Writing Tips from a Writer and Editor
Tools for journalists, bloggers, marketers or anyone who works with words.
Writing is part science, part art. Or, rather, part procedure and part creativity. Anyone hoping to make a living as a writer must first master the basics, learn the mechanics of good grammar and good story construction, and most important — learn how to be honest with themselves and the reader. Beyond that, there are many rules. And for every rule, there are oodles of guidelines, best practices and suggestions.
Some writers seem to be naturals. Most actually work very hard to understand all these tools of the trade and figure out how and when to keep it between the buoys and when and how to navigate around them.
Across three decades as a newspaper and online journalist, marketing writer, novelist, and editor of hundreds of other writers, I’ve picked up a few things. I’ve edited writers great and lousy, filed stories that were pretty good and not so great, and worked for some fantastic editors who made me look better than I am.
Now I’m sharing my toolbox. Whether you work in journalism, blogging, marketing, PR or just about any endeavor that involves words, I hope you find something useful to add to your toolbox.
The first piece below covers strategic pillars — foundational mindsets that to guide your effort to be a serious and respected nonfiction writer over the long haul. Among the 16 pillars:
- Admit you don’t know much about much. Because it’s true, and its the springboard for curiosity, which is vital to good writing.
- Acknowledge your biases and set them aside as much as possible, and please don’t claim to be unbiased.
- Question the truth vigorously. Facts and truths can be elusive and subject to error in telling as well as differences in perception and interpretation, but lies, well...
Strategic Pillars of Successful Non-Fiction Writing
Writing is the easy part. These are the hard things.
Punctuation Rules & How to Break Them
Simple, definitive suggestions on how to punctuate properly and effectively, or not
How to Copy Edit Yourself in 7 Steps
You will screw up. But this system will help you catch typos and gaffes before publication.
The Mechanics of Attribution: Quoting & Paraphrasing
Rules and best practices for serving the sayer and the story well.
When Quoting Someone, Just Say ‘Said’
If a quote is worth quoting, let it be said. Not noted or related or murmured.
3–30–3: Three Rules of Engaging Writing
You have just seconds to engage readers online. Here’s how to use the time well.
Sure-Fire Ways to Fail at Freelancing
An aspiring writer’s guide to screwing up.
Write What You Know or Know What You Write?
Being genuinely curious and knowing what you don’t are the seeds of good writing.
How to Make Your Article Stand Out
Be first, be best or be sideways. Just don’t follow the crowd.
How Long Should a Story Be?
A formula (sort of) for finding the perfect length.
If you don’t see anything interesting above, check back now and then. I’ve got a few more topics to tackle.
And never stop educating yourself, no matter how good you think you are at this writing thing. Here are some suggested reference books that are essential basics (I don’t earn any money if you follow the Amazon links):
If it’s been a while since you took an English class or you slept through the last one, invest in a good reference book on grammar and style. I’ve used the same one since 1989: “When Words Collide.” Just when I think I have a usage figured out, this excellent reference sets me straight. And for any journalist, PR person or blogger who wants to come off as more professional, a copy of the AP Stylebook is invaluable (you don’t have to agree with AP Style, but editors expect you to follow it, except where they’ve set their own style). Meanwhile, if you’ve never read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” you must. If you’ve read it, read it again, as I do every few years. — RRB
Last updated Jan. 16, 2020.