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20 tips for writing well

Most people write badly because they can't think clearly. It follows that if you can think clearly, you have a chance of writing well. These tips will help you put on paper exactly what you have in mind.
1. Keep in mind that the reader doesn't have much time. What you write must be clear on first reading. The shorter your paper, the better the chance it will be read.

2. Know where you are going - and tell the reader. Start with an outline to organise your argument.

Begin important paragraphs with topic sentences that tell what follows. Conclude with a summary paragraph.

An outline not only helps the reader; it keeps you from getting lost en route. Compile a list of all your points before you start.

3. Make what you write easy to read. For extra emphasis, underline entire sentences and number your points.

      Put main points into indented paragraphs like this.

4. Short sentences and short paragraphs - are easier to read than long ones. Send telegrams, not essays.

5. Make your writing vigorous and direct. Wherever possible use active verbs, and avoid the passive voice.

We are concerned that if this recommendation is turned down the brand's market share may be negatively affected.

We believe you must act on this recommendation to hold the brand's share.

6. Avoid clichés. Find your own words.

Turn over every rock for a solution
Put it to the acid test
Few and far between
Last but not least
Iron out

Try hard
Test thoroughly

7. Avoid vague modifiers - such as 'very' and 'slightly.' Search for the word or phrase that precisely states your meaning.

Very overspent
Slightly behind schedule

Overspent by R100,000
One day late

8. Use specific, concrete language. Avoid technical jargon. There's always a simple, down-to-earth word, which says the same thing as the show-off word.


Plain English
Limits, boundaries
Carry out
Practical, workable
To talk with
Real, actual
I think
Facts, information

9. Find the right word. Know its precise meaning. Use your online dictionary and thesaurus. Don't confuse words like these:

It's is the contraction of it is. (It's the advertising of Standard Bank.)

Its is the possessive form of it and doesn't take an apostrophe. (Standard Bank and its advertising are remarkable.)

i.e. means that is.

e.g. means for example.

When you confuse words like these, your reader is justified in concluding that you don't know any better.

10. Don't make spelling mistakes. When in doubt, check your online dictionary. Your Spellchecker should also be running continuously. Just make sure it's set to English, and not American English. There's a big difference. [Editor: Don't be totally reliant on the Spellchecker, however. Check, for instance, that "shipping can expect rough seas" is not rendered as "shipping can expect rough sees".]

If your writing is careless, the reader may reasonably doubt the thoroughness of your thinking.

11. Don't overwrite or over-state. No more words than necessary. Take the time to boil down your points.

12. Get to the point. Don't beat around the bush. Say what you think - in simple, clear sentences. Write confidently.

13. State things as simply as you can. Use familiar words and uncomplicated sentences.

14. Handle numbers consistently. Newspapers generally spell out numbers for ten and under, use numerals for 11 and up.

Don't write K when you mean thousand, or M when you mean a million. The reader may not know this code. Write R5,000 - not R5K. Write R7,000,000 (or R7 million) - not R7M.

15. Strike out needless words. Always go through your first draft once with the sole purpose of deleting all unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences.

Many pieces of writing can be improved by deleting entire paragraphs, and sometimes even whole pages.

16. Be concise, but readable. Terseness is a virtue, if not carried to extremes. Don't leave out words. Write full sentences, and make them count.

17. Be brief, simple and natural. Don't write, 'The reasons are fourfold.' Write, 'There are four reasons.'

Don't start sentences with 'importantly.' Write, 'The important point is...'

Don't write 'hopefully' when you mean 'I hope that.' 'Hopefully' means 'in a hopeful manner.' Its common misuse annoys a great many literate people.

18. Don't write like a lawyer or a bureaucrat. 'Re' is legalese meaning 'in the matter of' and is never necessary.

The slash-as in and/or is bureaucratese. Don't write. 'We'll hold the meetings on Monday and/or Tuesday.' Write, 'We'll hold the meeting on Monday or Tuesday - or both days, if necessary.'

19. Never be content with your first draft. Rewrite, with an eye toward simplifying and clarifying. Rearrange. Revise. Above all, cut.

For every major document, let time elapse between your first and second drafts - at least overnight. Then come at it with a questioning eye and a ruthless attitude.

20. Have somebody else look over your draft. When writing an important document or speech submit a draft to colleagues for editing and comment.

About James Hurford

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Michele Sohn
Well said. Reminds me this exchange in Firefly: Wash: So, I'm Zoë. Now, what do I do? Mal: Probably not talk quite so much. Wash: Right. Less talking. She's terse - I can be terse. Once, in flight school, I was laconic.
Posted on 14 Aug 2012 14:17
Murray Campbell
Mixit, Twitter and many online ways of communication don't help the cause much either, most kids can't spell because of the abbv they use in daily communication.
Posted on 15 Aug 2012 11:23
Colleen Lewis
Nice article Jamie! Simple, basic common sense about communicating in writing. I wish these 20 points could be taught in every high school classroom and to every single tertiary student in their first year at college or university.
Posted on 16 Aug 2012 16:26
Françoise Armour
So glad you included the jargon/plain English in point 8.You left out my favourite nonsensical jargon: 'going forward' - whatever happened to 'in future' or 'from now on'??
Posted on 26 Aug 2012 16:20
James Hurford
Literacy rates in South Africa are shockingly low. 30% of adults are functionally illiterate (ELRU). One of the causes of this is the lack of money to fund education. Although up to 20% of the nation's budget is spent on educational programmes, resources are not sufficient to provide every learner with the opportunity to become a confident reader and writer. While this is certainly a key factor, specialists also point out that South Africa does not have a "reading culture."
Posted on 25 Mar 2013 10:38
James Hurford
Agreed.But by how much they are destroying the English language, I don't know?TTFN.
Posted on 25 Mar 2013 10:40
James Hurford
Maybe they should be Colleen?Not a bad idea at all.
Posted on 25 Mar 2013 10:42
James Hurford
I've recently written a couple of articles about Plain language:• Plain language – a legal requirement in South Africa• Warren Buffett's guide to writing in plain English
Posted on 25 Mar 2013 10:48
Marjore Turner
James, thank you for this brilliant writing assistance. Very well explained and easy to understand. Marj of
Posted on 29 Apr 2014 10:16
James Hurford
You are welcome, Marjore. You can get more like this by downloading 'How to write well' from my website at:
Posted on 3 Jul 2014 13:04