Good writing a matter of know-how and instinct

February 23, 2011

It’s been said that writing can’t be taught. And it’s true that recognizing the difference between good and bad writing can be more about instinct than knowing the rules. Aside from basics like spelling and grammar, when copy feels right, it probably is right. When a piece of writing makes you stumble, wander or roll your eyes, something is wrong. Like playing a musical instrument, writing well requires a combination of inspiration and calculation, but some solid technique definitely helps:

  • Complete all of your interviews and other research before you start writing. Creating a confident, authoritative tone depends on it.
  • Unless you’re writing a long feature story, get to the point — the so-called “nut graph” — right away. The reader should never wonder where the piece is going. Make your point and then follow it with supporting specifics. This structure can also apply to individual paragraphs.
  • Chances are, you use too many words. Make multiple self-editing runs to remove verbiage and tighten sentences, making them more readable and engaging.
  • Hyphenate compound modifiers, such as “short-term loan.” Without the hyphen, the words seem disconnected and are hard to read.
  • Keep your sentences simple. Anyone can write confusing sentences; it takes work to make them simple and clear. And no one is impressed by longwinded or haughty language.
  • Find the music, the rhythm and melody. Do the words and syllables please the ear?
  • Avoid repetition — not only of words, but of sentence structures. Alternate straight declarative sentences with those starting with a dependent clause. (“It was windy and raining the day Karen started her new job. Holding an umbrella over her head, she ran from her car to the office door.”)
  • Maintain parallel verb structures. Especially in longer sentences, be careful that the first verb tense used after the subject is also used when another action is connected to that subject later in the sentence. “The car slid off the icy road and knocked over a mailbox, sending a flurry of envelopes into the air, and then stopped when it hit a tree.”
  • Use a real dictionary. If you have any doubt about a word’s denotation or connotation, look it up. Don’t rely on Google.
  • Trust your instincts. If you’re not sure what’s wrong with your copy, keep revising until it feels right.
Greg Beaubien

Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s publications.


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