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4 Basic Premises of Writing from My Fortune Cookie

By: Elaine Fogel

 

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If you’re like me, you are compelled to open every fortune cookie after a Chinese-food dinner—even if you don’t eat them. There’s something that draws us in, whether we believe in Confucius sayings and simple predictions or not.

 
A few months ago, one fortune cookie held my attention enough that it still sits on my desk today. And, it provides sound insight about writing. With Words Matter Week approaching (March 2-8), I think it’s apropos to share my fortune cookie’s contents.
 
“Four basic premises of writing,” it says. 
 
  • Clarity
  • Brevity
  • Simplicity
  • Humanity
 
Now, how true is that? Let’s look at each one.
 
Clarity
 
The point of writing is to convey a specific message or story clearly so the intended audience “gets it.” Margot Carmichael Lester of The Word Factory has some good advice on her blog post, “Content: Writing with clarity.” She offers three tools to help improve clarity: thinking, revising, and jargonizing. While you’re reading her post, check out her other content.
 
Other good tips come from Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing in a 2013 Forbes article.
 
  • Start by writing short, declarative sentences. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or any kind of jargon if you can think of an English equivalent.
  • When you’re composing an e-mail, make your point and move on.
  • Use plain English, and be specific.
  • Curb your enthusiasm. Avoid overusing exclamation points, regardless of how energized or friendly you might feel.
  • Whenever possible, use active instead of passive verbs.
  • Choose pronouns wisely, and don’t be afraid to use “me.”
  • Beware of common grammatical mistakes, like subject-verb agreement.
 
Brevity
 
 
A great copywriter knows how to trim the fat from any article to craft relevant, engaging content that wins an audience.  Anyone can write huge chunks of content. A more challenging task is writing a piece that gets to the point and captures the readers’ attention.
 
Her three things to consider when writing your piece:
 
  1. Concise writing is the hallmark of purposeful, economical, and effective communication. You can often shorten your article 20 percent or more without losing content.
  2. Don’t write a piece to meet a certain word count. Write the content and worry about the word count later.
  3. It takes more work to write a short post. You may find you spend more time editing than you do writing.
 
Simplicity
 
 
… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
 
Flowery, overly descriptive sentences don’t always make for simple writing.
 
Humanity
 
In a blog post for PhD students, Daniel Harris offers this advice on science writing: “You’re a human, so write like one.”
 
I can’t think of anything else to add here. That statement says it all.
 
Do you have any additional writing tips to share?
 
This article was originally published by Elaine Fogel
Published: March 4, 2014
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