Writing style

What the experts say

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a machine should have no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word should tell.
William Strunk – Elements of Style

Read your composition, and when you meet with a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Dr Samuel Johnson

Characteristically, I failed to realise it at first. But gradually the sheer weight of negative evidence began to convince me that writing is essentially a matter of saying things in the right order.
Clive James

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.
Sydney Smith

The first rule for good style is to have something to say; in fact this in itself is almost enough.

The first essential is to know what one wishes to say; the second is to decide to whom one wishes to say it.
Harold Nicholson

The first rule of style is to have something to say. The second rule of style is to control yourself when, by chance, you have two things to say; say first one, then the other, not both at the same time.
George Polya

A writer’s most precious commodity is space. Space is time for the writer and reader alike. Verbosity clouds meaning. Brevity is always a virtue, in phrases, sentences, whole passages of writing.
The Times Guide to English Style and Usage

There are no dull subjects, just dull writing. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say then say it as simply as possible.
The Economist Style Guide

  1. Never use a METAPHOR, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a SHORT WORD will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always CUT it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the ACTIVE.
  5. Never use a FOREIGN PHRASE, a SCIENTIFIC word or a JARGON word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell

Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured). Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).

Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination). Use positive words (he was poor) not negative ones (he was not rich – the reader at once wants to know, how not rich was he?).

Use the active voice (police took no action) not the passive voice (no action was taken).

Don’t overstate: fell is starker than plunged.

Don’t lard the story with emotive or ‘dramatic’ words {astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).

Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that).

Don’t use words thoughtlessly. (Waiting ambulances don’t rush victims to hospital. Waiting ambulances wait. Meteors fall, so there can be no meteoric rise. )

Don’t use auxiliaries or conditionals (was, might, would, should, may, etc.) unless you have to. (Mrs Thatcher is a political Florence Nightingale, not Mrs Thatcher might be termed a political Florence Nightingale.)

Don’t use unknown quantities (very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?).

Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.

Don’t use wrong prepositions. (Check them for sense: we may agree on this point; you may agree with this opinion; he may agree to this proposal.)

Don’t use jargon, clichés, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym of mother).

Use short sentences, but not all of the same length. A succession of one-clause sentences is monotonous and wearying.

Avoid elaborate construction. Take the sentence to pieces and recast it -probably as two sentences. If a sentence reads as if it has something wrong with it, it has something wrong with it. Whether your are motoring to see Mum play trains in a railway museum or take in a stately home, this long Spring weekend can bring agony and death is technically correct, but ugly.

Don’t vary your rhythms for the sake of it. He was not ill, and neither was he poor is unnecessary variation. But there is a dramatic unity in He was not ill. He was not poor.

Even in a chronological narrative, the story should not start before it begins. John Smith was really looking forward to his dinner starts too early; the reader wants the dinner. Compare this with the opening of a short story by O Henry: so I went to the doctor. A whole paragraph has happened offstage, and the reader is plunged straight into the action.

Words are facts. Check them {spelling and meaning) as you would any other.
Keith Waterhouse


If, after all this advice, a sentence still reads awkwardly, then what you have there is an awkward sentence. Demolish it and start again.
Keith Waterhouse


The way a story is written must match the subject, the mood and pace of the events described and, above all, the needs of the reader. The style must arouse their interest and maintain it throughout. It must also present the facts or arguments in a way that enables the reader to understand them quickly and easily. For example:

  1. If the subject is serious, treat it seriously.
  2. If the subject is light, treat it lightly – for example, use a delayed-drop intro or a punning headline.
  3. Whatever the subject, do not needlessly offend the reader. Thus, where a story concerns eccentric beliefs or practices, avoid cynicism and facetiousness.
  4. Where a story concerns events that have action and movement, the style should suggest pace. Write tersely; avoid superfluous adjectives and adverbs; use direct, active verbs; construct crisp, taut sentences.
  5. Where a story concerns a sequence of events, a straightforward narrative style may be the best bet. If you use one event to create impact in the intro, remember to repeat the reference in its proper time context. Also, make sure your tenses are consistent.
  6. Where a story concerns stark, horrific events, avoid the temptation to overwrite. The events themselves will provide all the impact you need.
  7. Whatever the story, don’t rhapsodise. Remember that understatement is usually more effective than overstatement.

Be direct: get to the point. For example:

  1. Prefer the short, Anglo-Saxon word to the long, Latinate one.
  2. Prefer the concrete statement to the abstract one.
  3. Prefer the direct statement to any form of circumlocution.
  4. Avoid words or phrases that merely sound good.
  5. Avoid pomposity at all costs.
  6. Remember that a sentence must have at least one verb -and that this is its most important word.
  7. In general, use transitive verbs in the active voice: Jones told the meeting he was resigning.
  8. Choose adjectives with care and don’t use too many. Avoid tautology: ‘a new innovation’.
  9. In general, prefer the short sentence to the long one, particularly in the intro.
  10. Avoid over-complex sentences full of subordinate clauses and phrases.

Wynford Hicks

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