Five Rules for Writers

(Photo: Mikael Damkier/Dreamstime)
A NR stalwart and journalism professor has some advice for fellow scribes.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from John J. Miller’s new book, Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

As a professional writer, I’m always trying to improve. I’ve studied the work of the top writers. I’ve debated great opening sentences with colleagues. I’ve thought long and hard about things like serial commas, concluding that they are good and necessary (don’t @ me).

These days, I’m not only a professional writer, but also a teacher of writing: I run the journalism program at Hillsdale College. The best way to learn how to write is to write, because experience offers the soundest instruction. Yet my students and I also consult sources such as The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, whose best advice has become a famous dictum: “Omit needless words.”

Lots of writers share their wisdom through idiosyncratic lists. I collect the good ones and often give them to students. The late crime novelist Elmore Leonard offered ten rules, including this one: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Last summer, the columnist Bret Stephens presented 15 tips for “aspiring op-ed writers.” The Guardian recently assembled its own list, drawing on William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, and others. Muriel Spark’s input: “Get a cat.” (I currently have four, plus a dog.)

My favorite list is George Orwell’s. It comes at the end of “Politics and the English Language,” which is his best essay — and one that every writer should read, and then read again, and then some more. It’s about the difference between good writing and bad writing, and how bad writing leads to bad thinking. Orwell concludes with six elementary rules for good writers. They are wise and pithy: Avoid clichés and so forth. The last one makes me smile: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

I’ve decided to join the fun. Here are five rules of my own.

When in doubt, start with “when.” I once struggled with scene-setting ledes. Then a veteran writer (Peter Collier) told me a trick: Start your article with the word “when.” It forces you to go in medias res, which is Latin for “into the middle of things.” A large percentage of my ledes start with this word. Perhaps I’ve overdone it — but I bet you wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t pointed it out.

Show, don’t tell. When we were kids, teachers invited us to play “Show and Tell.” Imagine if they had invited us to play merely “Tell.” Sally would stand before the class and say, “I have a pet rabbit.” The magic of “Show and Tell” is that Sally gets to say, “I have a pet rabbit,” and then she shows us the rabbit. Good writing aims for the same effect, letting readers see what we’re saying through illustration, anecdote, and a vivid vocabulary.

Many of your best ideas will come as you compose.

Omit needless words. Yes, I’m ripping off Strunk and White. But their good advice bears repeating. So let me say it again, this time borrowing the first three sentences from the old style guide of the Kansas City Star, which Ernest Hemingway credited with teaching him concision: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.”

Inspiration comes from work. Lots of non-writers think that the opposite is true. The late movie critic Roger Ebert put it best: “There is no such thing as waiting for inspiration,” he wrote. “The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.” Many of your best ideas will come as you compose.

Sleep on it. The deadlines of journalism don’t always allow us to set aside what we’ve written and return to it the next day — but when they do, and when we can look again with fresh eyes in the morning, we spot things we didn’t see earlier and have a new chance to improve.

Now go write something.


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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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