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Professional writing: the essentials

Ten golden rules that you break at your peril

Ten golden rules of writing and editing that you break at your peril:


1. Put your reader first.

2. Be concise.

3. Keep it simple.

4. Vary sentence length and structure.

5. Use Plain English: favour words that come from Anglo-Saxon.

6. If in doubt, read it out: ask if this is what you would say to a reader.

7. Write with action verbs.

8. Don’t overuse adverbs: trust the word to do its job.

9. Put in sign-posts: let readers know where you are taking them.

10. Tell readers a story: don’t dump information on them.


Those are the basics. If you want some more detail, read on . . .


Writing fluently

It was while I was writing my doctoral thesis that I discovered the approach that I now call freeflow. I discovered that I could write fluently and efficiently, allowing structure and meaning to emerge as I wrote. I came to understand that what I had thought were two quite separate worlds of writing - the creative and the objective - were in fact the same. The basic process of writing any text is exactly the same, and it all starts with intuition. My PhD was completed without any of the angst and despair that I had been warned of by others: I actually enjoyed writing it. Sure, it was often hard work, but I never felt blocked or hopeless or drained.

Write first – edit later

I could see with growing clarity how many people undermine their attempts to write, how they doggedly stick with an approach that they believe will work, despite all the evidence that it doesn’t. I began to read everything I could that might shed light on the process of writing. I studied the ideas of psychologists, authors, improvisation experts, spiritual teachers, linguists and artists. A pattern emerged, a picture that fitted with my own experience of writing, and out of all this freeflow took shape. It seemed to me that in many ways writing was like life: one big improvisation. I look back and I can find meaning, structure, certainty. But it is only clear in retrospect. Writing cannot be reduced to a rational process; it is an unpredictable flow that leads us to discover what we mean. And that is what I have been teaching. That is how to write a first draft: then you have something meaningful and rich to edit.

What is good writing?

You may have noticed that there is too much writing in our lives these days. And a lot of it is not well written. There are too many emails to read, too many web pages to check through: there is too much information. If you want your reader to give your material their attention and precious time, you’ll need to work hard. Take a look at what is considered good writing. See how someone like Bill Bryson conveys complex ideas in straight-forward language. Whether he’s taking us through the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity, or the theory of the Big Bang, his writing is clear, engaging, and easy to read. It may seem effortless, because that is your experience of reading it. But it isn’t. It requires effort, together with a grasp of the basics of good writing.

Give up trying to impress and focus on communicating, on getting the job done. Keep the language simple and to the point. Write vigorous verb-centred English rather than use strings of nouns. Write to communicate.

Learning the rules

Verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, active voice, passive voice, colons, dashes and semi-colons: you need to know about these. You need to learn how to use the essentials of English grammar and punctuation and apply what you learn consistently. You need to know the rules, and Learning the rules to distinguish between those you have to follow, and the stuff you were taught that you can forget. Who said that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction, like ‘and’ or ‘but’? Take a look at the pages of any top-drawer magazine or journal and see how this ‘rule’ can be dispensed with. Read widely, read top-quality work, and you will start to absorb the fundamentals of good writing. And to make sure that you are on the right track, come along to one of my courses or get some one-to-one coaching. I can guarantee that your writing will be transformed.