On Writing Well

Did you ever notice how few non-native English speakers get to become bestselling authors? Writing is tough. Writing in a foreign language is even tougher. Professional writers spend years perfecting their art. But as an engineer I noticed that by sticking to a few patterns, by the magic of the 80 / 20 rule my style improved significantly.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is mandatory reading for all journalists and book writers. I read it from the perspective of a business owner doing his own content marketing. You should still read the book, but here are a few of rules that will help you fix some common mistakes immediately.

Pick a Good Topic

I found these three to be the best sources of high quality, information dense articles:

  • A question on social media. Write a response in the form of a blog post - now you have well thought out content to reply with.
  • An entry from your FAQ. Explain the issue in-depth and add a “read more” link to your FAQ.
  • A lengthy email reply. If one person needed that long reply, chances are others will benefit from reading it as well.

This article was inspired by a fellow entrepreneur asking me to review his blog post. I sent him my review, copied the email to a text editor, replaced advice pertaining to his article with general advice and thus obtained my first draft. Next I slept on it, rewrote portions in the morning with a fresh mind, and published it.

Stick To Your Topic

  • Determine what you want to say, then say it.
  • Write a rough draft, then rewrite it removing and simplifying everything that you can.
  • Leave your reader with just one new thought. If there are multiple topics you wish to discuss, write multiple articles.

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Style

Make your blog stand out, but not your writing style. If everybody is doing something, they have a good reason to do it. If your style is different you’ll appear barbaric and foreign. Here are some rules of thumb that I stick to:

  • Capitalize your titles correctly, use Capitalize My Title.
  • Avoid abusing commas, if you can remove it then you probably should. This one is the most difficult for me and I’m still struggling with comma splices.
  • Make sure your content is actionable. If it’s not then it’s just your diary, or worse, a lame attempt at SEO.
  • Don’t answer your own rhetorical questions, it’s like laughing at your own jokes.
  • Use an automatic editor. Book writers have editors and they do a great job. I notice that every time I read a self-published book that didn’t have one. Writing will be insuferable if you do the editing yourself so install an automatic one.
  • Add examples and anecdotes and back up your claims - otherwise they’re just opinions.
  • Treat your audience as you would like to be treated yourself. Be humble. Your readers are just as intelligent as you are, just slightly less knowledgable in that one particular field.
  • Use a thesaurus to avoid repeating words.
  • Use a thesaurus to find more accurate words. Those reading your content are “individuals”, but it’s better to refer to them as “your audience” or “readers”.
  • Remove clutter words. It’s cleaner than “At all times make sure to remember to try and look for words that might be considered as clutter that you may wish to remove”.
  • Express your personality, like you would when talking with a friend. This one comes from my girlfriend. After reading one of my articles she said it’s rather dry and that I should just write the way I speak when I’m telling her a story. There is no “audience” reading your text, it’s always one person.
  • Share your strong opinions. Let your audience disagree if they wish, trying to please everyone with vague advice will neuter your article.
  • Be consistent. Are you sharing your personal experiences or are you writing a textbook? Are you writing in the past tense or the future?
  • Learn by imitation. Copy what successful authors are doing, because they’re doing it deliberately. They’ve worked on their style for years, they endlessly write and rewrite each sentence leaving nothing to chance.

Further Reading

I recommend you study the book itself, it’s short and a pleasure to read. Meanwhile, you can compare my notes with Derek Sivers’.

And once you have your article it's time for the world to see it. You should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% marketing your content marketing pieces. How many threads did you post a reply to this week? Search For People With Problems That You Can Solve