Sep 11, 2011

Ten Rules for Writing Nonfiction That Doesn’t Stink


1.      Know your audience. Who are you writing to? Sixth graders? A kitty litter association? Microchip manufacturers? Each one requires a different writing style. Write to the wrong audience and you lose the right audience.

2.      Have sympathy for your audience. Do unto your readers as you would have them do unto you. Don’t burden them with too many characters, too many anecdotes, too much jargon, too convoluted a path to the point—anything that would be burdensome. Make their load lighter. Help the reader along.

3.      Be clear. Be as succinct as necessary with sentences and paragraphs in order to avoid confusion and to be clear. Strunk and White had the best description of clarity in writing in their writers’ bible, The Elements of Style.

4.      Use active verbs whenever you can. Passive verbs are popular in scientific and technical writing because they disguise who is doing the action and because they are harder to argue with. “Venus can be observed in the early night sky.” Or “When the lever is pressed, the nozzle pops out.” For those reasons, passive verbs are helpful. For all other uses—and that is the overwhelming majority—use active verbs to avoid sounding namby pamby.

5.      Avoid clichés. Yes, it’s cliché to say “Avoid clichés.” But read a cliché and your mind immediately disengages a little. Read lots of them, and the writing becomes banal and indigestible. Clichés are the opposite of fresh writing. Fresh writing requires more thought but is more powerful and memorable.

6.      Adopt the KISS rule—Keep It Simple Stupid. The engineer who came up with the KISS rule used it to tell other engineers how to write instructions for those who would use their machines. He wasn’t calling anyone stupid—he was saying “simple stupid,” as in “too easy to mess up.” Perhaps Einstein said it best, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The KISS rule harks back to Rule 2. If you sympathize with your readers, you will not write fluff or meander too long on the way to an important point.

7.      Use anecdotes lightly. Thirty years ago, readers probably would have tolerated anecdote-heavy writing. But in this digital age of nonstop interruptions and entertainment at every juncture, readers will be checking Facebook on their smartphones as fast as you can say, “I knew a woman named Emily who had a German Shepherd.” Anecdotes are foreplay. But eventually a writer needs to get down to the act itself. What is the writing about? Sprinkle anecdotes in lightly, in proportional to the actual content of the writing. Otherwise, you will annoy or even lose your audience.


8.      Consider how your writing sounds. If strings of nouns are hard to say (“Latino lesbian recreational resource referendum”) then break them up or rewrite. This harks back to Rule 2 (Have sympathy for your audience). Alliteration? Sounds fun, but keep it under control. Occasional forays into lyrical writing with repetitive phrases or words, the way ministers deliver sermons, for instance? Okay, but again, keep it under control. Lyrical writing can be powerful, but is like spicy food. In the end, if writing sounds good, it is good.

9.      Outline, outline, and lastly, outline. Outlines are the pathways that guide the reader along and keep them forging ahead. Non-readers don’t have to know that outlines also helps keep writers from getting lost. Outlines rock in many ways. Try writing a long piece without an outline and your writing will become floppy and may fall apart.

10.   Don’t be afraid to summarize, for some redundancy is a good teaching tool. Redundancy in words and phrases should be cut (Rule 6, KISS), by all means, but redundancy by summarization helps the reader focus while emphasizing what’s important.


Addendum: Rule 1 (Know Your Audience) and Rule 2 (Have Sympathy for Your Audience) are primary. Every other rule of non-stinky writing falls directly or indirectly under those two biggies.

by Carolyn Blount Brodersen, ©Copyright 2011

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