My Three Rules Of Writing

Over the last two decades I’ve written hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of words. For every word I’ve written I’ve probably read ten times as many. Through that, and my own efforts at learning to become a better writer, I’ve learned a few things about the craft of writing.

That’s not to say I’m the next Hemingway, C.S. Lewis or JK Rowling – far from it. But I think I’ve learned enough to improve myself from a fair writer into a pretty good one. It’s my firm belief that anyone can become a good writer if they are prepared to make some effort. And I think it only takes following three simple rules to get there.

Some background and resources to help you

Usually, the resources stuff is shoved at the bottom but I think it’s worth sharing this earlier on. There are two books and a blog article I encourage you to read.

  1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B White

Written by the author of Charlotte’s Web and his student, this little book might be a little old school but it’s packed with great advice for writers. It will only take an afternoon to read but it’s a book I’ve gone back to many times when I’ve felt like I needed to sharpen my writing tools.

2. On Writing by Stephen King

This is an interesting book as it’s part memoir and part text on the craft of writing. The stories of King writing Cujo while high on cocaine, his journey to sobriety from drug addiction and survival of a harrowing car accident add to the colour of his story from writing in the local newspaper through to his wife recovering the first pages of Carrie from the rubbish to becoming one of the most popular horror/fantasy writers of all time.

3. How to get my job by Jerry Pournelle

Pournelle was one of the great sci-fi writers. But I first knew his work when he was a regular columnist for the now defunct Byte magazine. In 1999, before the word blog was coined, Pournelle wrote about how someone could come to get a job like his where he had the opportunity to write about the latest tech. He added some further information a few years later. The article can be read here. But the big piece of advice I’d suggest you follow from Pournelle is to write a lot.

Rule Number 1: Omit needless words

When you read an article, you can almost always detect when the writer is getting fluffy and adding words for their own sake.

When I started writing as a journalist, my first editor have me a piece of advice that has stayed with me. When someone pays $10 for a magazine, they may be spending all that just to read your 300 words. So make sure they get their money’s worth.

This is one of the most important rules in The Elements of Style but King adds to it. He suggests avoiding adverbs. For example, instead of saying “ran quickly” – try “sprinted”. There almost always is a single word that can replace a verb-adverb combination.

If a word doesn’t add value – kill it. If one word can replace two – do it.

Rule Number 2: Keep sentences simple

There’s a temptation to write run-on sentences. You can always pick them as they are packed with lots of commas or em dashes. Each sentence should contain a single idea. If you have more than one thing to say write another sentence.

All prose should flow with each word naturally following the one before to build sentences that flow into each other. But there needs to be a break between each idea. Just as we put spaces between words, put some space between your ideas.

Rule Number 3: Understand good grammar and when to abandon it

The rules of grammar are important. Clean syntax makes it easier to understand the ideas you are sharing. The good news is that you don’t need to dig out your high school English books to learn the rules. When you read something aloud (and I mean aloud, not in your head) you’ll hear whether or not the grammar works.

There will be times when the grammar checker on your computer offers you some advice. Often, that advice is helpful but there will be times when the technically correct grammar doesn’t help you express your ideas.

Don’t let rules constrain your creativity. But balance that with the need to be clear.