New Rules to Write Well

By Ethan A.


Knowing how to properly structure an essay often differentiates a weak paper from the strong. Students often think pandering language provides a more personable tone, but compromising intelligence actually weakens the paper’s argument.

            Endless, random rules about sentence structure and word choice all come down to taste; so instead of struggling to please the reader, just write the best way you can.

In the interest of lists and tips, here’s one more set to add to your collection.

1.      Be concise.

Hemingway said “Use short sentences,” but “Be concise” has two fewer syllables. The best example comes from the author’s bet that he could tell an entire story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” True to the author’s wager, this short advertisement reveals a full story.

As Hemingway illustrates, concise means saying as much as possible with as little as possible. A word earns its place only through sheer necessity, and repetition, especially for the sake of length only diminishes a paper. A longer essay can find reward, but that length should come through content rather than style.

2.      Be direct, not superfluous.

This one largely depends on taste. Some people prefer fluffy essays, but no matter what they say, you can always eliminate this excess fat in favor of cohesion.

Starting an essay with, “My friend and I once encountered a butterfly in the forest,” folds to an opening like, “Vladimir Putin’s megalomaniacal international politics mirror the historical pattern of Eastern European corruption.” An argument motivates an essay and deserves its place up front.

3.      Use vigorous English.

This one comes from Hemingway’s four writing rules. Although it’s relatively self-explanatory, it provokes a few other tips.

-          Be specific. Don’t say words like “stuff,” “thing,” or “very.”

-          Don’t use clichés. Graders reward creativity.

-          You can almost always avoid “is.” Often times, a better word can take its place. For example, “John is better than Tom” could be “John beats Tom.”


4.      Be Active, not Passive

Write in the now. Nothing will tear your essay down to mediocrity faster than passive language. In its most basic form, “Jack threw the ball” reads better than “the ball was thrown by Jack.”

More comprehensively, if “is” infects your essay, you’re probably writing passively. “A better word can often take its place” sounds better than “There is often a better word that can take its place.”

5.      Be positive, not negative.

Hemingway also said this, but so what, the guy knew how to write. He also committed suicide, so to clarify, “Be positive” doesn’t mean everything is happy. It means don’t say phrases like “‘Be positive’ doesn’t mean everything is happy.”

Several different internet blogs have interpreted this rule, but typically, instead of saying what something isn’t, say what it is.

-          Say “good” instead of “not bad.”

-          Instead of “unreliable” say “fickle”

-          Rather than “not amiable” say “hostile”

Michel Fortin went a step further and said, “Instead of saying ‘this procedure is painless,’ say ‘there’s little discomfort,’” but this type of alteration implies different meanings. “There’s little discomfort” means something completely different from “painless.” But again, taste, taste, taste.

6.      Everyone likes the guy in the suit.

Even if you’re not a formalist (someone who analyzes form over other influences) it’s okay to be formal. Here’s another sublist to prove it:

-          Formality can always replace words like “you” and “I.” You’ll be surprised how rarely you find this casual language in professional essays.

-          Similarly, don’t say words like “the reader” or “the audience.” Instead of “the book gives the reader this impression”, say “the book does this,” whatever “this” may be.

-          Your reader is not an idiot, you do not need to dumb yourself down for them. How would you feel if someone did that to you?

-          You don’t believe things, you know them. Declare yourself the scholar and your reader will regard you as one. “The president is good,” sounds much more powerful without an introductory “I think.”

7.      Exceptions

Rules are made to be broken. There is your cliché. I wouldn’t lie to you. There are always exceptions to the rules. Just know when and why you’re deviating from the generic stuff.

This seems like a lot, but it’s really not. These rules all complement one another. If you follow one, you’ll usually end up adhering to the others.