0828091There are timeless, proven principles of good writing. Even if you aren’t naturally gifted at writing, following these guidelines can elevate you to the status of a competent writer. Add a little creativity (which anyone can develop) and you can be a good writer. Mix in some God-given natural talent and you’ll be on the way to being a great writer if you do the hard work.

In this post I’m going to cover nine and one half golden principles of writing. You could list about a hundred, and they have all been around since God wrote the 10 commandments demonstrating perfect use of these principles. I claim no original thoughts here, just the effort of spitting them out in my own style of teaching. We’ll cover:

  1. Write Like a Grave Stone: Keeping the End in Mind
  2. Six Basic Types of Writing: Knowing the Structure
  3. Less Is More: Knife the Unnecessary Words
  4. Break It Down for the Reader: Let Them Know What You Want Them to Know
  5. Make It About You but Not About You: Personalizing Grabs the Person
  6. Help the Reader Across the Puddle: Use Transition Words to Guide and Connect
  7. Don’t, and Do, Use Long Sentences:  Length Makes a Big Difference
  8. Simple Is Not Simply Simple: Writing for the Reader
  9. Birds of a Feather Live on the Page Together: Organizing the Content

Write Like a Grave Stone: Keeping the End in Mind

No, it doesn’t mean to write like you’re going to kill your readers with boredom. What do you typically find on a gravestone? Answer: an epitaph.

An epitaph is a summary of the person’s life. Usually it’s untrue because it’s written by someone who doesn’t want to put “here lies a jerk, and life’s a whole lot easier now that he’s gone”. Imagine though, if you could write your own epitaph while still alive and then live your life in such a way as to make the epitaph come true.

This is how you should write. By that I mean you should keep the end in mind at the beginning. In other words, begin your writing by stating exactly where you’re going to end up. Tell the reader up front what you’re going to tell them. Write from the top down.

This goes against our logical flow of thinking where we naturally want to write all of the supporting details and then wrap it up by telling the reader what it is we want them to learn, understand or experience. Instead, what you want to do is present the goal (epitaph) right up front so 1) you are assuring reader interest if they continue, and 2) you are helping the reader to better comprehend your content. Let me explain…

By telling the reader up front what you’re going to communicate to them, you let the reader decide if they are interested in the first place. If not, you have done them a favor by not wasting their time and letting them get to the end and discover “I didn’t really care about this in the first place. If I had known what it was about, I would’ve never invested the time in reading.” That’s a good thing. Not every reader is going to be interested in everything you write. By giving them the choice, you are valuing their time and showing them respect. If the reader decides up front the content is not what they are looking for, they leave feeling appreciative you have not wasted their time and trusted them to decide.  At the least, you haven’t annoyed them.

Second, by declaring the summary of your content up front you help the reader to better comprehend the rest of the content because they are filtering it through the explanation you’ve provided. If you wait till the end to let the cat out of the bag, the reader is in a continual guessing game which is distracting and significantly cuts down on your ability to lock in the reader emotionally. If the reader knows what you’re trying to accomplish from the start, then with each supporting point or detail you get the mental nod of approval from the reader. In contrast, if you don’t write from the top down, the reader will be thinking “what’s the point?” instead of “great point!”.

The content most remembered and recommended is the content most clearly understood, and of  high interest to them. By stating first thing exactly what the reader is to know or achieve by the end of your content, you guarantee a high level of interest because they have already chosen to continue reading, and you have given them the decoder key to understanding the body of the content.

Six Basic Types of Writing: Knowing the Structure

There are six basic types of writing structure. Referencing the structures as you decide on your content will not only help you write in a more organized and readable fashion, it can also be a creative inspiration. Just reading over the different structures can give you an idea for something to write.

  1. Categorical: a discussion about a certain topic or group of related items. There is no real order of importance and the key to the structure is a logical grouping or predictable pattern in presenting detail about each.
  2. Evaluative: this is where you look at two sides of something, the pros and cons, the positives and negatives, the advantages and disadvantages. You are evaluating one thing vs. another such as “Ford or Chevy?”. It can also be in the form of “this but that”. For example, “it’s nice but too expensive”.
  3. Chronological: the structure follows some sort of linear timeline, a succession of events such as past, present, and future… or before, during and after.
  4. Comparative: unlike categorical structure, comparative assigns value to the topic or related items and then discusses various attributes that make up those values. It might be comparing one product to another or why one goal is more important than the other.
  5. Sequential: the sequential structure discusses a topic from first to last, or in reverse. It goes from one logical point to the next. Examples could be 1) the stages of pregnancy, or 2) the responsibility of a citizen as an individual, part of a community and part of a nation.
  6. Causal: this is writing about cause and effect. The typical order is to write about the cause first and follow with the results or effects of the cause. For example, you might discuss the causes of rising unemployment and how it affects a nation, or you might write about what causes bad bad blog posts and how it affects your audience (no jokes or comments, I know I left myself wide open on that one).

When you begin to write, know what you’re going to write and which type of structure it is. This will allow you to quickly jot down an appropriate outline which fits a particular structure and keeps you focused while you’re writing. If you have never practiced this you will be amazed at how much easier it is to write if you have deliberately thought about what type of writing you are attempting.

Just referencing the structures can help you come up with ideas. For example, if my passion is cars and I’m trying to figure out something to write, I could look at this list and think “I can write about a certain type of car” (categorical); “I could compare hybrid cars to traditional fuel cars” (comparative); or “I could write about what causes the oil to break down in an engine and what effects it has on the durability of the vehicle” (causal).

Less Is More: Knife the Unnecessary Words

The hallmark of the novice or lazy writer is too many words (I would say untalented but it wouldn’t be very nice). Even for seasoned writers, it is easy to include a significant amount of unnecessary words because it is hard work to intensely evaluate each word for necessity.

Unnecessary words rob your mind of mental energy which could be used to capture and comprehend the necessary words.  Unnecessary words run the risk of diluting or confusing your message. Unnecessary words belabor the point and potentially wear out your reader.

When you first begin writing, the natural tendency is to think more words are better. More explanation, more qualifiers, more superlatives are felt necessary to bolster the message. A lot of unnecessary words are simply due to immature writing skill or poor vocabulary. Another primary cause is many authors like to hear themselves talk. As humans, we are innately insecure and feel more words equate to more substance. In writing, the exact opposite is true. It’s not more words that are important, it’s “necessary words”, no matter how many or how few.

For example, you might think “a genuinely very well-written sentence” is making a more powerful statement than “a well-written sentence” but it’s not. If a sentence is well-written than it is already implied it is very well-written and it is genuinely well-written. As a rule, you should go through your writing and get rid of most instances of these words: very, really, highly, mostly, truly, basically, so, kind of, and somewhat.

A sidebar here: did you know the word “that” is unnecessary about 9 out of 10 times it’s used? Go through your writing and remove the word “that” unless it actually destroys the intent of the sentence. For bonus points, which word in the previous sentence is unnecessary?

Break It Down for the Reader: Let Them Know What You Want Them to Know

As a former drill sergeant, we always followed a familiar pattern in training and communicating.

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them
  • Tell them
  • Tell them what you just told them you were going to tell them

This is very similar to the idea of breaking it down for the reader. As I mentioned above, write from the top down, opening with a clear explanation in summary of what you intend to communicate to the reader.

Next, you proceed to fulfill the summary by telling them whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. In this section you want to break down your points logically so the reader again is completely prepared to comprehend what’s coming. This is easier to demonstrate than it is to talk about. Here’s an example:

  • I’m going to teach you why marriage is so important.
  • Marriage is important to the stability of the nation.
  • Marriage is important to the emotional health of individuals.
  • Marriage is important to the growth and security of children.

In this example I’ve stated up front what I am going to communicate to you. Then I broke it down into three points to support what I intend to explain. As a general rule, limit yourself to three or four points. Within each point, take the same logical approach if you need more than one sub point to effectively communicate the parent point.

This logical structure allows your readers to stay engaged and not feel overwhelmed or lost as they read your content.

Make It about You but Not about You: Personalizing Grabs the Person

There’s a big difference between enhancing your blog with your personality and experience versus making the blog about YOU. The former is the ability to add your personal style, experience, preference and opinion in order to personalize the content which is more engaging than dry, detached words.

Making your writing about YOU (in the negative sense) is writing in such a way as to manipulate the reader for your own advantage in whatever form that may take. It’s a selfish mindset that the reader exists for you, and not the other way around. This could also be in the form of boasting, self-aggrandizement and narcissism. If your writing is about YOU in the bad sense, you’ll alienate your readers very quickly.

Personalizing your content helps your writing to be interesting, unique, and heartfelt which builds loyalty and mind share in the reader. “Mind share” is a fancy term encapsulating the idea your writing is memorable and easy to recall. Personal stories, anecdotes, lessons learned and experiences transform lifeless writing into vibrant engaging content.

Help the Reader across the Puddle: Use Transition Words to Guide and Connect

I’ve never actually witnessed it or done it but remember the scene where a man takes off his jacket and covers a mud puddle so the pretty lady can walk from one side to the other? In the same way, good writers use transition words to help the reader from one thought to the next. There are four types of transition words:

  1. Conclusion: this draws a thought to a close and neatly summarizes it for the reader. Example — “Therefore, you should read Brent’s blogs every day if you really want to be considered a smart person.” (sorry, couldn’t resist and it’s probably not the last)
  2. Continuation: this transition type continues one thought into the next tying them together for the reader. Example — “On the one hand, reading Brent’s blogs every day might cause brain damage…” (See, I’m fair)
  3. Illustration: a transition word or phrase which connects to a descriptive or supportive detail, or a list of supporting examples. Example — “For instance, I know one person who is now extraordinarily smart simply because he read Brent’s blogs every day.” (Not actually true, demonstration purposes only)
  4. Contrasting: this type of transition highlights one thought against another. Example — “However, there is no proof reading Brent’s blog’s has ever done anyone any good.”

Learn to use transition words and phrases to guide the reader logically through what you are trying to communicate. Have you ever been to a mall or an airport and have absolutely no clue where to go or how to find things? Contrast it with one which has clear signage and clues all around as to how to proceed such as different colors meaning different things, carpet designs naturally leading you in the right direction, lighting which  highlights the areas of importance, and overall design that makes you feel it is easy to know where you’re at and how to get to where you want to go. (that’s my long sentence for the day thrown in for variety…)

This is known as industrial design and is a very deliberate practice most people are unaware of. In the same sense, our writing should be deliberately full of clues to guide and assist the reader even if they are not aware of those clues. Transition words and phrases are a big part of great design.

Don’t, and Do, Use Long Sentences: Length Makes a Big Difference

Don’t use long sentences. Make sure you use long sentences. Contradictory advice? No, let me explain.

As a general rule you do not want to have long sentences. The longer the sentence, the harder it is to read, to pull out the pertinent thoughts and follow the logic of the author. So you want to use short sentences which are quickly comprehended and which logically string together your points or thoughts.

However, if all you wrote were short sentences then your writing would be monotonous and choppy. Where appropriate, you want to insert and deliberately use the long sentence to provide variety and depth.

Short sentences are a necessity given today’s typical vocabulary and reading level. I’m often amused when I read the apostle Paul in the Bible and see how he strings together several thoughts into one long paragraph. Sometimes you really do have to labor to follow the thoughts and see the entire sentence is a comprehensive whole. This is another statement about how far communication skills have declined in our society, not an example of Paul’s verbosity.

Verbosity? That segues us neatly into the next point (segues?)…

Simple Is Not Simply Simple: Writing for the Reader

Remember that you are writing for the reader. No matter how much you are in love with the $12 word that shows how smart you are, if the reader cannot understand it, it’s not only useless, it’s counterproductive. You will confuse the reader, insult the reader or simply fail to communicate what you promised in your opening summary.

There’s a fine line between dumbing down your content and writing with a level of complexity that is challenging and interesting to the reader. Where that line exists has a lot to do with the type of content. If you are teaching or instructing then the simpler the better. If you’re writing creatively, rhetorically or with humor, there’s more leeway with the vocabulary level. Of course with technical or professional material you want to use the vocabulary appropriate to the reading skill of that audience.

Time and experience will help you learn the difference between “wow, what an intelligent and thoughtful author” and “what a blowhard who loves to impress himself with big words”. When in doubt, go simple.

I played an April Fool’s joke on my family blog last year saying that I had been arrested, and was in jail on charges of “odious versification”.  In that instance, the high falootin’ words served a purpose.

Birds of a Feather Live on the Page Together: Organizing the Content

Finally, make sure your writing is organized and logical. Scattered thoughts dumped on a page will quickly lose the reader. The rarely broken rule in good writing is to finish a thought or complete your discussion about a certain topic before moving onto the next. It is difficult for the reader to move to the next point at hand and suddenly find themselves considering a detail about something you’ve already covered. The reader has to stop, recall the last topic, then go back to the current thought and get back on track. It’s tiring just talking about it.

Don’t confuse the idea of organizing your content and keeping thoughts together with monotonous or boring. You can have paragraph structures that adhere to this principle and still look like this:

Point A
Point B
Point C

or…

Point A, B, C
Point A, B, C
Point A, B, C

In the first example you finish completely discussing Point A before moving to Point B. In the second example, you talk about Point A, B and C consecutively three times. The structure of the second example is just as logical and easy to follow as the first. An illogical and confusing example would be:

Point A
Point A, C
Point B
Point B, A

If the flow of your content is organized, the reader’s mind naturally follows without difficulty or confusion. On the other hand, if you’re just spewing out the thoughts as they come to you, the reader has little chance of staying engaged or concluding with what you stated in your opening (which probably doesn’t exist anyway if you are writing with no regard for organization).

And Now for the One Half…

So what’s this “one half” business all about? It’s about creating a feeling of expectation in your writing. The whole idea of listing 9 1/2 principles was to immediately get you to decide you wanted to read until you figured out what the one half was. Why? Because it’s out of the ordinary and human nature has a natural curiosity when we come across something that has departed from the usual.

My little 9 1/2 gimmick may or may not be the most clever example, but it does get the point across about using something creative in your writing to make it stand out from the crowd and cause the reader to perk up and take notice. Even better, you hope to create a real desire in the reader to want to finish reading because of expectation and curiosity.

Include in your writing something that cultivates a curiosity and expectation that carries the reader through to the end of your piece, much in the same way people hung on every minute of the TV show “Dallas” to find out who shot JR (that’s really showing my age, isn’t it?).

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Incorporate these principles into your writing routinely and consistently. Whether you are a novice writer or an experienced author, the guidelines I’ve explained here are part of the foundation of producing great content that will help you attract new readers and build loyalty in existing ones.

Note: it is almost impossible to credit anyone for these principles because they are so common and have been around for so long. I do want to point you to one classic book on writing in case you’ve never heard of it. These principles and many more, as well as other great tips, can be found in: The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal. It is an excellent book for writers at any level and I highly recommend you get a copy if you have aspirations of being a successful blogger or author.

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