Ten Laws on Writing

My ten commandments for good writing in English, or any civilized, literary language.

  1. Let one sentence say one thing.
  2. Say what you mean, not something a yard to the left of it.
  3. Make sure that sentence structure and grammar support laws 1 and 2.
  4. Know how to punctuate; master the semicolon.
  5. Use one term with precisely one meaning, and use all terms precisely.
  6. Define all special or local terms, explicitly or implicitly.
  7. Define new terms only when really necessary, and then very carefully.
  8. Use lists whenever (but only when) appropriate and ensure they are fully consistent.
  9. Do not rely on spell checkers.
  10. Choose a respected style standard and stick to it.

A verbose version of the laws follows for anybody who does not get the point.

This page is about writing pure and simple. It is about composing words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs and sections and chapters, to present information or tell a tale (as in any article for a news medium, magazine, journal, web log, web site or page of any other kind, and even a letter of any importance, say a letter to a person one does not know very well, or about any important topic.

This is not about writing for pure literary effect,and does not claim to cover what should be said about the art of writing fiction; however unless a work of fiction uses the common device of pretending that the narrative has been written by one of the characters, with all that charater’s foibles, much of the advice embodied in these laws and the writing guide on this site still applies.

Law 1: Let one sentence say one thing

Don't spread one basic idea across two sentences, or try to say two separate things (make two separate main points) in one sentence.

Law 2: Say what you mean

This seems ridiculously obvious but it is amazing how many people do not write what they mean because they have not thought carefully enough about what they really need to say about a particular point in a discussion and at a partiular point in the text.

Law 3: Sentence structure

A writer must understand sentence structure in order to know how to punctuate it correctly.

Law 4: Know how to punctuate

The function of punctuation is not to mark where to pause when reading aloud; whatever you were told as a small child at school, that notion of what it is for is obsolete, and has been for a century or two. It was fine for the ancient Greeks and may have been adequate even up to the 18th century; but it is dead now. You must understand how to give ecah sentence the correct structure for what is must achieve, and then mark that structure using appropriate punctuation.

Law 5: Use one term with precisely one meaning

Again, many people, especially in school with teachers having an antiquated literary bias, appear to have been taught that one should not use the same term more than once in a piece or in a section or paragraph because repetition is inelegant. Wrong, at least for all expository material, and the more technical it is the worse the effect of this habit on the result.

You can see the effect of this antiquated idea in the writing of news reporters, and you can even hear it on radio and television in the sripts of sports reporters, who are among the worst offenders, apparently imagining that it is elegant to make obscure allusions in a series of paraphrases apparently designed to avoid repeating anything. So if Fred Bloggs scored a marvellous goal for Happytown in today's premier league football match, to avoid saying "Fred" or "Bloggs" more than once they may say his name the firt time, then replace it where it would subsequently have occurred in the description with a string of alternative phrases such as "the Happytown hero", the stubby mid-fielder", "the man with the golden feet" and so on, all this in a piece of maybe no more than 30 seconds.

All of this is just affectation in lowbrow journalism; in serious factual writing it is a major sin if the material is at all technical in nature, especially if it is part of documentation of any kind of product, technical in nature or not.

Law 6: Define all special or local terms

Law 7: Define new terms only when really necessary

When doing do, take great care: have regard to existing usage, to convenience, and to proper linguistic, etymological and semantic principles.

Law 8: Use lists whenever (but only when) appropriate

Ensure that every list has internal and external consistency. At the very least, all the items in any list should be of the same grammatical nature — the same part of speech, in oldergrammatical jargon. That is, the items should all be nouns, or all adjectives, or all verbs, or all adverbs, all statements (finite clauses), all commands (finite clauses with imperative verbs) or possibly, though this is probably quite unlikely, all some other type of grammatical object.

More about lists (including examples).

Law 9: Do not rely on spell checkers

Law 10: Choose a respected style standard and stick to it