After writing and editing hundreds of thousands of words over the course of my career, I’ve observed several fundamental principles about the craft that I sometimes share with colleagues and friends who are trying to improve their writing.
I’ve boiled these principles down to a set of eight simple questions you should ask yourself throughout the process of writing and editing. These questions should serve as a framework for organizing your writing and fleshing out the meat of your piece:
1. What’s your story?
People love stories. The need for stories is “hardwired into our DNA,” as some writers I’ve spoken with have told me. Stories can be of the made-up kind, like in fiction. Or they can be grounded in fact and experience, like in nonfiction. At their core, most stories are about someone (the “hero”) who struggles to overcome a challenge, obstacle, or enemy in order to reach their goal.
For fictional stories, heroes and villains and happy endings easily come to mind. But the basic structures of stories can be applied to nonfiction writing as well. For example, the “hero” of an article could be a startup founder trying to overcome doubt (the challenge or obstacle, in this case) about the viability of his company’s product in order to raise the funding he needs from investors to turn his concept into a commercially available product that customers will want to buy (his ultimate goal).
2. What’s new or different about your story?
What fresh point of view are you lending to your subject? What distinctive perspective are you adding to the debate? What new insights have you discovered that you’re sharing? You should challenge yourself to ask these questions of any piece of writing that you do.
Even if you’re writing about a topic that has been well-covered–like how artificial intelligence and robots are likely to eliminate jobs in a range of sectors across the economy, for instance–what are you saying that adds to the debate? What twist are you putting on the subject?
3. What facts, analyses, and examples will bring your story to life?
Okay, so you know what your story is and you’re convinced that you’ve got something new to say about your subject. Now you should ask, what facts, analyses, and examples are you using to bring your story to life?
Your story will feel hollow and unpersuasive if you don’t back it up with numbers, quotes, or case studies. Let’s say you’re making the case for why kids should learn how to code. Are there any estimates for the number of jobs that will need to be filled over the next 5-10 years that require coding skills? Has research been done that looks at the impact on a student’s academic success of learning coding? What do highly successful coders like Mark Zuckerberg have to say about the benefits of learning how to code?
4. Does your story flow logically?
Every paragraph and sentence should follow each other in logical sequence. If you leave out a couple of links in your logical chain, you can be sure your reader will sense that, and will likely be confused.
5. Is your story clear?
So you’ve brought your story to life and it flows logically. Is what your saying in your story immediately clear to the reader? Or are you using vague or imprecise language, making references to ideas and facts that you are not sharing explicitly in your writing, or clouding your message with industry jargon or terminology that only a handful of readers will understand?
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes what’s behind so much unclear–and just plain bad–writing is a phenomenon he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” It stems from the fact that writers often know a lot more than their reader about a subject. When it comes to conveying their ideas in writing, they fail to translate their ideas into words that are understandable by their readers. In his book, The Sense of Style, he argues that the “Curse of Knowledge” is the “single best reason why good people write bad prose.”
6. Are you avoiding technical terminology, industry jargon, and cliches?
One of the most common mistakes many writers make occurs when they use language that they think makes their writing sound smart, but instead confuses readers. Technical terms and acronyms might be useful shorthand for communicating with other experts. But if you’re trying to reach a broader audience, translate these terms into clearer, simpler language.
Similarly, industry jargon might be a natural way to communicate verbally or in informal, internal documents. But when you want to convey your message in writing that is intended for a bigger audience, you’ll shut people out and turn them off if your prose is littered with industry buzzwords.
And cliches? Just avoid them, please.
7. Are you writing in the active voice?
Where did the use of passive sentences originate? Academic writing? Bureaucratic documents? And why does this style continue to exercise such a powerful sway over so many people? Do they really think it helps make their writing sound better? No, it makes their writing sound weak and fearful.
Use active verbs: they will immediately inject energy and power into your sentences.
8. Are you using correct grammar, usage, and spelling?
English is incredibly flexible and accommodates an enormous range of syntax and styles. But this flexibility still sits atop a web of fairly strict rules about what words go where and how exactly they should be used. Understanding how to adhere to these rules confounds many people, but it’s an essential part of mastering the craft of writing well.
When in doubt, Google it. Your searches might yield variations in usage or spelling of a word you’re unsure of, but at least you’ll find examples of how they’re used in context. I often also plug words or phrases into the search engines of websites like The New York Times.craft