Friday, July 29, 2011

Writing Well


If I begin with the sentence, ‘The art of writing has been mastered by a few’, I would be doing something partly right and partly wrong. Right – because it’s a simple sentence that communicates the idea well, using no big words unnecessarily; and wrong – because it’s the most clichéd sentence one could begin the piece with. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or even an email, good writing is always about writing clear English – with no grammatical mistakes. In fact, that’s the major difference between a professional writer and an amateur – the professional has learnt the significance of plain English, while the amateur is still wading through all the accoutrements.

Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers, even the ones who do know their language and grammar, often fall into a common trap – the trap of overwriting. Very few can steer clear of ‘flatulent orotundity’ defined as ‘a form of high-flown language that tries to impress, but instead obscures’. Some writers probably feel that because they’re writing professionally, they need to sound bombastic. It’s a misconception. So…

Rule number one: Write plain English; talk as you normally do.

Author mistake: But it is ‘my style’!

Yes, it was my style too – a couple of years ago – before I realised what an awful style it was. Good writing is considered ‘good’ because it is lucid and comprehensible to your reader. It is a bad idea to stuff your language like an overeager taxidermist. Remember Hemingway’s famous quote, ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’

The fact is that one doesn’t require verbosity; rather the reverse. The best writing comes from some good ideas presented in the simplest language, with certain fresh and pleasing expressions, a new word or two once in a while, and a bit of subtle humour sprinkled here and there. Look at O Henry, GK Chesterton, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri … in fact, any of your most favourite literary greats. Revisit their writing. They have learnt the art of getting the balance right.

Creative writing does not mean chaotic or esoteric writing. The best writing is sparse, subtle, and crystal clear. When there is ambiguity, the ambiguity is deliberate. When there is repetition for the sake of emphasis, it's a deliberate device and remains unobtrusive.

Rule number two: Use a more familiar word in place of a big, bombastic one. When you deliberately aim to send your reader to the dictionary every two minutes, it backfires.

Author mistake: But a discerning reader will pick up the dictionary!

You are flattering yourself if you think that even a discerning reader would make that effort in your honour every two minutes. Instead, he/she would lose interest very quickly and dump the book in some corner from which it’ll never resurface.

Yes, to avoid monotony, pedestrian writing, or an insipid style, one may use big words once in a while. But, please remember, those should be used for garnishing and not be confused with the dish.

Rule number three:Eschew obfuscation!’ J Avoid ‘circumlocution’ or saying something in a roundabout manner using too many words. If a bombastic word can be substituted with a simpler one, use it. Don’t make your sentences sound contrived.

Rule number four: Opt for short sentences. Usually, one idea in one sentence works best unless you’ve mastered the art of writing complex sentences without losing focus, becoming muddled yourself, or creating a confusion regarding the subject of the sentence. 

Rule number five: Do not use fifteen words where five will do. Avoid clumsy constructions. A sentence such as, ‘He was a man who had two cows, who had two buffaloes, and who had one goose,’ is the first nail in your coffin as a writer. Better to say, ‘The man had two cows, two buffaloes, and a goose.’ This is called tightening your sentences. Learn the art well, and it’ll take you a long way.

Rule number six:  De-clutter your writing by cutting out every extra adjective, adverb, verb, etc. One is enough in a sentence to convey the meaning. One makes more impact on the reader. Trust me on this one.

Author mistake: But I like double adjectives!

They clutter your writing. The aim is not to show off how many words you know; the aim is to kindle your reader’s imagination and let him/her enjoy his/her own journey. Unnecessary words are a hindrance. It is better to use fresh similes, metaphors, or imagery. Put your creativity to good use.

Rule number seven: Use active voice as far as possible. Unless one is writing an academic paper where language requirements are completely different, modern-day writing encourages the use of active voice and strong verbs. Try using them in your script and see what a difference it makes. 

Rule number eight: Avoid clichés. There is no point saying what has already been said thousands of times exactly like that – which is why it became a cliché in the first place.

Rule number nine: Introduce an idea, but don’t hammer it in. Repetition over and over again takes away from a piece of good writing. Readers don’t need you to preach to them or drill something into their heads. It’s a bad idea again to underestimate your readers or talk down to them.

Rule number ten: Never lose focus. It is even more important when you’re writing fiction. A clear plot should emerge right from the beginning, and the sub-plots should be built around it.  

Author mistake: But you didn’t read enough; the story starts building up from chapter eleven!

Well, chances are – if your script has not got the reader/editor’s attention by chapter ten, he/she will not make the effort to go to chapter eleven. Why waste the first ten chapters? By doing that you’re wasting your breath, probably a lot of paper, and the reader’s time.  

So, all in all, write clearly and simply. Do not wallow in vagueness and abstractions, language from Shakespeare’s time, redundancies, or ‘Indianisms’. Offer your reader something meaningful and worthwhile – something for keeps.

[You can find professional help here as well:]

Helpful material:

Indlish: Jyoti Sanyal
Oxford Essential Guide to Writing: Thomas S Kane
How to Write: Stephen Leacock
On Writing Well: William Zinsser
The Complete Plain Words: Ernest Gowers
Troublesome Words: Bill Bryson
Usage and Abusage: Eric Partridge
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage: Pam Peters
Contradictionary: Fritz Spiegl
Fowler’s Modern English Usage


  1. Thanks for the excellent post Divya. Another book I found quite useful is 'How to Write Better English' by Robert Allen. It's a part of the 'Penguin Writers' Guide' series.

  2. thanks Divya. yeah I am learning slowly that grammatical mistakes, spelling errors and typos are not signs of creativity
    As publisher/writer you are uniquely placed. insights very useful. Also disaromming honesty in drawing from own creative journey

  3. Guru Divya gives real gyaana to us all. Very few publishers share these tips with the writers writing their big books but very few are then a Stephenian and Oxford-educated. Great! The Hemingway tradition still rules.

  4. Thanks Siddhartha, Vinita, Dr Sharma. I'm glad at least some people care to read these posts and find them helpful. :)

  5. it was indeed very helpful. even i believe in using simpler words and crisp sentences while i am writing. i don't want my readers to go through a dictionary more than they read my book. and that is what every writer should aim at. :)

  6. Really good, Divya, Thanks. But do you really get such scripts?

  7. Sometimes, if we're lucky, yes we do. :)

  8. Thanks Divya & keep it up :)

  9. Thanks Divya, at least you tried in India because the books i've read (By Indian writers, published by small publishers) have flouted the norms freely. Without editing, books have been coming to the bookstores.

    In India, we've entered into a trap or cliche concept, thanks to post-Chetan syndrome? Something new is not easy to find. The campus love in college, IIM, IIT all these are written by many writers here in India for umpteen number of times.

    Useful article, thanks.


  10. Very nice and helpful article. I agree with all these rules. I myself love simplicity of language. Shorter and clearer sentences are very effective and builds up a "connection" with readers...

  11. Here's my favourite quote on the subject, from ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk Jr and E B White , 4th edition (2000):
    "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
    This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

  12. Hi. Nice and informative article (does that count as two adjectives ? :))

    We have a blog called Litizen. Its a blog of short stories contributed by amateur writers. Would it be fine with you if this article is posted in litizen, along with a link to this blogpost ? Writers are likely to find it beneficial. Thanks.

  13. Hi Rishabh,
    Sure you can post the link if you feel it'll be useful to litizen. :)

  14. Thanks Divya. Have done the same, with links on FB.

  15. Thanks Divya, Your suggestions are very useful!!!