How do you write stuff that’s worth reading? Paul McHenry Roberts’s How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words provides tips and techniques, which online blogger Dosh Dosh has summarised as follows:
- Avoid the obvious content. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too. Even if your ideas are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too.
- Take the less usual side. Essays, in particular, are intellectual exercises, and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now another, as debaters do in similar circumstances. Always take the that looks to you hardest, least defensible. It will almost always turn out to be easier to write interestingly on that side.
- Slip out of abstraction. Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples.
- Get rid of obvious padding. Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the padding, to make your sentences lean and tough… You dig up more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the details. You illustrate.
- Call a fool a fool. If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your writing. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.
- Beware of pat expressions. Other things being equal, avoid phrases like “other things being equal.” Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup… No writer avoids them altogether, but good writers avoid them more often than poor writers.
- Colourful words. Colourful words are calculated to produce a picture or induce an emotion. They are dressy instead of plain, specific instead of general, loud instead of soft. Thus, in place of “Her heart beat,” we may write, “her heart pounded, throbbed, fluttered, danced.” Instead of “He sat in his chair,” we may say, “he lounged, sprawled, coiled.”
- Coloured words. “When we hear a word, we hear with it an echo of all the situations in which we have heard it before. The word mother, for example, has, for most people, agreeable associations. When you hear mother you probably think of home, safety, love, food, and various other pleasant things..The question of whether to use loaded words or not depends on what is being written.”
- Colourless words. “A pet example is nice, a word we would find it hard to dispense with in casual conversation but which is no longer capable of adding much to a description. Colorless words are those of such general meaning that in a particular sentence they mean nothing…Slang adjectives like cool (”That’s real cool”) tend to explode all over the language. They are applied to everything, lose their original force, and quickly die.”