Ask the Editor™
Volume 8, Issue 2

In this issue:


Advice to a Young Writer

A friend of mine asked me to take a look at some writing by his daughter, a high school student and aspiring writer. An honor student, she shows a lot of promise and more ability than many of the college freshmen I once taught.

She is interested in horror writing, so I gave her a book by Stephen King called On Writing. I don't remember much about the book other than that I liked it, probably because I agree with King's assertion that most books on writing are more filler, less killer. Only a few portray what really occurs during the writing process. (I'll list a few good ones in my next column.)

The best advice I gave her is to write as much as possible. Writing is like learning a musical instrument. You can't really learn to write by reading about it. You have to learn by doing it every day.

I also advised her to revise, revise, revise. Then revise again. Rewriting is the essence of writing.

And I told her that Hemingway once said the most essential gift a writer can have is a good nonsense (he used a less polite term) detector. As you revise, ask yourself whether your audience will really buy everything you are saying.

Above all, I told her to be herself. The common thread among all good writing is individuality and warmth. Which brings me to my list of characteristics of good writing (see the next section).

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“Easy writing makes hard reading.” Ernest Hemingway


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Ten Attributes of Good Writing

1. Individuality and warmth. All good writing has a humanity and aliveness which keeps the audience reading from one paragraph to the next.

2. Simple and concise. Inexperienced writers try to inflate their prose with unnecessary words and meaningless jargon to try to sound important. Good writing ruthlessly cuts unneeded words, stripping each sentence down to its necessary components. (See the FDR example in the next section.)

3. Focused. Effective writing has a clear purpose that is developed logically and supported by pertinent, accurate details.

4. Well organized. Good writing is logically arranged so that readers can easily grasp the writer's main purpose.

5. Conversational. The best writing sounds natural and sincere, not stiff or stuffy. The writer's unique voice comes through, giving the writing personality.

6. Clear. Good writers choose simple, natural, common words - plain English - while avoiding technical or vague language. Nouns and verbs are specific and precise, while modifiers are used sparingly.

7. Reader centered. Effective writers use a tone or level of formality that is appropriate for the audience and seriousness of the topic.

8. Free from error. Good writing is edited to ensure it follows accepted standards for spelling, punctuation, mechanics, and usage.

9. Engaging. The best writing is lively and interesting and shows the writer cares about the subject.

10. Enjoyable to read!

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“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader — not the fact that it's raining, but the feel of being rained upon.” E. L. Doctorow


FDR Keeps It Simple

From a memo issued early in World War II to instruct federal workers on what to do in case of an air raid: "Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination."

FDR simplified this by writing: "Tell them that in buildings where they will have to keep the work going to put something over the windows."

As Thoreau once said, "Simplify, simplify."

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“Writing is just work — there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or write with your toes — it is still just work.” Sinclair Lewis


Ask the Editor™ Question

When do you write out numbers and when do you use numerals?

Gail Abrams

Check your company style manual, but in general, use words for numbers one to nine and numerals for numbers 10 and over. Style books differ on whether to use words or numerals consistently in a series. AP says to apply the general rule, for example: "I purchased four pads of paper, nine pens, and 14 pencils." Other style books mandate that fourteen should be spelled out.

Spell out numbers at the beginning of a sentence: "Forty employees showed up for the meeting." Numerals are commonly used to express money, percentages, chapters, pages, addresses, time, statistics, measurements, and dates.

“The Editor”

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