. 

Use a clean, black typewriter ribbon. If the keys of your typewriter are dirty, clean them 
with a brush. 

Leave wide margins—at least an inch on all sides of the paper. 

Indent five spaces for a new paragraph. 

Double-space between lines. 

After typing your paper or story, look for typographical errors. Correct small errors with a 
pencil. Large errors, such as a missing sentence, may force you to retype a page. Use your 
judgment. 


7. Use Common Sense 
I write often about writing, and that can be terrifying. Sometimes I feel as if I’m standing in 
front of a firing squad and The Captain will give the order to shoot as soon as I have violated 
my own advice. Have I used too many words to tell you not to use too many words? Is my 
voice too passive when I tell you to use the active voice? Is my grammar faulty when I tell you 
to bone up on your grammar? 

It is not hard to imagine a legion of mean-spirited readers out there scanning my every word 
with a magnifying glass, all of them poised to leap on the first sign of contradiction. Off to 
their typewriters they will run, and soon my mailbox will be bent from within by a bulging 
bundle of letters, all of which begin, “Dear Mr. Provost, on page such and such you said so and 
so, but just thirty-two pages later you said so and so and such and such. Are you a moron?” 

No, I’m not. Honestly. I am—dare I say it—an artist. And that is my escape hatch. Writing 
is art, not science, and when I finish a piece of writing, I do not review every single one of my 
tips. I ask, have I communicated well? Have I pleased my readers, have I given them 
something that is a joy to read? Have I entertained them, informed them, persuaded them, and 
made my thoughts clear to them? Have I given them what they wanted? 

And these are the questions you must ask about all that you write. If the answers are yes, 
you have succeeded. If the answers are no, you have failed. Writing well is what counts. 

The tips in this book encompass much of the accumulated knowledge about what writing 
techniques work best, which patterns of language most successfully reach and hold readers. 
But like all tips they should be considered carefully before being acted on. 

So don’t use the active voice “because it’s the right way.” Don’t write with strong nouns 
and verbs “because you’re supposed to.” And don’t maintain consistently good grammar 
“because only stupid people don’t.” Tips, not laws. Think about these tips. Apply them 
generally. They will guide you to successful writing. 

And do something else. Accept the fact that there is good writing and bad writing. There is 
writing that runs, and there is writing that plods. There is writing that wakes up readers and 
writing that puts them to sleep. So turn to this book from time to time. Stretch your 
vocabulary. And, most important, develop your ear for the sound of written language. When 


you have done these, you will have the knowledge and the wisdom to apply the best tip of all: 
Use your own common sense. 


Signet 

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COLLEGE DICTIONARY (4TH EDITION) 

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The essential dictionary for every school, college, office, and home. Inside this bestseller 
you’ll find more features than in any other pocket dictionary. 

Available wherever books are sold or at 

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