How to write well, according to Swain

If you could boil down how to write well into just a few ideas, what would they be?

How about

  • Choose vivid, specific words, words that excite our senses. Avoid generalities by using concrete words that create pictures in the readers’ minds. If you write about groups of people, focus on an individual.
  • Choose active verbs, verbs that put action into those vivid pictures. Avoid the verb “to be.” Use the simple past tense whenever you can, not past progressive or the perfect tenses.
  • Rarely use adverbs. Instead, through action show what the adverb suggests.  If you must use an adverb, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence for the most impact.
  • Vary your sentence structures. Use long sentences, short sentences; simple, compound and complex sentences; sentences that start with prepositional phrases, dependent clauses and gerunds; and sentences that aren’t sentences at all.
  • Don’t try to cram too much information into a single sentence.
  • If you repeat words, repeat enough times and close enough together so those words create impact.
  • Concise is better than verbose.
  • And most important of all, write clearly. The reader should “get it” the first read.

These suggestions come from a single chapter in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, 1965.

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