How To Write Like You Mean It

Get our Storytelling Newsletter

Image from Fraulein.mantis on instagram
There should be a law. Image from Fraulein.mantis on instagram

Commas matter. Like all forms of punctuation, they bring clarity to writing. Yet so often we disdain their proper deployment, accusing anyone who cares where and when they’re wielded of being nitpicking grammarians or, worse, fourth grade knuckle-rappers. Are we not in favour of clarity? Or are we so insecure about the rules of good writing, so fearful of all that we don’t know or understand or remember from Grade 4, that we prefer to hate the troublesome little danglers and those of us who traffic in them? (The world is full of devotees of clear writing and clear thinking. Why, Facebook even has a clubhouse!)

Commas matter because they signal good things. A well-punctuated piece of writing tells me the author cared enough not just to abide by rules of grammar, but to think first, write second. Well-chosen words, properly spelled and correctly corralled into sensible sentences, reassure me that I’m in good hands, that my precious time will be well spent.

Or, for those who care about their corporate good citizenship: when you take the time to write with care, you reassure your customers and audiences that you respect them enough to make good use of their attention. Your brand is strong and secure.

Or, for those who care about their corporate good citizenship: when you take the time to write with care, you reassure your customers and audiences that you respect them enough to make good use of their attention. Your brand is strong and secure.

Jonathan Franzen said something similar in his 2012 book of essays, Farther Away. He was talking about the way lazy writers repeat the structure of their sentences, creating a monotony to the reading experience. Specifically, he warned against relying on the “comma-then” construction: i.e., I had a thought, then I wrote it down. As he said: “If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther unless I’m forced to, because you’ve already told me several important things about yourself as a writer, none of them good. You’ve told me, first of all, that you’re not listening [emphasis mine] to the English language when you’re writing.…They [such sentences] sound unthinking; and the one thing that all prose ought to do is make its makers think.”

How can you show your readers and audiences that you care? That, in the words of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, you’re showing them true hospitality? (Hospitality, he says, “exists when you believe that the other person is on your side.”) Here are five questions I keep in mind, born of 20-odd years editing and writing for broad readerships:

  1. Plan ahead
    Not everyone goes so far as creating an abstract or outline (increasingly, I do), but at the very least sketch out some points you plan to make. I find it most effective to do this away from the keyboard. Short walks are very clarifying, and as a bonus they often yield the first, hardest sentence. If you can’t stand the notion of planning ahead, do review your writing when you reach the end to create the illusion of order.
    Labour hard to reduce redundancy in your expressions and ideas.

  2. Be specific
    Writing is powerful when you anticipate and meet the needs of your readers. Often, this means furnishing just the right detail at just the right moment. Supplying the telling detail — that mot juste — at just the moment the reader was reaching for it deepens the emotional connection that underlies all strong writing. I said I edited for 20-plus years. A better f’rinstance: I copy-edited 30,000 words a week for ten years at this alternative weekly.
    Supplant weak generalities with muscular detail.

  3. Put the tigers in the tiger cage
    This is courtesy my friend and mentor (my frientor?) Gary Ross, who teaches an excellent series on strong corporate writing. By this, he means that you should imagine your writing is a zoo. (And perhaps your writing is a zoo…) You don’t put the tigers and the koalas in the same cage, because you want to keep the koalas safe, the tigers calm, and the visitors horror-free. The same applies to good writing. Each paragraph should speak to one idea; each section should enclose one suite of ideas. Reread your first draft and ensure you’ve kept like ideas with like.
    Organize your thoughts so that you make each point well — once.

  4. Take calculated risks
    There’s little point in predictable, routine writing. It’s boring to create, boring to read. It suggests you hold your audience’s intelligence in contempt. Do you hold your audience — your customers, your readers, your confidantes — in contempt?
    Seek opportunities to bejewel your vocabulary, invert your sentence structure, upend routine. Readers, like fortune, favour the bold.

  5. End with a kicker
    Boring sentences announce themselves quickly. One solution is to review the first draft to inventory the inevitable gaps between your best intentions (see #1: Plan ahead) and your creation so far. As you become more alive to the music of language, you can hear the difference between a forethought sentence and a first-draft sentence. Take those limper ones and select the strongest word or phrase: that should go to the end. (That was that sentence as a first draft. Here it is re-engineered: Re-imagine limp sentences to finish with a punch.) The same holds true for paragraphs: hold in reserve the zinger. And sections. And the writing as a whole. Choose your last sentence cunningly. Leave your audience with the resonance of your writing — of your unique and powerful voice — pealing in their ears.
    Leave them laughing, leave them crying, leave them rolling in the aisles. Just don’t leave them snoring.

“You should hire some cunning linguist to help you distinguish what is proper English…”