The Good Sentence: 25 Writing Tips from Famous Authors

by Barbara Behan

George Orwell

Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty.  Muriel Barbery.

To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.  Aristotle

 Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.   C. S. Lewis

 Never use a long word where a short one will do.  George Orwell

 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”  Elmore Leonard

 Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive….Virtually every page is a cliffhanger–you’ve got to force them to turn it.  Dr. Seuss

 Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.  Mark Twain

 Vigorous writing is concise.  William Strunk, Jr.

 Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.  C. S. Lewis

 If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts.   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.  George Orwell

 Don’t overuse exclamation points!! William Safire

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was terrible, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “please do my job for me.”  C. S. Lewis

 The road to hell is paved with adverbs.  Stephen King

 … I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say ‘paragraph,’ but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me.  Sherman Alexie

 I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.  Blaise Pascal

 About adjectives:  all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.  They make sentences move.  Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ Eve of Saint Agnes.  A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement—the limping, the trembling, the freezing is going on before your own eyes.   F. Scott Fitzgerald

A young writer is easily tempted by the allusive and ethereal and ironic and reflective, but the declarative is at the bottom of most good writing.  Garrison Keillor

I might say that I don’t think anyone can write succinct prose unless they have at least tried and failed to write a good iambic pentameter sonnet, and read Browning’s short dramatic poems, etc.—but that was my personal approach to prose.  Yours may be different, as Ernest Hemingway’s was.  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died,” don’t say “Mortality rose.”  C. S. Lewis

 Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.  George Orwell

 Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.  C. S. Lewis

 The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.  Thomas Jefferson

 I try to leave out the parts that people skip.  Elmore Leonard

Writing is a mysterious activity.  Susan Sontag