Blog | Oct 8, 2010 | 15 Comments

[six rules of writing]

[best writing advice ever!]

I want to share a few pointers about writing that have really helped me over the years. This blog post started out with just three rules, but then they mysteriously doubled…

1. Write a crappy first draft.

Give yourself permission to write junk at first. This idea comes from Anne Lamott in her excellent book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She says:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”

James Thurber said something similar:

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

My daughter recently introduced me to the concept of the “zero draft.” It’s not even an outline; it’s just your very rough thoughts in very rough order. The point is to write anything at first and, sooner or later, something good will begin to take shape.

2. There is no such thing as writer’s block.

Because I believe in crappy first drafts, I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s just another name for procrastination or lack of confidence. If you have any idea, and any resource or background material at all, you can begin writing.

3. K.I.S.S. applies to writing, too.

In my world, K.I.S.S. means starting out as if you’re writing a PowerPoint presentation, not a novel. You only have a short time to hold someone’s attention. Use simpler verbs and adjectives. Make sentences and paragraphs shorter. When you can, put shorter topics into sidebars and turn related items into bullet lists. Write, read, cut, cut, and then cut some more.

4. Choose clarity over creativity.

I wrote another blog about the importance of structure in writing. At least in business communications, well-structured copy beats great-sounding prose hands down. Don’t make your readers stop and think too much. Don’t leave them wondering what your point was. Make everything flow logically and seemingly effortlessly.

I know, this is so much easier said than done, especially with technical material. But do your very best, because your audience was probably already tired and cranky when they started reading. Don’t make it worse.




5. If you REALLY love a particular phrase, it doesn’t belong.

This is such a painful fact. I’ve noticed over the years that when I come up with a phrase that I’m sure will cause my readers to decide I’m brilliant, it will have to be cut in the end. In fact, it happened several times when I was editing this post! Maybe I fall in love with a clever concept and try to shoehorn the rest of my text around it. Then everything else becomes awkward and out-of-place.

BTW, I can occasionally salvage this kind of phrase by turning it into a headline or subhead. But more often, I just have to let it go. If this is particularly hard for me, I put it into a file of “copy orphans” that might get adopted into another piece on the same subject in the future. (Yes, I do actually label these files “Orphaned Copy.”)

6. Read everything out loud.

I still don’t know why this works but we had an interesting discussion about this process in the comments on another one of my blogs, [writing is a team sport]There is no better way to catch a mistake, a bit of awkwardness, or an unintended slide into boredom than to read your words out loud.

That’s enough for now! If you have more tips, add them in the comments.

Photo credit: Photo by Gonzalo Barrientos on flickr. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


I particularly love #1, #2 and #5. I am a victim of overusing a particular phrase just because I like it. I’ve had to beat it out of myself and I’m still a work in process.


Claire Wagner Reply:

I don’t remember when I realized this but it was a serious moment, you know? A moment when I really had to say, “Get OVER yourself.” Business writers are craftspeople who usually have to leave our egos at the door! Thanks for weighing in here.


P.S. Jones


#1 really resonates with me because for my first year of blogging I just wrote whatever came to mind. It was like one big brainstorm. Now I am in the process of going back to old posts, editing them, making their message clearer, etc. Slowly, I am learning steps 2-6. Reading out loud has helped out a lot! Also being more simple!

Great piece Claire!


Claire Wagner Reply:

Thanks, Steve. I know the same rules don’t work for every creative person – in fact we rebel against rules a lot of the time! But these ideas have helped me, even though I will never be a perfect practitioner of them.




I love your list. I’m going to jot it down and post it to my bulletin board. As I read #4 (Clarity), I thought, hmm, keeping a conversational tone might help in avoiding that, I wonder if reading out loud would help. And lo and behold, there it was in #6! I might start by whispering since I work at home and don’t want my boyfriend to think I’m completely losing it. Thanks!


Claire Wagner Reply:

Deirdre, I mumble out loud when I’m “proof-speaking,” but fortunately, no one else is usually at home! Glad you found this useful. I agree about keeping things more conversational. I think my clients are finally learning to let go of forcing every concept they can think of into a piece (something that happens a lot in high-tech communication), and letting writers speak more casually to their audiences. Thanks!


Deirdre Reid


[…] Wagner discusses Six Rules of Writing and if you take into account these rules, you’ll be in good […]

Claire, I totally agree about reading one’s work aloud. I made an audio version of one of my e-books, one that I thought I had thoroughly proofread, and I found several major errors. And, of course, actually hearing the words helps us weed out clunky sentences.


John Soares


Rudolph Flesch – tell your reader how you became an expert, don’t talk at them like you already know stuff, and are handing it down from on high – re-tell the steps you took to get there.


Claire Wagner Reply:

I like that thought for article or blog writing. Thanks!


Catherine G. Tripp


Yes, it’s all true. In my professional life, I have a similar first-draft technique that I’ve given the highly technical term “sh*tting it out.” Write any old sh*t, just get it out. When I’m stuck, I even include my fumbling for words or ideas in square brackets in the draft. I’ll write, “Then you [something like, you just get it down on paper] in your draft.” At the end of my first draft, rather than obsess about how bad it might be, I think: Well, it’s 100% more draft than I had before.


Claire Wagner Reply:

Helen, brilliant! Write and move on without regrets. You sound like a real pro. Thanks for the inspiration this morning when I am stuck in a particularly difficult writing project.


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