Writing Tips

by Mike Shea on 25 December 2004

Here is a full list of writing tips in text / HTML format instead of the normal PDF sheet:

Orwell's Rules
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never us a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Edward Tufte's Presentation Rules
Show up early: Something good is bound to happen.
Lay out the problem:who cares about it and what the solution is.
When presenting complicated material, follow PGP (particular/general/particular).
When you talk, TALK: avoid the obvious reliance on notes.
Give everyone in your audience a piece of paper.
Match the information density in your presentation to the highest resolution newspapers.
Avoid overhead projectors. Keep the lights up in the room.
Never apologize.
Use humor, but make it relevant and never irritating.
Use gender-neutral speech.
Practice intensely beforehand.
Meetings have a very low rate of information transfer.
Take questions, but NEVER condescend to the questioner.
Keep in mind that most questions arise from personal concerns.
Express enthusiasm about your material, but only if your enthusiasm is real.
Finish early.

Orwell's Questions
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Strunk and White: Principles Of Composition
Choose a suitable design
Use the active voice
Put statements in positive form
Use definite, specific, concrete language
Omit needless words
Place yourself in the background
Write naturally
Write with nouns and verbs
Revise and rewrite
Do not overwrite
Avoid qualifiers
Do not affect a breezy manner
Use orthodox spelling
Do not explain too much
Do not construct awkward adverbs
Avoid fancy words
Avoid dialect
Avoid mixing languages
Prefer the standard to the offbeat

Evil Passive Verbs
is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, I'm,
it's, he's, here's, she's, that's, there's, they're,
we're, what's, who's, you're

Heinlein's Rules
You Must Write
Finish What You Start
You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
You Must Put Your Story on the Market
You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
Start Working on Something Else

Vonnegut's Short Story Rules
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.*
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

Evil Metaphors and Phrases
on steroids
think outside the box
longpole in the tent
stove pipe
the long and short of it is
the fact (of the matter) is
reinvent the wheel
open a can of worms
talk off line
herding cats
same sheet of music
at the end of the day
to be honest with you
on a weekly basis
touch base
building bridges
teach how to fish
keep the plates spinning
run it up the flag pole
sooner rather than later
lessons learned
zero tolerance
self licking ice cream cone
not ready for prime time
barking up the wrong tree
holding feet to the fire
the cart before the horse
goat rope
ground truth
devil is in the details
break down barriers
food fight
bear fruit
sense of urgency
dog in the fight
with all due respect
utilize (prefer use)
low hanging fruit
slippery slope
straw man
work in a vacuum
grease the skids
let a thousand flowers bloom
red herring
leaning forward in the saddle
ahead of the curve
crawl, walk, run
cookie cutter