First: Here is a random selection of the tips everybody gives new
Show, rather than tell. Easier said than done, but what you should be trying to do is to paint a picture of the world and allow that to evoke the readers senses and emotions, instead of telling her what you want her to see and feel.
Keep it simple. Sometimes sentences have to stretch out, and sometimes long or highfalutin words are the only ones that can convey your exact meaning; but usually not. Long sentences and long words are to be considered guilty until proven innocent.
Keep it simple, but not too simpledont let short, choppy
sentences clomp along one after another. Replace a period with a comma or even dare a
colon (for a list) or a semicolon (for another idea).
Remember the reader is not in your headis not following your
thought processesmust be shown the way youre going, might have to be told the
steps in your thinking. For example, be careful about overusing pronounsuse specific
nouns more than once, rather than risk stopping the reader in his tracks to sort out hes
or shes or its.
Use verbs in active, not passive voice (not the thing is done; someone does it); positive, not negative descriptors (sad, not not happy; slow, not not very fast).
Learn and use the differences between who and whom, that and which, affect and effect, and so on. (Of course it makes a difference, thats why there are two different words!)
Be parsimonious with contractions; they do not belong in prose of any formality.
Latin abbreviations dont belong in any prose but research papersand not in there so much, either; and so on is what people say, not etc.or even et cetera; no i.e. but that is, no e.g. but for example (and since youre not to use them any more, its too late to get straight in your mind the difference between e.g. and i.e.).
Next: Here are some rather crotchety but kindly meant tips for more experienced practitioners.
You have a style, whether you want one or not. To say of prose that it is without style is like saying of a day that it has no weather. You cannot write a paragraph that doesnt have something of yourself in it. Maybe a very good, very disciplined writer, concentrating hard, can make a sentence or twono more.
Much follows from that understanding.
1. Follow every rule you ever heard about correct writing; that will keep you from writing terrible prose. Remember all those stultifying rules from Strunk and White, Fowlers, from editors, teachersyes, even journalism teachersthat try to take out all thats distinctive and characterful about your work. Remember every rule you can, and follow them all to the very best of your ability: always active voice, not passive, always in positive terms, not negative, always plain words, not fancy, always get your effects with words and sentences, not with punctuation or typographyall those. When you really cant say what you need to say following all those rulesgo back and think again, try harder, get rid of thatwhen finally you absolutely cantthink again some more; all right, now, maybe youve found a case where what you need to say actually requires a distinctive expression.
In any expanse of prose beyond a few dozen words, a few of those will be irreducible. They will be more than enough to keep your distinctive voice alive.
2. However diligently youve complied with 1. as you composed your first draft, your first job on your second time throughyour first editorial pass, which is your first as a real writeris to get rid of every one of those last few. You can be confident that what is left will still have plenty of styleyour stylein it.
3. Something else that follows: There are some kinds of work you really cant dothat is to say, there are readerships you wont be able to satisfy. Readers who like that sort of work, whatever it is, will not enjoy having you murmur in their ear at length. No matter how you attempt to suppress it, they will hear your voice, and they will be uncomfortable with it in one way or another; at very least, they just wont believe you.
You might not guess in advance which kinds those are, though, and Im not saying you can never for a moment fake thisplay a role, as it wereonly that there are some roles you will never be able to play.
There is a spectrum of editorial functions with no distinct lines separating them: production editor, copyeditor, line editor, desk editor, developmental editor . . . differing chiefly (for our purposes, now) in the intensity of the intervention. Were going to ignore that. At whatever level of intervention, all the following is true.
1. If your stuff isnt strong enough to bear editing, its poor stuff.
2. Editors are supposed to edit; that is, theyre actually supposed to do something to your prose.
If youve ever been an employer, and had an employee that you trained come up with an idea that never would have occurred to you, you may recognize the thrill in thatits as if you were suddenly smarter than you knew. You can derive the same pleasure from being edited. You should end up with a better piece of work as a result of the process, no matter how enjoyable or angst-ridden the process.
And finally: Heres a mini-manual on typesetting style that may be of interest (though possibly not until you see your pages set in type).
This is a nearly random selection
of rules and principles that govern the choices the publisher makes about typeface,
punctuation (inside parentheses? Outside quote marks? Serial commas?), capitalization, and
the likerather than to the choices a writer makes in tone, rhythm, emphasis,
attitude. . . . Most, as it happens, will be
of interest only to nonfiction authors. All are based on publishers
style manuals, standard dictionaries, and/or The Chicago Manual of Style.
There are many occasions when
sense, usage, and the rules require differing treatments of similar-looking elements
according to their different applicationsthat is, when they have different
grammatical functions. In this way apparent or superficial inconsistencies may appear in
your eyes. Some explicit examples are given in the following paragraphs. Others may be
inferred from what is given (for the first example: Well see that foreign terms are
italicized or not depending on someones judgment about their standing as adopted
words, and thus two apparently similar terms could appear on the same page, one
italicized, one not).
Foreign terms are only rarely to be italicized. The rule
of thumb is to ask yourself, will any reader of this book not recognize the term and know
its meaning at once (in other words, has it de facto joined our language)? Ab ovo, ad
hoc, in vitro, liaison, rendezvous might all have been italicized some generations
ago; no more. If in doubt, look in a dictionary; if it should be italicized, it will be
italicized there. (This guidance does not apply in legal writings; the rules are different
for the Latin they use.)
You are never required to use the
little ® or TM with them. Unless youre their owner. The owners of
trademarks use the little superscripts as a way of letting the world know they own the
marks/names; indeed, they're generally required to do that to show due diligence in
protecting their marks status as owned and ownable. But they cant make you use
them and, more to the point, you do them (the owners) no harm whatever by eschewing the
superscripts. That is, so long as youre talking about the specific product the mark
applies to. It is bad form to use a trademarked name to mean something general: to
say Kleenex (or, worse, kleenex) when you mean tissue is the most
obvious example. That indeed does damage to the owner, by diluting its trademark
protectionif that sort of generic usage becomes widespread, trademark protection is
destroyed. But if youre talking explicitly about Microsofts operating system,
or Apples little music gizmo, youre perfectly free to call it Windows, or XP,
or iPod, without adding one of those superscripts. (Any more than youd have to say,
He drove up in a Buick®.)
The whole idea of setting items
in a list formatnumbered, unnumbered, lettered, bulletedis to put each item on
display, to emphasize it by isolating it; it is not to create flowing text. Item-end
punctuation is inappropriate (even if the list is introduced as though it was a flowing
sentence, each item a clause). Except that an item that is a complete sentence
needs a period (or a question mark)a complete sentence always requires end
One upshot of that is that some
lists in a book might have line-end punctuation (lists made up of whole sentences) and
some have none. Some lists could even have some items end in a period, and the rest end in
nothing; but that does irritate the eyes, so each list probably should be, as most are,
constructed of either all complete sentences, or all not.
it out of italics, and dont capitalize it. You are not required to reproduce the
publications apparent usage in this matterthis is not the equivalent of a
books title. In speech one usually (though not always) uses the the in
referring to, say, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, whether the
publication itself includes it in its own typography or not; but in type it is neatest to
treat the the as separate from the specific identifier wordseasiest to
achieve consistency if that is consistently done. That avoids eye-irritating apparent
inconsistencies between publications that, according to their various preferences, do and
those that dont; theres no wrestling with ambiguities when a publication uses
one style on masthead and another on p. 1 and, maybe, yet another in the corporate name in
which it copyrights matter.
Usage and style conventions are evolving even as we sit
here chatting. It can be said at this time:
.com (on the theory that the readers eye might be inclined to stop at a punctuation at lines end). We have begun to see (in the New York Times, for example) breaking at midword (or in the midst of an alphabetic string), picking up on the next line with no hyphen: artichoke@hearts/hollan
daise.org, but that solution has not, so far, come to be widely established (even in the Times).
There are some subtly defined or eccentric exceptions on
both sides, but youll be pretty safe following this simple rule: A prefix or a
suffixa construct that isnt a word by itselfadded to a word almost never
takes a hyphen; it simply becomes part of the word its part of: semipermanent,
postpartum, miniskirt, antebellum. But when two words are joined, the hyphen remains
in place: hard-wired, well-being. After long use, though, such words tend to grow
together: trademark is one of many in English (basketball, deerskin . . . in
some dictionaries, wellbeing is another).
A consistency point arises, here: The same combination
of words may have a hyphen sometimes and not have one at other times; even on the same
page. If you say a policy is one of long standing, you dont use a
hyphen; long modifies standing just fine without one. On the other hand, if
you use the same two words as a compound adjective that modifies policy (as a rule
of thumb: if they precede the word that together they modify)then you have a long-standing
policy, with a hyphen. All the same words and senses, but different grammatical
functioning in the sentence.
It may be that all you need to know is that in set type
hyphens and en-dashes arent the samebut in fact there are several kinds of
Only in the most informal writing may it be U.S. as a nounback in the United States, wed say, not the U.S. As an adjective, on the other hand, U.S. is usually preferable: U.S. foreign policy regards. . . . When it is used, the use of periods is often eschewed (US, rather than U.S.), and thats fine if consistently applied; either way, the letters and periods should be closed up (snugged together), as Ive done here.
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