Writing is Writing: A Few Universal Rules to Live By


I was given the opportunity to get up on my soapbox in front of a group of coders to talk about a few small aspects of writing — documentation, Markdown, blogging and such. As I was preparing my presentation, I kept finding spots on my slides about documentation that related to writing for blogs and vice versa.

It’s always striking how universal a skill writing is. Yes, I wouldn’t want to dump someone used to just writing internal memos into writing a front-facing blog, but the learning curve isn’t nearly the same as the difference between coding for mobile apps and coding for big data projects — if I had to, I could get any decent writer up to speed on how to craft blog posts in less than a day.

With that in mind, I wanted to lay down a few universal rules that apply to just about every type of writing I’ve ever seen. These are the rules I write by.

Know Your Audience, Down to Every Last Detail

The people you write for are the only ones who can really judge if something you’re putting out there is successful. See the Twilight books as an example: I couldn’t make my way through the first chapter — but I’m not in the target audience. The series enthralled all of my female relatives of the correct age when it was published. Stephenie Meyer may not be my cup of tea, but she definitely knows the girls she’s writing for.

You need to know the people you’re writing for, whether you’re writing fiction, technical documentation or something else entirely. Take it to the point where it’s starting to get creepy: you don’t quite want to cross the line into stalking people who fit the profile of your ideal reader, but you do want to know everything about them.

You’ve got to know:

  • the vocabulary they use, so your writing sounds correct
  • the information they’re already familiar with, so you don’t confuse them by jumping ahead
  • their dislikes, even if you don’t agree with them, so your work doesn’t get derailed by a minor reference
  • what they want to get out of reading your work, so you can provide exactly that

Get up close and personal with your audience, every chance you get. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should stalk anyone, but you should be reading the same books and blogs they are, as well as any blogs or forums your audience regularly posts to. You can also connect in person without being too out there: going to a meetup or two can provide a great introduction to your audience.

The Passive Voice is Bad

Everyone uses the passive voice occasionally: it’s hard to avoid. It just creeps in and, suddenly, you’re noticing it everywhere. But any time you recognize it, cut the passive voice out of your writing. Even if it might be okay stylistically, the passive voice makes writers sound weak. I might even go so far as to say that the passive voice can make us sound indecisive, like we can’t figure out who we’re telling a story about. When we start off sentences about one topic but wind up letting the action happen to someone else, we’re going to confuse readers. So declare war on the passive voice in your writing.

Not always sure if a particular sentence has slipped into passivity? I learned a new rule recently that makes it impossible to miss a passive sentence — just add zombies! If you can add the words ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence, without turning it into a mishmash, the sentence is passive.

Passive voice: She was killed by zombies.

Active voice: The zombies killed her by zombies.

Now you’ve got an army of zombies to fight your war on the passive voice.

By the way, I’ve seen this rule numerous places and I’m not really sure where to attribute it. This was one of the earliest mentions I’ve seen.

Other Occasional Grammar Errors Won’t Kill You

It’s important to write well, but there are plenty of grammar rules out there that no one but other writers will notice. For instance, keeping comparisons consistent numerically through a sentence makes that sentence flow better, but won’t catch the attention of the average reader. I — along with all the other grammar obsessives out here — would prefer that you avoid any incorrect writing, but we’re probably not your target audience. (And if you write specifically for writers, you will probably get exactly what you deserve.)

Provided that your writing is clear and consistent, there aren’t a lot of grammar rules that you absolutely need to double check that you’ve followed. Issues like the passive voice can make your work hard to understand, so focus your attention there.

Consistency is the other issue: even if you don’t follow all the external rules placed on a piece of writing, follow those that you set internally. If you handle a grammar issue one way, handle it that way throughout your piece. The same goes for spelling, referring to people and places and other little details. I refuse to capitalize the word ‘internet,’ but I don’t worry too much about the people who do. But those writers who include both capitalized and lowercase versions of the word drive me batty.

Don’t Edit Your Own Work

I break this rule all the time because I write in enough quantity that it’s hard to run everything by other people. But, no matter what, other people will catch things in your writing that you won’t. Even if you aren’t able to hand anything off to a practicing editor with her very own red pen, just seeing where another reader trips up and point you to where you need to improve your work.

No matter how many different spellcheck tools I use, I still wind up with typos that they can’t catch. And since I know what I meant to type, I can’t always see the problem either — there’s a little part of my brain that is sure that I would type exactly what I meant. At least on the big stuff, I make sure that someone else reads what I write. On the really big stuff, I’m willing to spring for an editor.

It’s a good general rule, no matter if you can’t avoid editing your own stuff on occasion. Make it aspirational: don’t personally edit the stuff you know plenty of people are going to see and work from there.

You Have to Read, Constantly

I’ve never met a successful writer who doesn’t have a decent reading habit and that’s not coincidental. I believe that, if you want to be a writer in the first place, you have to be fairly obsessed with the written word.

However, there are plenty of people who just write as it becomes necessary — people who don’t really plan to ever make writing a career. These people tend not to read as much. But adding a regular reading habit can catapult them to the next level. That’s because reading regularly primes the pump for writing: you can see different formats in action, get new ideas for the content of your work and generally draw on the experience of other people.

No matter what you’re reading, it’s a good idea to make time for that particular pursuit every day. If I can read for at least an hour a day, I know I’m on the right track.

You Have to Write, Just As Often

Of course, everyone knows that the only way to improve your writing is to write constantly. But there’s more than that: you have to write and receive feedback to really move forward. Otherwise, you keep writing at the same level, over and over again.

I’ve seen this in my own writing: when I haven’t at least had an editor who I turned my work into regularly, I could tell my work was stagnating. I could turn out a couple thousand words a day that did not really differ in quality — which is a nice plus for clients paying for work of that quality, but didn’t do a whole heck of a lot for my ability to keep moving forward in my career.

Get people to look at your work: post it online, show up to critique groups or make all of your friends read it. It doesn’t matter, as long as you keep getting those little pushes to keep moving forward.

Be Happy with Your Work

No matter what other rules people tell you that you have to follow, you’re the person putting work out there with your name on it. You’re the one who has to answer to your audience about the quality of your work.

This isn’t to say that you should argue with your editor or refuse to take critiques. Rather, you need to find your comfort level and make sure your writing reaches it. Hopefully, it’s a moving threshold that encourages you to improve. But like all creative works, you’ve got to take full responsibility for what you produce.

Image by Flickr user Tony Hall


  1. NOAEfame   •  

    I love your advice. I love reading too. I do think as some point I will need an editor who is also a critique. I want somebody to tell me where I need to work hard .

  2. Pingback: Get With the Program, Write for the Web Not the Dead

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