20 Secrets of Good Writing

Posted in Features, Writing

Here’s one example of a piece of writing:

Ecclesiastes 9:11: I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Out of 46 words, it has 40 words of one syllable and 6 of two. The cadence is magnificent.

It has vivid images (something people can visualise): runners in a race, soldiers in a battle, bread (NIV, weaker: food), the sun…

George Orwell, among other things, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, rewrote the verse in a modern, but much uglier style (deliberately ugly to illustrate bad style): Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena suggests that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

What’s wrong with this?

  • average length of word has increased dramatically
  • no cadence at all
  • no vivid images; nothing for people to visualise. Instead a whole series of abstract words: consideration (words ending in ‘ion’ nearly always abstract and usually rather boring!); phenomena; activities; element and so on.

If you were asked to write an article (or preach a sermon) on goodness what would be the most effective way to do it? Tell them about a good man or woman. The word goodness is an abstract one. Many abstract ideas can be effectively communicated in terms of people. Jesus the master of this art with his parables. Which brings us to stories. Shortly, I’ll talk about the value of stories and suggest some story-telling techniques.

The writing is pretentious: a striving for effect which fails in its object. If you want to write well, avoid striving for effect.

Someone said that good writing should be new, you and true. A lot in that. The ‘you’ bit means that you don’t try to sound like someone else or write in someone else’s style – although we can certainly learn from other people’s techniques. But while we can learn from good writing techniques and pick that up from others, what emerges must be us. Just as it’s good practical psychology to ‘be yourself’ to it’s a good rule for writing.

What was the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes’ secret? Did it all come from his pen like magic? Was it dictated by God? What was his technique?

Some clues in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

  1. He feared God (13) Acknowledged his dependence… Humility. Suggests a readiness to learn to acquire insights from God and from men and women created in His image.
  2. He pondered (9) Took time to think and reflect. We all need to slow down, notice things and meditate. Most of what I am saying today is common sense and you could have worked it out for yourself if you took time to stop and reflect on eg
    • the market or audience you are writing for or speaking to: whose attention you want to grab
    • exactly what it is you want to say
    • how you are going to gain the listener or reader’s attention at the start, keep it, and leave him or her with something to ponder
  3. He searched out (9) Research is normally important for 2 main reasons:
    • to be ‘new’: original, not a poor rehash of someone else’s ideas but something which makes people pay attention because they’ve never heard it before
    • to be ‘true’: we are bombarded on the media with half-truths, distortions, even lies. Sloppy use of evidence, selective use of statistics, misleading use of material. The writer of Ecclesiastes searched out for the truth. Requires effort; the good writer needs to take pains
  4. He set in order (9) How often an article, a book, a sermon, even an item of liturgy, has a lot of good stuff in it – but it’s muddled. It hasn’t been properly set in order. Putting it in order, perhaps under headings, can be hard work but satisfying. Follow a logical sequence. The preacher in the southern States… ‘First I tells ‘m what I’m going to tell’m; then I tells’m; then I tells’m what I’ve told’m!’ Set it in order. Lots of markers, signposts along the way. Make it plain. People want to understand.
  5. He searched to find just the right words (taking pains) (10) May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and told the House of Commons, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…’ but my aim is ‘… victory, however long and hard the road may be’.Of the Battle of Britain: ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour””Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few’To convey every idea, every mood, every picture in the eye of your reader or listener, there’s just the right word, the right combination of words. One sign of sloppy use of words, a telltale sign of insufficient thought, is the use of inverted commas. Sometimes essential eg when recording direct speech. Sometimes legitimate at other times, but often it means: ‘I know this isn’t quite the right word, but I’m just too lazy. I can’t be bothered to think, or to use the dictionary or Thesaurus to find the right word.’ Apparently, Churchill worked very hard at this; so did the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes. And consider Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 (how many drafts did this go through?).Ursula Holden, the novelist, rewrites each draft 30 times. ‘I want to say what I have to say in as few words as possible, and not just slop them over the page. I hate adjectives.’ God’s Smuggler, the story of Brother Andrew told by the professional writers John and Elizabeth Sherrill first pubd in 1968. Some of you might not consider it great literature, but it became an international best seller. That book went through 10 different rewrites – the Sherills saw themselves as craftsmen with words, like cathedral carvers. They also said that they prayed over every page they wrote.In 1869 a writer in The Times called John Henry Newman one of ‘the three greatest masters of English style in the generation which is just closing’. Newman replied to the author with a revealing private letter: ‘… I have been obliged to take great pains with everything I have written, and I often write chapters over and over again, besides innumerable corrections and interlinear additions… my one and single desire and aim has been to do what is so difficult – viz to express clearly and exactly my meaning; this has been the motive principle of all my corrections and re-writings. When I have read over a passage which I had written a few days before, I have found it so obscure to myself that I have either put it altogether aside or fiercely corrected it; but I don’t get any better for practice.’

    Take pains: Oscar Wilde spent a morning putting in, then taking out a comma.

  6. What he wrote was upright and true (10) We are assaulted today by words which are themselves and in their content ugly, impure, malicious, cynical, evil and untrue. Follow the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and write, as she put it, Something beautiful for God.
    Joseph Pulitzer, the American newspaper proprietor in the early years of this century and establisher of the Pulitzer prizes for literature and the arts: ‘Put it to them briefly, so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light’.Know and care… truth matters. Rightness mattersSome other tips, not arising from the Ecclesiastes passage.
  7. Make it real Something which strikes a chord with people rather than sounding trivial or superficial. Great writing comes out of great suffering. ‘A great deal of living must go into a very little writing.’ A high proportion of authors suffer exceptionally: the author copes differently from others with his suffering. Authors have a need to define and diagnose.
  8. Be concise In general keep sentences and paragraphs short. Always be looking to see how you can reduce length.
  9. Be clear Avoid generalisations. Illustrate points. Use active rather than passive words. Be positive rather than negative.
  10. Be contemporary Avoid religious jargon or technical terms like justification, redemption. Avoid clichés ‘like the plague’; ‘leave no stone unturned’ ‘explore every avenue’
    If not too patronising: ‘Start where people are; lead them where you want to take them’.
  11. Don’t caricature other people’s views Our stereotypes of others. The different strands within the Christian faith.
  12. Keep it simple World already a pretty complex place. Don’t unnecessarily add to that complexity. Picture yourself meeting some intelligent but non-literary person (your grocer?) who asks you what you are writing about. Could you explain to him briefly and understandably? If not, think a bit harder. Your ideas may be too complex, too clever by half, too modish. You may discover that you weren’t wholly clear what you were driving at yourself.
  13. Try to give pleasure Celebrate God, the author of everything which is beautiful, good and true.
  14. Be aware Develop the capacity to see beyond the obvious and superficial. That can’t be developed overnight. As a Christian I find it’s related to prayerfulness, trying to build into my life times of quiet and reflection, listening to God.
  15. Tell a story ‘The preacher preaches, the congregation dozes; the preacher tells a story, the congregation sits up and listens.’Stories can
    • answer questions (as Jesus demonstrated, eg Luke 10:29ff)
    • deepen faith
    • touch the emotions of the listeners
    • entertain
    • inform
    • communicate
    • educate
    • heal
    • are non-threatening: people are free to respond in a way they find appropriate, although they may make people think (why is he/she telling it?)
    • rebuke…
    • challenge
    • convert

    Ingredients of a story:

    Conflict: a problem that has to be solved
    Suspense: a continuous mounting tension in the mind of the reader. May be gentle suspense, but a suspicion in the mind of the reader that something is going to happen. What happens next? Keep up pace to maintain the drama. Ensure ‘highs and lows’ in the narrative.
    Description through dialogue and action: If it’s essential to the story that John has a red Rover. Don’t say John had a red Rover: that’s dull. Rather: John drove his red Rover up to the gate and got out…
    Details: Are all the details necessary and relevant?
    Scenes: Try to tell the story in a series of scenes in which the reader can feel that he or she is there, picturing the scenery, hearing the voices, smelling the smells.

  16. If you’re serious about writing beyond today keep notebooks. Heard a talk by a writer who kept three:
    1. Journey into yourself: your thoughts, feelings, memories, experience of the presence of God. Who are you? Strengths, limitations, likes, dislikes… These crucial if you’re going to write with depth and truth.
    2. Life Are you aware of people? Are you excited by them? People, character sketches, conversations (eg Thomas Hardy), happenings, scenes, diversity of life. Molière and Pezenas.
    3. Words New words, have fun with them; memorable quotes
  17. Remember George Orwell’s ‘rules’:
    • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    • Break one of these rules sooner that say anything outright barbarous.
  18. Remember Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s rules (1863-1944) Man of letters and Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. Born in Bodmin and lived in Fowey from 1891. You can see his house overlooking the estuary.
    • Almost always prefer the concrete word to the abstract
    • Almost always prefer the direct word to the circumlocution (‘not unreasonable’ is a circumlocution)
    • Generally use transitive words in the active voice
    • Use adjectives with economy
  19. Remember Sir Ernest Gowers’ rules (1880-1966) Author of Plain Words (1948) and ABC of Plain Words (1951), designed to rescue the English language from slipshod use, not least from jargon
    • Use no more words than are necessary to express your meaning. In particular do not use superfluous adjectives and adverbs.
    • Use familiar words rather than far-fetched, if they express your meaning equally well.
    • Use words with a precise meaning rather than a vague one; prefer the concrete to the abstract.
  20. Reflect on this quote (and please forgive the absence of political correctness)

Paul Tournier: The hand of God is not seen in abstract ideas, but in nature, in history, in all the adventures of men.