How to write better

4-minute read

Overall goals

Write for yourself; it will make it interesting to the reader.


Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences.

Simple means removing extra words. If a word can be removed, always remove it.

Write short sentences. Don’t put multiple thoughts in one sentence.

Don’t add words for “style.”

Use shorter words instead of long ones. Look for all fancy words and remove them.

Assume you’re writing to a terminal patient who will die in a week. Don’t waste the precious time they have left.


Make sure everything you write is understandable.

But at the same time, don’t over-explain. Don’t say anything they already know or can guess.

How to cut writing

  1. First, make it longer. Write any idea that might be useful.
  2. Note the word count. Aim to reduce it by 1/3.
  3. Then, edit ruthlessly.


Humor writing must be simple. The main difference is in the choice of words. For humor, don’t say “drink” when you can say “swill.”


  • Simple: "The cat slept on the sofa all day."
  • Humorous: "The cat commandeered the sofa all day, snoring like a buzzsaw in a lumber mill."

Example 2:

  • Simple: "He walked his dog in the park."
  • Humorous: "He paraded his pooch in the park, both strutting their stuff as if on a runway."


The first sentence is the most important. It must grab attention. Rewrite it until it’s excellent and makes the reader curious.

Tell a story.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Does my lead capture the reader’s attention and force him to keep reading?
  2. Does it tell the reader why this is written and why he ought to read it?


Give as much thought to the last sentence as the first.

Don’t conclude with a summary.

Conclude with a sentence that jolts the reader.

If possible, bring the lead story full circle. It gives symmetry and pleases the reader.

Often a quotation works best – especially one that is surprising

“The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, abruptly, or to say what was said. But they know it when they see it.” — Zinsser.


Look for ways to convey information through story. It’s more captivating and entertaining.

Idea organization

Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but imagining the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting) is easier. All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is how all brains work”?)

Pre-writing questions

Before writing, ask these questions:

  1. How to address the reader? (reporter, average person, etc.)
  2. What pronoun and tense? (You, I, We, etc.)
  3. What attitude to take? (Involved, detached, judgmental, amused, etc.)
  4. How much of the subject to cover?
  5. Do I have enough research or experience about the subject?
  6. Who can I interview to gather more information?
    1. Quotes from others are excellent. Have many.
  7. What is the one point I want to make?


Be yourself and write naturally.

Use the first person; it’s more natural.

Write with humanity and warmth.

If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.


Talk about a person, not people. Specificity will raise interest.


Don’t save your good ideas for later. Write them now.

Don’t become constrained to your original plan, either. Be willing to experiment and innovate your idea.


Make your writing interesting and entertaining.

Ways you can do this:

  1. Surprise the reader with something enjoyable.
    1. Humor, anecdote, paradox, a powerful fact, etc.

Things to remove

Remove these from your writing:

  1. Remove word clusters that say that you are about to explain: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.”
  2. Remove qualifiers: a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense.
  3. Exclamation points. Use them sparingly.
  4. Don’t overstate facts. It lowers credibility.
    1. Don’t say, “They’d never believe them in a million years.”

Things to do

Do these

  1. Show the reader that the mood or subject has changed.
    1. Examples: but, yet, however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now, later, today.
    2. Use however at the earliest possible point in the sentence—but not at the very start.
      1. Don’t: “However, the team proceeded.”
      2. Don’t: “The team proceeded, however.”
      3. Do: “The team, however, proceeded.”
  2. Use personal nouns to add clarity.
    1. For instance, “The common reaction is incredulous laughter” could be “Most people just laugh with disbelief.”
  3. Place important words at the end of sentences.
    1. Example: “Humanity hasn’t advanced in courage since then, although it’s advanced in other ways.” —> “Since then, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in courage.”


A first draft is never perfect. Most drafts can be cut in half without losing info or the author’s voice.

Have a friend read your article before making it public – writers often miss obvious errors in their writing.

Getting stuck

If you get stuck, say, “I want you to know about all this because …” and immediately write down the answer.

  • The Day You Became A Better Writer – Scott Adams
  • 2002 Pomona College handout - David Foster Wallace
  • On Writing Well - William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style - Strunk and White
  • Rules for Writing - Mark Twain
  • Other unlisted sources

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All guides are researched and created by me, Levi Hanlen.