9 Core Principles of Writing

Last summer, in preparation for writing my book, I read 15 or so books on writing and publishing. I then went back through the books and typed up the most important points from them into a single document (which came to 66 pages).

Out of all of this — and based also just on what I already knew about writing from classes (especially from two incredible English and composition teachers in high school) and just plain writing a lot — I pulled together what I take to be the top 9 core principles for effective writing.

Here they are:

  1. Omit needless words
  2. Use the active voice
  3. Be clear
  4. Be concrete and specific, permeating the work with details. For non-fiction, interviews are a helpful way to do this.
  5. Build your work around a key question
  6. Create tension
  7. Be yourself
  8. Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs
  9. Give the reader room to play their role (for example, when you state an amazing fact, don’t then say “that’s really amazing.” Let readers do their own marveling)

If you have other core principles that you think should be included in this list, I’d love to hear them.

  • http://danielrowe.org Daniel Rowe

    What a great (and simple) list. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tom Sturch

    Matt: I like the list but would have a beef at no. 6. I think five and six are intrinsically related: questions aren’t “key” unless there is an inherent tension. I was surprised by two popular titles I read recently by renowned Christian authors who mishandle their presentations at this point, manufacturing tension instead of revealing it. Perhaps this was an editorial or marketing requirement of the publisher, but as a student of the Bible and better literature which employ more graceful means of dealing with duality, I regard this creation of tension unintelligent, even fraudulent. Christians can and must do better.

  • Kyle Keating

    Hey Matt,

    Want to recommend some of the best of the books you read on writing? Thanks!

  • http://aborrowedlight.wordpress.com MarkO

    Great list. – What about artfully using questions throughout? Doesn’t this help the reader ponder the “key question” more deeply? We can, of course, over do it with questions, but done well it is another way to engage the reader, right?

  • Zack

    As an attorney, I find #2 to be one of the most often violated rules. Personally, I struggle the most with #8. Great list overall.

  • http://bibchr.blogspot.com Dan Phillips

    It was good, but I do wish you hadn’t rattled on and on about it.

  • http://bibchr.blogspot.com Dan Phillips

    PS – j/k, of course. Love it when posts model what they declaim, as yours did.

  • Michael

    I agree with Kyle – could you share the books you most recommend from the 15 you read?

  • Matt

    Sure. Here were some of the best:

    – Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Clark.

    – On Writing Well, William Zinsser.

    – The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White.

    – (Worth a quick glance: Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, Arthur Plotnik.)

    – The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well, Laurie Rozakis. (Yes, this book was actually helpful–did a good job of giving a whole overview of the different types of writing.)

    – Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction — and Get it Published, Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato.

    – How to Write a Book Proposal, Michael Larsen.

    – Michael Hyatt has an e-book on how to write book proposals as well–it’s by far the best I’ve seen on creating effective book proposals. I think it’s online here: http://michaelhyatt.com/products/ebook-writing-a-winning-book-proposal

    – Made to Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath.

  • Matt

    Tom: Great point. The tension has to arise naturally, from a _good_ key question, rather than be artificial.

    Artificial tension, artificial remarkability, artificial hype–all such things need to be done away with. Great content, told well, is what’s engaging.

    Mark: I agree that using questions throughout is a good practice. A lot of times, in following where the key question drives you, it leads to other sub-questions, and the result is a very interesting journey for the reader.

  • http://ahackandagrunt.blogspot.com Nina

    I don’t like the “Use the active voice” rule. Passive voice isn’t incorrect, and sometimes it’s even preferable, depending on your purpose. Yes, can be “wordy,” and is often better changed to active voice, but to have a “Use the active voice” rule is a little too black and white for me.

    BTW, Zinsser is the best!

  • Matt

    Totally — I agree that there are times to use the passive voice. It just needs to be used on purpose–the best example being when you want the focus to be on the recipient of the action, or the results, rather than the actor.

    Or, in personal conversation, it is much better to say “looks like the garage door was open all night” rather than “_you_ left the garage door open all night”! The passive voice is a good way to soften things. People usually know what they’ve done wrong, and if it has to be mentioned it’s best to do it in a way that doesn’t place further emphasis on their role in what happened.

    I thought about making a note in the list that the passive voice can be effective when used rightly; a (perhaps) false application of point 1 kept me from doing that!

  • Ibukun

    I like your list. As an editor, I would add:
    -Don’t assume you wrote it perfectly the first time; revise!
    -Don’t try to be cute. Unless you’re really good with words, just say it plainly.
    -Say it as simply as you can but no simpler. (I got this from somewhere)

  • Matt

    Excellent, excellent additions. All 3 are right on and deserve to be in the list — especially revising.

  • http://hipandthigh.blogspot.com Fred Butler

    I would add one other point: Use words accurately. I have learned this point the hard way. Generally from cranky commenters like myself pointing them out to me in the comments of my blog posts.

    You have an inaccurate use of the word “incredible.” especially from two incredible English and composition teachers in high school

    Incredible means “too extraordinary to be believed or preposterous or farfetched” In other words, your teachers had no credibility or you had no trust in anything they said.

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