A while back, I put together an article outlining the five biggest lessons I’d learned from reading Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ (you can read the article here). If you still haven’t read it (the book, not necessarily my article), you’re missing out. It’s the very definition of a writing bible.
It wasn’t until Christmas just gone that I discovered another bible: The Economist Style Guide.
I read The Economist quite a bit. It’s got some great writing, undoubtedly, and I love the fact that their six rules for writing are taken from George Orwell, a favourite author of mine.
The best thing about this book, however, is its depth. A third of the book is dedicated to comparing American and English language, for example, which is something that, to this day, is highly contested. There’s talks about syntax, vocabulary and even the ‘laws of writing’, too.
So without further ado, here are 5 tips on writing from The Economist Style Guide.
1. Do your best to be lucid
I see but one rule: to be clear.
Complicated sentence structures and gimmicks should be kept to a minimum. Good writing is simple writing. Less is more. Don’t be arrogant. Long paragraphs can confuse the reader. This is relevant and good writing advice. Stick to it.
As the book says (and as Orwell originally said):
A scrupulous writer in every sentence that (s)he writes will ask at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And (s)he will probably ask himself/herself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
2. Do not be stuffy
Use language that you hear in your everyday world. Don’t try too hard to use language that doesn’t fit in to your story. Not every lawyer replaces the word ‘I’ with ‘one’. Most of them speak in the first person like the rest of us.
Not every drunk person stumbles their words. In fact, when writing dialogue, subtlety is a crucial element. The writer doesn’t need to visibly understand your character is drunk because they’re speaking funny. Most drunk people talk just fine. In the same regard, not every Southern American says ‘y’all’.
Unadorned, unfancy prose is all you need.
3. Don’t be too didactic
If you’re starting your sentences with words like ‘Consider’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Prepare’ or ‘Look at’, you’re writing a school textbook, not a story.
Your writing shouldn’t teach someone, your story should.
4. Catch the attention of the reader
Your lede is everything. That first sentence will help the writer decide whether your writing is worth reading. It’s a make or break point for most, and many writers start an article with what’s called ‘pious throat clearing’.
‘Digital nomads are a new and emerging species of workers. Three quarters of digital nomads never travel further than America…’
Cut out that first sentence. It’s redundant. Shock the reader with a statistic straight away. It’s far more enticing and effective.
‘Three quarters of digital nomads never travel further than America…’
5. Read through your writing several times
Finally — as you’ll discover in every writing book you’ll ever read — read through your own writing several times over.
Edit ruthlessly. Whether that’s by cutting things out or sharpening things up, editing is the key to good writing. Remove anything that is superfluous and don’t repeat yourself.
As put in Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, in Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ and in this book: keep the story moving.
Only the sharpness of your mind can rescue a boring piece of work.