How to write

© January 2024 Paul Cooijmans


Writing is a rare and powerful skill that, once mastered, will lay the world at one's feet. For disambiguation, meant here is the creation of effective and legible text or prose, such as in essays, short stories, or novels, and not mere spelling and grammar, which one should already have learnt flawlessly in primary school. The following suggestions, when heeded, are guaranteed to make one a better writer.

Suggestions to improve your writing

Write in plain text

The habitual use of layout features — italic, bold, underlined, fonts, font sizes, font colours et cetera — is a mark of bad authorship. Good writers are able to say what they want to say in plain text; that is, text without any layout whatsoever. Whenever you feel the urge to implement a layout feature, think again and reformulate that phrase or clause such that it expresses your intention without requiring layout. That is how you learn the art or writing. While technically this can be done in a word processor, much better is to utilize a text editor, for such a program will force you to write plain text simply by having no layout capabilities to begin with. Ideal is a somewhat advanced text editor that is also capable of spell checking. If you do not know the difference between a text editor and a word processor, which is a common form of ignorance, you should acquaint yourself with it.

Avoid idioms

Idiomatic expressions are non-literal constructions that can not be understood by looking at their constituent words and context, but can only be understood by who already knows what that idiom means. So that excludes (1) anyone outside the always limited circle of people who know that idiom and (2) anyone in the future, when the idiom in question has been forgotten. So if you desired to write for the world and for eternity, you would have to be an idiot to use idioms. Whenever you feel the urge to employ an idiom, think again and reformulate that phrase or clause in proper abstract-literal language that can be understood from its constituent words and context by anyone with reading comprehension. You will find that it takes considerable mental effort to formulate it such, and that is how you learn to write. Non-natives may find they have an advantage here because they know many fewer idioms than do natives, and are thus less often facing this problem. As an aside, it is pointed out that metaphors (or analogies), while also non-literal, are not idioms as they can be understood from their constituent words and context.

Avoid abbreviations

Abbreviations suffer partly from the same problems as idioms: Only a limited set of readers will already know a given abbreviation, and readers in a future wherein that abbreviation has been forgotten will not know the abbreviation at all. Many readers will be stumped and forced to look up the abbreviation if they want to know its meaning. The combined time and effort thus expended by those readers is a great multiple of the time and effort expended by you, the author, to type the abbreviation's meaning in full. So if you can think, you now know what is the logical and altruistic thing to do whenever you feel the urge to abbreviate.

Avoid contractions

Contractions, like "don't" or "I'd", are spoken language, not written language, so should be written only when quoting speech such as dialogue, and even then only when the character being quoted is one that tends to speak in contractions.

Spell check while writing

Do use a spell checker while writing, to catch simple spelling errors immediately. This saves much work in the final stage of writing, when it is easy to overlook such errors when proofreading the work.

Study sources on style

The correct use of punctuation, structuring sentences in clauses, and other stylistic matters that are not strictly prescribed by the grammar rules of a language, are advised on in the style sections of large comprehensive dictionaries, and in other style guides one may find here or there. Such should be studied integrally; that is, not just used for reference but read from beginning to end. One may then learn things one did not know before.

Rewriting and density of meaning

Once written, any piece of text should be read and rewritten a great number of times to increase its amount of meaning per word. With every clause, sentence, paragraph, and chapter one should ask oneself, "How can this be formulated shorter while retaining its intended meaning?" Thus, after going over one's work time and again, one will obtain a high density of meaning, and every word will chisel itself into the reader's mind irresistibly. If one keeps this up for years, one may eventually become able to write such pointy and powerful text with ever less effort.

Final corrections

When proofreading to find the remaining errors, one should resize the contents and/or window regularly to force word wrap to take place at different positions and the text to be distributed differently within the paragraphs. This will help to see errors that were previously overlooked.

Realizing the unhideable and untrainable

Despite sharpening one's writing skills as explained above, one's grammar, vocabulary, style, and treatment of subject matter will always ruthlessly reveal one's level of general intelligence. This is unhideable in any utterance and especially in writing. It is not possible to be a writer without being intelligent, and truly great writers require very high intelligence.