I found an old 1970s file containing notes about non-fiction writing, which would include articles, columns and reports. Some of these I remember as editors’ comments on original submissions when I was writing a regular newspaper column, others were from a non-fiction writing course I took, some were lessons I learned on my own, and some I picked up from reading and observing. I hope you find them useful.
Get to the point right away. Nobody is going to read four or five paragraphs to find out what the piece is all about.
Be sure that anything that doesn’t relate to the main theme actually adds something; otherwise leave it out. Conversely, be sure you don’t leave out important points that would enhance your readers’ understanding of the main theme. Remember that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to your readers.
Your readers need to be convinced that you know what you’re talking about and that there’s something new to them in your piece, be it material, insight, experience, or a different angle. So be sure that each topic is developed fully with adequate examples, arguments, reasons and illustrations. On the other hand, don’t weigh down your piece with more of these than your readers need to understand your points. One compelling argument is more powerful than five weak observations.
Keep asking yourself what the piece is about and then make sure that what you write is consistent with the answer.
Don’t ramble. Move in an orderly, logical, non-confusing way from your opening to your close.
You can never go wrong by answering Kipling’s “six honest serving men.” They are: who, what, where, why, how, and when? Then take it one step further by answering the sceptical reader’s, “so what?”
Use simple language. If you need to employ technical terms, buzz words and jargon, you must define them.
The active voice is almost always better than the passive voice.
As a general rule short sentences are better than long sentences; but it’s important to vary the length of your sentences and to never have one that’s too long. Keeping verbs as close as possible to nouns will help.
Be sure there’s some variety in the opening words of your sentences and paragraphs; be particularly careful not to use “I” too often.
Each paragraph should deal with only one topic. As with sentences, paragraphs should vary in length and never be too long. Every now and then a one-sentence paragraph can be effectively used for emphasis.
Make your words human rather than institutional. For example:
“Further notification will follow in due course” should be replaced with “I’ll keep you up to date”
Replace “give consideration to” with “consider”
Just say “during” rather than “during the course of”
Replace “in the event that” with “if”
“Because” is much better than “due to the fact that”
Short, impact words are usually better than long, showy ones. For example:
Replace: endeavour with try
aggregate with total
dampened with soggy
sagacious with keen
Concrete words are better than abstract words. Instead of saying, structure the report in a functional manner; say, put the conclusions first and then explain how you reached them.
Use specifics rather than vague words (especially adjectives). We had 108 emails, ten letters and 23 telephone calls is much better than we received numerous responses. (Of course, the 1970s note didn’t have a reference to emails.)
Strong verbs are better than adverbs. For example, She laboured is better than She worked very hard. Every time you catch yourself using the word adverb very, try to find a strong verb instead.
Be sure your reader will know what the antecedents are for any pronouns without having to go back and reread.
Never throw away anything you’ve written; it’ll probably be useful somewhere, sometime; as in this column for example.
If you find yourself struggling with style, try writing as if you were writing to your best friend.
The key to any successful writing is re-writing.
Editing is critical, so here are some specific suggestions about editing your material.
If possible, let 24 hours pass before editing. If that’s not possible put your work aside for as long as you can before editing, even if it’s only long enough to take a walk around the block.
Be especially critical of the opening and close; the former because you probably hadn’t yet warmed up, and the latter because you were probably weary by then. Actually, anything written while you were bored or tired needs to be brutally edited.
Some people’s ears are better at detecting errors than are their eyes. If you’re one of those you should always read the copy aloud at least once during the editing process. But remember, you are writing to be read, not heard.
Look for nouns that can be changed to verbs. You’ll usually find those are words ending in “-tion”, “-tive”, “-ment”, “-ance”, “-ability”, “-ness” and “-able”. For example, replace arrived at an agreement with agreed; and give consideration to with consider.
Remember that anything that can be misunderstood probably will be misunderstood. So, you must write not only to be understood, but also so that you will not be misunderstood.
Double-check all numbers and quotations.
When you think you’re finished, read it one more time.