Rules for good writing

I first encountered rules like these in The MultiTasker, a newsletter for users of the RSX-11M operating system on DEC PDP-11s. (I mention these gory details only to show how long ago it was.) An article headed Multi-Tasker Submission Guidelines - or some such formal title - turned out to include such helpful advice as "No sentences without verbs" and "Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms". I doubt whether the Multi-Tasker is where this game started; and I have seen similar lists several times since, in various places. Anyway, I challenged myself to come up with a hundred similarly self-contradictory rules of my own, and here they are.

  1. Above all, be original.  Don't re-cycle other people's ideas, however good you may think they are.
  2. Avoid similes like the plague.
  3. Tmesis has finally been prohibited.  Hoo-bloody-ray!
  4. The editor will eradicate any examples of zeugma with vigour and his blue pencil.
  5. begin each sentence with a capital letter and end it with a full stop  

  6. And try not to start sentences with conjunctions.
  7. I'm sorry about our not allowing  the  possessive gerund, but many of our younger readers would not understand it.
  8. Défense d'écrire en Francais.
  9. German word-order is forbidden, unless the writer himself German is.
  10. If you possibly can, without obscuring the essential thrust of what you  are  trying  to say, and without misleading by excessive and patently unjustifiable   oversimplification, avoid sentences of such inordinate length and complexity of construction as would overtax the comprehension and/or attention of the average reader, as these are by their nature a particularly difficult medium in which to  sustain  a  good prose style, and best attempted only by such coruscating and inimitable masters of the genre as Mr Bernard Levin, and even by him only when at the height of his by no means inconsiderable intoxication with the exuberance of his own notorious verbosity.
  11. Don't be too terse, though.
  12. Floccinaucinihilipilificate sesquipedalians.
  13. Long strings of adjectives are the sign of an uninspired, untalented,  unimaginative, monotonous, tedious and generally poor writer who has just bought a thesaurus.
  14. Avoid words spelt differently in America and Britain, as these are liable to color the opinions of, and indeed antagonize, British readers (who still like to think of their country as the center of the civilized world, bless their little cotton sox!)
  15. Don't use brackets if you can help it (though we recognise that they sometimes can't be avoided (or (at least) not without extreme difficulty)), and never nest them.
  16. Never, never repeat yourself.  Never.
  17. Avoid all those words of hybrid Greek and Latin origin that we hear so much nowadays, particularly on television.
  18. Make sure that your prose is varied. Never let the rhythm settle into a repeating pattern,  like that most annoying metre we all know from Hiawatha - know,  and  have disliked since childhood.
  19. Avoid doubles-entendres - after all, it wouldn't do for anyone to get the wrong end of the stick, as the actress said to the bishop.
  20. While it hath its place in ye bard's poesy of yore, archaic language cometh ill now that ye morn of computerisaycioune hath ybroke.
  21. Don't touch malapropisms with a metallurgical barge-pole.
  22. Nothing distracts the reader more than a spaet of mosprnits - just ask thee editro of hte 'Grauniad'!
  23. Avoid silly misprint-inducing habits such as trying to do all your writing without using a particular symbol which occurs in fifth position in our alphabot.
  24. Some authors use even quite common words incorrectly. Make sure you do nothing of the rhubarb.
  25. Good spelling cannot be seperated from good writing; it is a neccessary atribute of the successfull author.
  26. It is bad style for a sentence to start out on one subject and hasn't the weather been terrible this week?
  27. The editor says you mustn't use reported speech.
  28. If you were to use the subjunctive, many readers would be alienated.
  29. Do try, gentle reader, not to use outdated devices of the kind  which  were  fashionable in nineteenth-century fiction.
  30. Make sure you don't sound patronising, there's a good chap.
  31. Don't insult the reader, you berk!
  32. The chairman objects to sexist language.
  33. The rest of the personagement, however, have comhumanded the editrix to oppose him as personfully as she can.
  34. Correct punctuation is, of course essential.
  35. Multiple exclamation marks are especially bad!!!
  36. No sentences without verbs.
  37. If a can still understood when third word been left it may possible advantageously shorten it. In fact usually is. (But not.)
  38. Decompress telegraphese soonest.
  39. Two homophones can be too many to put in the same sentence, even if c'est tout, so there is certainly no room for four. (The editor will arrange for anyone ignoring this advice to be marooned on an eyot).
  40. While it is essential to give equal weight to opposing and irreconcilable  points  of  view, make sure that you never contradict yourself.
  41. Synecdoche offends many ears.
  42. Deburbulate neologisms.
  43. Understatement can sometimes be the teensie-weensiest bit irritating.
  44. Never use several words when one would provide a perfectly adequate sufficiency.
  45. Don't use footnotes.  *
  46. Eliminate, extirpate and excise each and every occurrence of tautology, redundancy or pleonasm.
  47. Always leave the most important thing till last.
  48. Here's another couple of things to remember: never promise more than you are going to deliver.
  49. Don't use self-referential sentences like this one.
  50. A pun is just a noise that annoys.
  51. Don't state the obvious - people already know that.
  52. To include obscure classical references in writing which already needs the reader's full attention is piling Ossa upon Pelion.
  53. Goldwynisms?  Include them out.
  54. Eliminate imperatives!
  55. We don't publish anyone who conjugate his verbs incorrectly.
  56. Write nothing that might offend bigots, perverts, idiots, loonies, women, or any other minority group.
  57. Be optimistic. That's the main thing I want you to remember (in the unlikely event that anyone ever reads this).
  58. Avoid unnecessary explanations; in other words, don't bother to rephrase things the reader probably understood perfectly well the first time.
  59. Don't try too hard to be trendy, you dig? Could be out-of-datesville is where you're at, man.
  60. Write in standard English, not dialect - that's nobbut common sense, tha' knows.
  61. As Anthony Burgess was saying to me only the other day, name-dropping impresses no-one.
  62. Ideas like trying to equip just one sentence with every letter of the alphabet without exception are amazingly silly.
  63. Use punctuation to clarify the meaning where it would otherwise be at least temporarily unclear or difficult to understand and make life easier for the reader.
  64. Inasmuch as it is liable to provoke, antagonise or otherwise disequilibriate the reader,  hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part, the author, heretofore and in perpetuity referred to as the party of the second part, shall neither use, exploit, nor incite the use or exploitation  of, legal, legalistic or otherwise wilfully tortuous and longwinded language in any article, publication, report, memorandum, or affidavit.
  65. Let P(x) be the probability of reader x being impressed by displays of mathematical pseudery. Then it can be shown that, for all x except those in a set of Lebesgue measure zero,

                       P(x) = 1 + eip

    where e is the base of natural logarithms, p is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and i2 = -1.
  66. Don't tell people not to do things it had probably never occurred to them to do anyway.
  67. Euphemisms must kick the bucket.
  68. If you must use Latin tags, make sure, mutatis mutandis, that you have used them correctly.
  69. Don't practise what you preach.
  70. Don't presume to advise others how to write.
  71. Make sure you don't get any tricky plurals wrong. Such faux pases are liable to be the  pet anathemas of influential alumnuses of authors' alma maters. Incorrect Hebrew plurals may  particularly offend kibbitzers in kibbutzes, though this may be hard to understand for people with weltanschauungs like yours.
  72. If you must split a word, be absolutely sure you get the hyp-hen in the right place.

  73. May I presume to suggest that you should not be too deferential?
  74. Shun words whose pronunciation is a matter of controversy.
  75. If, when you write, you use a lot of short words and no long ones, your stuff will not be nice to read. You would do well to use from time to time the odd word that had a bit more length to it.
  76. Don't be negative.
  77. Don't mention sex.
  78. Don't reveal your own political views, in case you upset rabid lefties.
  79. If you use conditional clauses, always use 'then' to make the meaning clear.
  80. Avoid cross-references, especially the kind exhibited in the next two items.
  81. If the next item so advises you, write in ink, otherwise write in pencil.
  82. If the previous item advises you to write in ink, write in pencil, otherwise write in ink.
  83. Repetition of whole sentences is even worse than repetition of single words. REPETITION OF WHOLE SENTENCES IS EVEN WORSE THAN REPETITION OF SINGLE WORDS.
  84. Stop at the end, after going on from the beginning, where you should have started.
  85. I am superstitious and strongly recommend avoiding sentences exactly thirteen words in length.
  86. To use an ellipsis is seldom advisable...
  87. Nothing is easier than to succumb to the temptation to make a 'clever' play on words which will distract and annoy the reader - so do nothing!
  88. Don't issue threats - or else!
  89. No litotes.
  90. Don't make deliberate misteaks.
  91. Never give instructions without explaining the reasons for them.
  92. The use of adverbs is strongly discouraged.
  93. D o n ' t

                       r          t         c         k

                        e          y       i a       c r

                         s      o   p     h   l     i   y,

                          o    t     o   p         m

                           r          g a       g m

                            t          r         i

    in case it doesn't work out quite right.

  94. Don't be pretencieux.
  95. Away (whoosh!) with onomatopoeia.
  96. Would that the hortative subjunctive were used no more.
  97. What would anyone want to bring strings of consecutive prepositions and similar forms of messing about in for?
  98. Beware of relative clauses, which, when misused, can leave the reader uncertain  which 'which' is which, which is misleading, and which is not.
  99. Ambiguity leaves the editor thoroughly chuffed.
  100. Don't add unnecessary items to a list simply to make the total up to a nice round number.

* Ever!

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© Bob Newman 2005. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 29/06/2006