Good writing comes mostly from reading what good writers have written. But quite a few good writers, like C.S. Lewis, John Steinbeck, and George Orwell, have also taken the time to write tips – practical suggestions – for good writing.
The key to good writing – in short – is clear thinking followed by clear, concise writing. Here are some tips from a few of the world’s great writers about how to do that.
C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century. He is best known for the Chronicles of Narnia, but he also wrote a large number of philosophical and religious works, such as his popular Mere Christianity. Here’s what he said about writing:
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
David Ogilvy, a writer and advertising executive, has been called “The Father of Advertising.” He tells writers to:
- Write the way you talk. Naturally.
- Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
- Never send a letter or a memo (or anything else) on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
John Steinbeck was an American writer. He is best known for his novel Grapes of Wrath.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place … it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.
George Orwell was an English novelist and journalist who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. His advice is similar to Lewis’s:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print (In other words, be yourself).
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, alway cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.