Top 10 rules for writing

I recently remembered a great piece of writing advice from Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English dictionarist. This gave me the idea of putting together a list of the most important writing advice I’ve picked up over the years. Unfortunately, I could hardly think of any other examples off the top of my head. I’d like to think this means I’ve thoroughly absorbed the techniques and principles of effective writing to the point that I’ve completely forgotten what they are, but it could also indicate that advice is worth about what it costs, namely zilch. In any case, I racked my brains and did a little surreptitious Googling to come up with some more pointers that have proven useful to me. (The Amis and Mamet quotes are thrown in more for fun.)

NOTE: No guarantees of any kind are made for the performance or effectiveness of this advice. Results may vary. Use as directed by a qualified literary professional.

  • “Don’t dumb down: always write for your top five per cent of readers.” – Martin Amis
  • “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill
  • “If you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said.” – Paul Graham (The rest of the linked essay is quite good.)
  • “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script.” – Akira Kurosawa
  • “DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.” – David Mamet
  • “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” – George Orwell (Read the whole essay for 90% of the nonfiction writing advice you’ll ever need.)
  • “You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet… The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.” – Jerry Pournelle
  • “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” – Mark Twain
  • “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” – Mary Heaton Vorse (Also formulated as “Ass in chair.”)

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