Advice to Writers

First: Here is a random selection of the tips everybody gives new writers.

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 reader’s 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 simple—don’t 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 head—is not following your thought processes—must be shown the way you’re going, might have to be told the steps in your thinking. For example, be careful about overusing pronouns—use 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, that’s why there are two different words!)

Be parsimonious with contractions; they do not belong in prose of any formality.

Latin abbreviations don’t belong in any prose but research papers—and 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 you’re not to use them any more, it’s 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 doesn’t have something of yourself in it. Maybe a very good, very disciplined writer, concentrating hard, can make a sentence or two—no 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, Fowler’s, from editors, teachers—yes, even journalism teachers—that try to take out all that’s 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 typography—all those. When you really can’t say what you need to say following all those rules—go back and think again, try harder, get rid of that—when finally you absolutely can’t—think again some more; all right, now, maybe you’ve 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 you’ve complied with 1. as you composed your first draft, your first job on your second time through—your first editorial pass, which is your first as a real writer—is to get rid of every one of those last few. You can be confident that what is left will still have plenty of style—your style—in it.

3.      Something else that follows: There are some kinds of work you really can’t do—that is to say, there are readerships you won’t 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 won’t believe you.

You might not guess in advance which kinds those are, though, and I’m not saying you can never for a moment fake this—play a role, as it were—only 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. We’re going to ignore that. At whatever level of intervention, all the following is true.

   1.      If your stuff isn’t strong enough to bear editing, it’s poor stuff.

   2.      Editors are supposed to edit; that is, they’re actually supposed to do something to your prose.

  1. If she’s going to bring anything to the writing beyond what you’ve already put in there, she’s going to bring something of herself (this is a corollary of the rules in Style, above: she can’t do much without her own voice being heard). That is never easy, and it isn’t free of tension. It’s not supposed to be. You might, in a strongly edited piece, end up with a voice with an undertone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and can be a very good thing indeed if the undertone is harmonic—the reader will experience a richer voice; but to the producer of the first voice it is unsettling, and needs getting used to.

If you’ve 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 that—it’s 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.

  1. Editors vary a lot in all the ways everybody else does—more and less talented, to begin with; they also vary in tact, sensitivity, taste, intelligence, initiative, height, complexion, charm, wit. It is your job to learn all you can from the editor you have. Leaving out all consideration of sensitivity and tact and the like: A good editor is smarter than you about your writing at this stage of its life—never forget that it’s in the nature of the work that you’ll develop blind spots as you create. Other editors are dumber than that, and some are even dumber than you, even with your blind spots, about what’s in front of them. But (though it’s harder) you need to be able to learn from people dumber than you, and not only from those who are smarter.
  2. If you can’t stand something the editor’s done, then you can’t, so stet it. It’s your responsibility as well as your right—your name goes over it all. Just don’t think you’ve won something when you’ve refused a piece of editing; it’s a failure, not a triumph. At least one reader, and one who’s giving you her best attention, isn’t getting you; and the failure is not only the editor’s, it’s yours, too. (Now that I mention it: It’s more than time you got used to the fact that no piece of writing past a couple of pages isn’t at least part failure.)
  3. The one great book I know on the editorial process is the facsimile edition of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” including the manuscript showing the editing of Ezra Pound and Valerie Eliot. I don’t see how you can fail to see, first, that this is a greater poem for the editing—it’s barely an overstatement to say that it would not have been quite a great poem at all, but for the editing. And, then, that it remains nevertheless Eliot’s poem; it isn’t, and could never have been Pound’s, or Valerie Eliot’s.

And finally: Here’s 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 like—rather 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 applications—that 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: We’ll see that foreign terms are italicized or not depending on someone’s 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

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.)

Trade marks, service marks and the like

You are never required to use the little or TM with them. Unless you’re 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 can’t 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 you’re 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 protection—if that sort of generic usage becomes widespread, trademark protection is destroyed. But if you’re talking explicitly about Microsoft’s operating system, or Apple’s little music gizmo, you’re perfectly free to call it Windows, or XP, or iPod, without adding one of those superscripts. (Any more than you’d have to say, “He drove up in a Buick.”)

Punctuating lists

The whole idea of setting items in a list format—numbered, unnumbered, lettered, bulleted—is 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 punctuation.

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.

The in relation to the name of a newspaper or magazine

Leave it out of italics, and don’t capitalize it. You are not required to reproduce the publication’s apparent usage in this matter—this is not the equivalent of a book’s 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 words—easiest 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 don’t; there’s 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.

URLS and the Net

Usage and style conventions are evolving even as we sit here chatting. It can be said at this time:

  1. It has become widely (not universally) accepted practice to break URLs at line’s end, but avoiding introducing a hyphen (since hyphens often occur in URLs). The allowable place to break varies a little from publisher to publisher, but should not be in the middle of a word or string of alphabetic characters (to avoid introducing a hyphen, of course).
        Most commonly it is allowed before a punctuation, say a period (a “dot”) or a slash: peach@aol

.com (on the theory that the reader’s eye might be inclined to stop at a punctuation at line’s 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, but that solution has not, so far, come to be widely established (even in the Times).

  1. http:// is no longer needed at the beginning of a URL.
  2. Internet, Net, and Web—and World Wide Web—continue to be capitalized in most style manuals in America (not in England). That usage can be expected to erode and before much longer to disappear, as it did for such analogous terms as telephone and television as they became generic. But it hasn’t, yet. (Also: Web site, two words, one cap.)


  1. A 3-dot ellipsis indicates something left out of a quoted sentence . . . set in type with thin spaces all around.
  2. A four-dot ellipsis indicates an omission between sentences (from the end of a sentence). . . . These are always set with the first period set snug against the last quoted word. In fact, that period should probably be thought of as belonging to its sentence, and not as part of the ellipsis at all. (It may be that there’s no such thing as a four-dot ellipsis, just an ellipsis that follows a period.)

Hyphens and hyphenating

There are some subtly defined or eccentric exceptions on both sides, but you’ll be pretty safe following this simple rule: A prefix or a suffix—a construct that isn’t a word by itself—added to a word almost never takes a hyphen; it simply becomes part of the word it’s 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 don’t 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 aren’t the same—but in fact there are several kinds of dash.

  1. Hyphens are the little ones used to hyphenate—most commonly, they’re to be seen as here, div-
    words at line ends—but also in hyphenated words: long-standing, hard-wired.
  2. En-dashes are named for their size—the size of a medium-sized letter character (though there’s a more technical definition)—longer than hyphens. En-dashes have very few but not unimportant uses—for practical purposes, just two.
    1. The most common is to indicate a span, say of page numbers or dates; it’s usually read “to”: Matthew 13:24 - 30 is an example (verses 24 to 30, you’d say). I indicate it here by space hyphen space, but really there’s no convention for it in typewritten manuscript or at the level of the basic user of word processing programs.
    2. En-dash’s other use involves compound words. When a compound word, whether it’s hyphenated or not, is connected to yet another word (either before or after), what would be a second hyphen is not a hyphen but an en-dash.  The en-dash in New Jersey - born says that the person described was born in NewJersey. New Jersey-born, with a hyphen, would refer to a Jerseyborn who was new; ex-basketball player with a hyphen would be a player of ex-basketball; a copyeditor or a typesetter would want an en-dash to make him a former player of basketball.
  3. Em-dashes (1-em dashes) are those that interrupt the flow of thought in a sentence—they get their name from their size, too, of course.  In typewriter ms. they are represented by two hyphens together.
  4. And, now that I’ve got wound up: There are, in fact, 2-em dashes, used at the end of a broken sentence in dialogue or quoted speech (now very rare). And there are even 3-em dashes (they are not so rare)—in bibliographies, to replace an author’s name repeated and, once in a great while, in text to indicate a suppressed word: The Duchess of G------- just didn’t give a ------.

United States, U.S. (and US)

Only in the most informal writing may it be U.S. as a noun—back in the United States, we’d 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 that’s fine if consistently applied; either way, the letters and periods should be closed up (snugged together), as I’ve done here.


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