- Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why?
- Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.
- Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
- Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
- Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms & technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, & prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.
- Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).
- Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
- Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
- Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
- Prose must cohere: readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”
- Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.
- Read it aloud.
- Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.
The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:
- Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
- Do your homework before writing
- Include a useful subject line [or headline]
- Trim your signature
- Stay on topic
- Include important information
- Respect differences in opinion and philosophy
Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.
It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.
“Caminante, no hay camino. Pero el camino se hace al andar.” [Using Google Translate to roughly translate into English: “Hiker, there is no road. But, the road is made by walking it.]
…The way is in not out…
…search through your memory, your childhood, your dreams, your passions, your failures, your sorrows, your wildest hallucinations, your most unreasonable hopes, your sickest fantasies, your most homicidal desires, in everything that’s seemingly the most unutterable, the most abominable guilts, the stupidest lyricisms, the most general confusion, the bottom of the bottomless well that is the subconscious: that’s where your work is.”—Caio Fernando Abreu, translated in Medaya Ocher, “The Sluts and the Saints: A Letter to Zézim.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. March 13, 2019.
As an exercise, I tried rewriting an essay I wrote for this blog, Ergot on Rye, in the Hemingway editor. I learned that my writing in too academic. It is too hard to read. Expressions need to be simpler. I need to use fewer qualifiers.
The Hemingway editor helps me break down some of those learned habits. It also has direct to WordPress publishing capability. But, it’s only available for Windows and MacOS. writegood-mode in Emacs might be an alternative on Linux.
Below are quotes from the first few paragraphs, followed by their rewritten counterparts. The difference is quality is obvious.
“tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”
Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”
“This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that lead to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.”
Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungus. It is a parasite of rye. But, it also grows on triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects. One, it causes hallucinations, convulsions and seizures. Two, it constricts the blood vessels in the extremities causing gangrene and/or death. Which effect happens depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows.
Ergot also causes abortions, seizures, fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid. Lysergic acid is a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Ergot poisoning has mutilated, driven mad or killed tens of thousands of people. Today, it very rarely effects anyone.”
“Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”
Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time converts it to ergine. This matches historical recipes for kykeon. Kykeon was drunk at the culmination of religious fasts. Eleusinian Mystery cults used kykeon in their rituals. People ate rye after the Bronze age. But, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”
“Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:”
Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom. The expansion put pressure on the food supply. As a result, planting rye in the winter provided a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With more people eating rye, ergot poisoning became more widespread and notable. For example, the first example of a dancing plague is in a 1021 C.E.. It happened in the German town of Kölbigk:”
“Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism. The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.”
Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Dancing mania matches of what happens after consumption of kykeon. This may be a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. It lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain. This story is may be apocryphal elements. But, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism.
The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in in 857 A.D in the Rhine Valley. It received it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. People blamed the madness from ergot as possession by the Devil. The gangrenous form of ergot poisoning was punishment for sin. Ergot played a role in religious purity movements. The strict vegetarian diets of Carthars may have been in response to ergot poisoning. As the Catholic crusades and inquisitions may have been a response to were in response to it.”
Write like Hemingway.