Category Archives: writing tips

Rules Hemingway wrote by

Did you watch the new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway which premiered on Monday?  If so, you heard Hemingway say “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” came from the Kansas City Star stylebook. He reported for the Star 1917 to 1918.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Here are some of those rules:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.  [Use active verbs.]
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang.  Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh.
  • Watch your sequence of tenses.  [Be consistent.]
  • Don’t split verbs.  [Put adverbs before a verb phrase.]
  • Be careful of the word “also.”  “Also” modifies the word it follows, not the word it precedes.
  • Be careful of the word “only.”  “He only had $10” means that he alone had $10.  “He had only $10” means $10 was all the cash he had.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Avoid using adjectives, especially extravagant ones.
  • Use “none is,” not “none are.”
  • Animals should be referred to with the neuter gender unless the animal is a pet with a name.
  • Break into a long direct quote early in the quote to identify the speaker.
  • Avoid expressions from a foreign language.
  • Collective nouns take singular verbs.

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

Bloated words mean longer, boring writing

Utilize.  Three syllables.  Use.  One syllable.  Why not use “use”?

Price point.  Two words.  Price.  One word.  Why not use “price”?

Vaporous.  Three syllables.  Vapid.  Two syllables. Why not use “vapid”?

Inflating your writing with multi-syllabic or multi-phrasal words when simpler words work just as well makes your writing pompous, long and hard to understand.

So why do it?

  • To sound important. In college I worked as a telephone operator, but my brother suggested I introduce myself as “an international communications coordinator.”  Nobody knew what I was talking about, and when I explained I was a phone operator, they rolled their eyes.
  • To sound educated. Many SAT words are multi-syllablic:  capricious, ephemeral, and facilitated, for example.  But isn’t it easier to understand synonyms such as flighty, short-lived and made easy?  And why do we write?  To sound educated or to be understood?
  • To please an English teacher who confuses big words with deep thinking. In fact, big words obfuscate logic (clutter your meaning) and enshroud cogitation (hide poor thinking).

What can you do to rid your writing of clutter?

  • Look for empty words. If you look, you will find.  Many empty nouns end in “tion,” “ment” and “city.”  Turn them into verbs and then search for simpler synonyms.
  • Tell yourself that big words aren’t better.  They are just bigger.
  • Look up synonyms for long words. Many English words with the most punch are ancient Anglo-Saxon words of one or two syllables.
  • Read the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost rarely used even two-syllable words, and that is no fluke.  He said good writing should be understood on a literal level the first time it is read.

Write short.

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

How many names are too many names?

When you start to write a novel or a short story, how many characters should you introduce in the first scene?

I picked up the novel of a new-to-me but best-selling author tonight and started reading.  On the first page (really a half page), five characters were introduced along with their relationships to each other.  On the second page, four more people were named and their relationships.  On the third page, one more.  Ten names and a web of who knows how many relationships in two and a half pages of text.  None of them were developed enough to know more than “he’s a detective,” “she’s an au pair,” “she’s giving the party” and “he’s got a crush on the au pair.”

A bit into the second page I was flipping back to the first page to remind myself  who was who.  Then, befuddled, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew family tree-like relationships to keep characters straight.

Should this be necessary?  How many names are too many names?

I have never read any guidance on this topic.  Yet a maximum number of names is an important criterion for me to use to determine if I will keep reading.  If I find myself needing to draw family trees, I ask myself, “Is this worth reading?”  “No,” I almost always decide.  If an author can’t figure out how to introduce characters without confusing me, then the author can’t be that good.  I put the book back on the shelf and move on.

In college I needed to read Anna Karenina in English 101.  At the front of my translation was a list of characters which at first intimidated me.  But I rarely  consulted it.  Tolstoy had a way of introducing characters without overloading my short-term memory.  For the heck of it, I just now checked to count how many characters Tolstoy introduced by name in that novel’s first scene (about two pages).  The answer–three:  Stiva, his wife, Dolly, and one man named as part of a silly dream, a man whose name we realize immediately is not important.  Other people’s roles are mentioned—a French governess, an English governess, a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen-maid, a coachman, the children—but they are not named.  A reader needs to keep track of only two.  And one of those two we are learning about intimately since those pages are told from his point of view.

How many names are too many names?  I don’t know.  But when I am confused by the third page, that is too many names.