How To Write Better

Words play an enormous role in nearly everyone’s life. Therefore, the effective use of words through the act of writing and the act of speaking becomes a vital skill to perfect over the course of one’s life.

“Our civilization is unable to do what individuals cannot say” writes John Ralston Saul at the outset of his book A Doubter’s Companion:

“And individuals are unable to say what they cannot think. Even thought can only advance as fast the unknown can be stated through conscious organized language”

So the issue of gradually perfecting one’s use of language is not simply an issue for writers (or aspiring writers), but is one that impacts anyone who relies upon language for communication.

How do we do it then?

Below are some tools, tips, and advice from four folks who wrote a bit about the issue.

Advice from Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher who helped establish the Center for the Study of Great Ideas. He spent much of his career condensing arcane philosophy into digestible bits meant for common folks who didn’t have the time nor resources for ivory towers and long hours of study.

The tips below come from his best-seller How To Read A Book.

Step 1: Analysis

  1. Classify the book according to its subject.
  2. State the whole book with brevity.
  3. Describe how the major parts are ordered and how they relate.
  4. Analyze the individual parts.
  5. Define the problems that the author is trying to solve.

Step 2: Interpretation

  1. Interpret the basic words used.
  2. Grasp the important propositions by dealing with the important sentences.
  3. Know the authors arguments by finding and constructing them from the author’s own sentences.
  4. Determine the problems that are solved and the ones that are left unsolved.

Step 3: Criticism

  1. Learn how to discern and respect the difference between opinion and knowledge.
  2. After Analysis and Interpretation are complete, explain where the author was misinformed, using faulty logic, or incomplete.

Although the 3-step process was primarily meant for books, the method itself can be adapted to many forms of writing, in particular long-form articles.

Advice from William Zissner

William Zissner (1922 – 2015) was a well-respected and widely-published writer, editor, and teacher who seemed to be endlessly adaptive, even writing a blog for The American Scholar in his late 80s.

The tips below are taken from his influential book On Writing Well.

  1. Use active verbs (I hit him) rather than passive (He was hit by me)
  2. Take out adverbs
  3. Avoid unnecessary adjectives
  4. Take out or prune “a bit” “a little” “quite/very/kind of” and get to the point. Be bold!
  5. Avoid nouns that express a concept; use verbs instead.
  6. Shorter paragraphs are better.
  7. Make THE LEAD the first sentence .
  8. Unity is important (keep word choice and tense the same or similar)


Advice from Stephen King

Stephen King (1947 – present) is a hugely influential author with a steady output of books –and books made into hugely influential movies – that stretches back well over 40 years. His output includes short stories, long trilogies, poignant essays and more.

“If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (…) “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have to time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

The advice and tips below are taken from his autobiographical book On Writing.

  1. The 1st draft is written fast, with the door closed and no feedback. Once done, put it aside and do something else.
  2. The 2nd draft equals the 1st draft minus 10%. Trim away mistakes and ask “what does the 1st draft mean?” Make those conclusions apparent in the 2nd draft.
  3. “Your job isn’t to find ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
  4. Don’t consciously improve vocabulary. Let it increase, naturally, through reading.
  5. Avoid the passive tense. Passive Tense = something is being done to the subject; Active Tense = the subject is doing something.
  6. Story has 3 parts: Narration (moves from A to B to Z), Description (creates sensory reality), and Dialogue (brings characters to life through speech).

Like Adler’s book, the tips and advice here can be adapted to forms of writing beyond the novel.

King, being a voracious reader, suggests that readers check out Raymond Chandler,  Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams to soak in masters of descriptions and Graham Greene, George Higgins. Peter Straub to soak in masters of dialogue.

Advice from Don George

Don George  is an influential travel writer, editor and teacher who has worked in the industry for over 20 years with such publications as Lonely Planet and National Geographic.

The tips and advice below are taken from his book Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing.

  1. What was the first moment I felt drawn to a place? What was the first connection? What drew me into the experience? Write 400 words.
  2. Think about a travel place that you want to passionately write about it. What is the single most important thing I want to convey to the reader? Get that down to one sentence. Write that sentence at the top of the piece. Does everything relate to that?
  3. Talk with some new people and, in no more than 250 words, reproduce the dialogue. Can you picture the person from their words? What information is conveyed?
  4. Describe the most memorable person you’ve ever met. Start with sentence “The most memorable person I ever met was ____. What did they look like? What were they wearing? How did they act? What did they say? What made the encounter so memorable? What did I learn from it? Write 350 words describing the encounter.
  5. Sit in one spot comfortably. Observe intently for 15-20 minutes and then write as precise a description as possible in 300 words. What are the most important parts of the place?
  6. Choose a compelling activity from some trip and write it in the present tense. Now write it in the past tense. How do they compare?

Although by no means comprehensive, hopefully the above few tips and exercises can help you expand your writing abilities. Mix this with the good folks at openculture as well as the great work of Maria Popova at brainpickings to continue progressing down that unending yet vital journey of perfecting one’s use of language.