Tag Archives: guide to better writing

Ending the quest for the Holy Grail

Most guides to better writing include, somewhere in the top ten tips, something about avoiding hackneyed cliches. Hackneyed cliches like describing the search for something special as a “quest for the Holy Grail.”

Here’s how bad it is.

“In 2008, Guardian columnist Tim Radford wrote: “British journalists have invoked the holy grail more than 1,000 times in the last 12 months. I have, almost certainly, evoked the same divinely-touched chalice, rightly celebrated in Arthurian legend, in some inappropriate context. We are all guilty… Grail imagery occurs with astonishing frequency in the scholarly press. Somewhere in the medical literature, I suspect, lurks a paper about the holy grail of hip replacement.”

This is a good story on the Holy Grail pandemic. Unless you’re actually searching for the cup Jesus allegedly drank out of on the cross, King Arthur style, then you should find a better phrase.

“Ten years later [in 1978], Stephen J. Lippard, then at Columbia University but currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put the first holy grail into a research article in an ACS journal when he wrote a paper on how platinum antitumor complexes interact with polynucleotides and kill cancer cells. “As with the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the joy thus far has been in the searching,” Lippard wrote.

Since then, holy grails in chemical research have been steadily on the rise. Including Lippard’s, three holy grails appeared in ACS journals in the 1970s, and five could be found in the 1980s. During the 1990s, 39 research articles in ACS journals made mention of a holy grail, and since 2000, 169 research articles invoked the sacred goblet. A SciFinder search shows this trend of chemists gravitating toward grails holds true for non-ACS journals as well.”

Another guide to good writing

Guides to good writing are a dime a dozen in these parts. But I like reading them. And this seems as good as any a place to collate them. So here are some good principles for better prose from author Janet Fitch.

There are more details on each heading at the original link.

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences… A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone.

3. Kill the cliché.
When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché… You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.
Most people write the same sentence over and over again. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.
A dependent clause helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence… Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.
Always tell us where we are… Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating… Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.
Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.
A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed… Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.
We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story.

Style Guide: to infinitives and beyond

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the seminal style guides in the world. If you’ve got a grammatical question or are pondering an obscure rule governing the use of the English language (like whether or not to capitalise the E in english, or the names of birds in a tourism brochure) then you should check it out. Especially interesting is the FAQ/Q&A section.

On split infinitives:

CMOS has not, since the thirteenth edition (1983), frowned on the split infinitive. The fifteenth edition now suggests, to take one example, allowing split infinitives when an intervening adverb is used for emphasis (see paragraphs 5.106 and 5.160). In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched. Many such shibboleths—the en dash, for example—are worthy of being held onto… euphony or emphasis or clarity or all three can be improved by splitting the infinitive in certain situations. It’s one of the advantages of a language with two-word infinitives.”

Cop that one grammar nazis…

Six questions that make you a better writer

George Orwell was a good writer. I’ve shared six of his tips for writing before. Here are six questions he says you should ask of every sentence you produce…

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

This is from this feature – writing tips from six greats.
I also love these 11 tips from Elmore Leonard.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
Which can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is back-story, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
For example, thick paragraphs of prose.
11. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

And I love this quote… it reminds me of Jed Bartlett’s “next ten words” debate speech in the West Wing…


“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
– Earnest Hemingway after he was told that Faulkner said he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

A beginner’s guide to bad writing

There are millions of tips for good writing online – but what if you want to be the next Dan Brown?

You need bad writing tips – and this website is here to help – replete with sample passages.

Here are my favourite tips – click the link for the posts (including samples)…

  1. Replace concrete nouns with abstract ones
  2. Always use a thesaurus
  3. Describe every character in minute detail, taking no account of narrative pacing
  4. Use as many adjectives as you can
  5. Create subplots which bear no relation to the main story

If you invert the tips you also get a pretty good guide to good writing.

11 great grammar tips

As Guthers points out, in his comment on this post, the site that particular little clarification came from is incredibly useful.

It’s chock full of common grammatical errors you should avoid (and the rationale behind including them) if you don’t want to look like an idiot.

Here are ten helpful tips (and pet hates of mine)…

And grammatical fallacies that will help you avoid looking like a goose when you correct other people.

Style guide

Kurt Vonnegut was a writer of some repute. His guide to stylish writing is worth familiarising yourself with.

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

Good tips for blogging I reckon.

Tip 6 came with this little gem… for more detail about the other points read the article.

My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

He’s also written eight tips for writing short stories:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.