Writing, like design, is a craft that can be practiced and improved. To help me improve my writing, I’ve compiled a collection of principles from books and articles that I’ve read. I’ve shared them online to crystallize my own understanding of what I’ve learned, and to help others who want to improve at the craft of writing as well.

Jeff Zych


Good writing is Purposeful, Clear, and Genuine.


Good writing is purposeful. What one point are you trying to make? Not two, not five, just one. Trying to make one point affects every subsequent decision about tone, attitude, words, and title.

Every word, sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter should be in service to your one point. Have a reason for everything in your writing, and for everything not in your writing. Ask yourself, “Is this necessary? Why?” Eliminate everything that’s not supporting your one point.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? […]

Leave the reader with one provocative thought. Not two, not five, just one. Choosing a destination will give you a better idea of what route to take to get there, and affect your decision about tone and attitude.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well


Good writing is clear. All writing is communication; therefore, clarity is a virtue.

To communicate clearly, use precise, specific, concrete language.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

Use “It rained every day for a week,“ rather than, “A period of unfavorable weather set in.”

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Clear writing is simple. Simple writing is easy to understand.

Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.

Scott Adams, The Day You Become a Better Writer

Use straightforward language. Don’t use a long word when a short word will do.

Write short sentences. Don’t put multiple thoughts in one sentence. Prune clutter from your writing. Eliminate every unnecessary word, sentence, paragraph, adverb, adjective, and so on.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. […]

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Use simple subject-verb-object sentence structures. This makes it clear who did what, and is easy to understand.

Learn how brains organize ideas. Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but it’s easier to imagine the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting). All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is the way all brains work”?)

Scott Adams, The Day You Become a Better Writer


Writing is a conversation between reader and author. People want the person talking to them to sound genuine.

Therefore, write for yourself, and write how you speak. Your writing will flow and sound natural. Your enthusiasm will shine through.

Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. To do so, relax, and have confidence.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t say in conversation.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” or not. You are who you are, she is who she is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.

You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway. […]

How can you think carefully about not losing the reader and still be carefree about his opinion? I assure you that they are separate processes.

First, work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner. Your sentences will be grounded in solid principles, and your chances of losing the reader will be smaller.

Think of the other as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

If you follow your affections, you will write well and engage your readers.

The Mechanics of Writing

The mechanics of writing are how you write well. It’s the process of constructing a piece. It’s the syntax, grammar, and words you choose. These guidelines will ensure the fundamentals of your writing are sound. This section is adapted from On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.


Unity is the anchor of good writing. It satisfies readers’ subconscious need for order. When trying to transform an idea into a piece of writing, you will face many problems that need to be solved. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts, or how to organize the material, or what approach, attitude, tone, or style best communicate the idea. All writing, as with design, is ultimately problem solving.

Unity comes in many forms:

But don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. When writing, go with the flow. The act of writing often generates some cluster of thoughts or memories that you didn’t anticipate. You might discover a different tone better communicates your point. Don’t fight the current. Go with it, but make sure to go back and rewrite the piece to ensure the mood and style are consistent.

The making of the film “Dr. Strangelove” is a great example of this. Kubrick originally intended for the movie to be a serious drama. But he began to see comedy inherent in the idea of mutual assured destruction as he wrote the first draft. He explains:

My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.

Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126

In order to better make his point about the ridiculousness of nuclear war, Kubrick went with the flow and made the movie a satire rather than a serious drama.


Like design, the key to writing well is iteration. Your first draft is never born perfect. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.

Clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering. Rewriting is mainly a matter of carpentry: altering the sequence, tightening the flow, sharpening the point.

Do not be afraid to experiment with what you have written. […] Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

If you’re struggling with an element of your writing, the simplest fix is to just get rid of it. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along — that’s why it was giving you so much grief. This will also make your writing simpler.

Keep putting yourself in the reader’s place. Is there something he should have been told early in the sentence that you put near the end? Does he know that when he starts sentence B that you’ve made a shift — of subject, tense, tone, emphasis — from sentence A?

Writing is like a good watch — it should run smoothly and have no extra parts.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Tip: When editing, put brackets around every component that isn’t doing useful work. Then read the piece without the bracketed components and see if it works.

Sometimes you’ll put brackets around entire sentences or paragraphs — ones that essentially repeat previous information, or go off on a tangent, or go into more detail than is necessary. Cut these.

Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.

Scott Adams, The Day You Become a Better Writer


Use good words if they already exist — as they almost always do — to express yourself clearly and simply to someone. Don’t use jargon or cliches.

Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. Pay attention to how words sound when stringing them together. Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write. Read your sentences aloud.

Such considerations of sound and rhythm should go into everything you write. See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.

Use concrete language. Concrete language is clearer and easier to grasp than abstract language. Concrete language describes something detectable by the senses. Something you can see, feel, hear, smell or taste. Abstract concepts are much harder to imagine.

Example: “overcoming procrastination” is abstract. You can’t visualize someone overcoming procrastination. By contrast: “ticking tasks off your to-do list” is concrete. You can visualize it.


Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual. Short paragraphs look inviting, whereas long paragraphs can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

But don’t go berserk: a succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long. They make the reader’s job harder by chopping up a natural train of thought.

Paragraphs are a road map that tell your reader how you have organized your ideas. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.

The Lead and the Ending

The Lead

The most important sentence is the first one. Entice readers with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Make them curious.

The lead must also tell the reader why the piece was written and why she ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason.

Then, continue to build. The last sentence of each paragraph should be a springboard to the next.

The Ending

The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

It takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. They should encapsulate the idea of the piece and conclude with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness. Do not sum your points — this comes across as laborious and boring.

Try to bring the story full circle: strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. This provides a feeling of symmetry, and is akin to resolving the tension of an unresolved note in music.

Tip: If you’re stuck, try using a quotation. Find a remark that has a note of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.

Syntax & Grammar


Use active verbs. Use precise verbs.

Verbs push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work.

Example: “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality: something was done by somebody to someone else. It’s also ambiguous.


Most adverbs are unnecessary. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

Example: “Effortlessly easy”, “slightly spartan”, “totally flabbergasted” are all redundant.


Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun. Get rid of adjectives by habit. The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.

When deciding to use an adjective or not, ask yourself if it’s doing work that needs to be done.

Example: “He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” These adjectives are necessary because the darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision.

Little Qualifiers

Good writing is lean and confident. Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Be bold. Speak with authority.



The period: most writers don’t reach it soon enough. Break long sentences into two short sentences, or even three.

The exclamation point: don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect. Instead, construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it.

Also resist using an exclamation point to notify the reader that you are making a joke or being ironic. This robs readers of the joy of finding it funny on their own.

The semicolon: they bring readers to a pause (if not a halt). So use it with discretion to add a related thought to the first half of a sentence.

The dash: use the dash to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. Use em dashes to set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence.

The colon: use it to bring a sentence to a brief halt before you plunge into, say, an itemized list.

Mood Changers

Alert the reader to any change in mood from the previous sentence.

If you begin too many sentences with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however” — it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however” — by that time it has lost its “howeverness.” Put it as early as you reasonably can. Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.

“Yet” and “nevertheless” can replace a whole long phrase that summarizes what the reader has just been told.

Above all else, always make sure your readers are oriented. Always ask yourself where you left them in the previous sentence.

Examples: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently.”


Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing. Read aloud to hear how stilted not contracting words sounds.

Avoid “I’d”, “he’d”, etc., because it can mean both “I had” and “I would.” Don’t invent contractions like “could’ve.” Stick to what you find in the dictionary.

That and Which

Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. “That” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” “Which” usage typically narrowly describes, or identifies, or locates, or explains, or otherwise qualifies the phrase that preceded the comma.


Concept Nouns

Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. What’s eerie about these sentences is that they have no people in them. They have no working verbs. The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity; all the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept: “reaction,” “cynicism,” “response,” “hostility.” Get people doing things. Use real people with real verbs.

Example: “The common reaction is incredulous laughter.” Instead say: “Most people just laugh with disbelief.”

Creeping Noun-ism

Do not string two or three nouns together where one noun — or, better yet, one verb — will do.

Example: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or a working verb.


Don’t overstate. Verbal high jinks can only get us so high before the reader feels an overpowering drowsiness.

This is especially true when it comes to humor. Let humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming.

Example: “It looked as if an atomic bomb went off in here.”


Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect.


Avoid words that carry an invidious meaning or some overtone of judgement.

Examples: “gal” (patronizing), “poetess” (second class status), “housewife” (second class role), “the girls” (imply a certain kind of empty-headedness), “lady lawyer” (demean the ability of women to do a certain kind of job), “divorcee” or “coed” or “blonde” (deliberately prurient). All of these are seldom applied to men. Men get mugged; a woman who gets mugged is a shapely stewardess.

More damaging and subtle are all the usages that treat women as possessions of the family male, not as people with their own identity who played an equal part in the family saga. Don’t use constructions that suggest that only men can be settlers or farmers or cops or firefighters.

Example: “Early settlers pushed west with their wives and children.” Turn those settlers into pioneer families, or pioneer couples.

Where a certain occupation has both a masculine and a feminine form, look for a generic substitute:

Examples: “Actors” and “actresses” become “performers.” “Chair” instead of “chairman.” “Company representative” instead of “spokesman.”

Or try converting the noun into a verb:

Example: “Speaking for the company, Ms. Jones said …”

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Turn non-gender-neutral pronouns ("he,” “she,” etc.) into the plural. But use sparingly — a style that converts every “he” into a “they” will quickly turn to mush. They are less specific than the singular; less easy to visualize.

Example: “All employees should decide what they think is best for them and their dependents.”

Use “or.” But use sparingly, otherwise your style will once again turn to mush.

Example: “Every employee should decide what he or she thinks is best for him or her.”

Do not use “he/she” — the slant has no place in good English. Use other pronouns or alter another component of the sentence.

“We” is a handy replacement for “he.” “Our” and “the” can often replace “his.”

Example: “First he notices what’s happening to his kids and he blames it on his neighborhood.” vs. “First we notice what’s happening to our kids and we blame it on the neighborhood.”

Use “you.” Instead of talking about “the writer” and the trouble “he” gets into, address the writer directly. Always look for ways to make yourself available to the people you’re trying to reach.


These books and articles helped me improve my writing immensely:

Last updated on 4/10/16