The 12 Definitive Rules of Writing and Editing

The 12 Definitive Rules of Writing and Editing

I have been writing so much in my spare time that it became difficult to distinguish between good and bad – I could write utter crap one time and something compelling in another.

As daily practice became the norm, so did the need for structure: a set of rules that I should follow to make the most of my writing.

Recently, I shared them with someone close and it made me think: why do I keep it to myself? What value is there to hoard everything in my head? I can show the world how I think. Others may need it. Opportunity may come that way.

I have learned how to write better, and edit effectively using rules from different sources. Here are a few rules that immediately come to mind:

Start with the outline.

For anything that I write, there is a purpose to it.

I want you to feel something, understand something, or receive a certain thought.

Discipline is key here.

Get your outline. I’m sure you have one, right? Your deep and complex message needs to be explained and put onto paper somehow.

Define your limits.

Depending on the context, you may have limits that you have to adhere to.

For some, it could be a word limit as per their client needs (1000 words? 2000?). In other cases, it could be about the standpoint, whether you are writing your personal opinions or of a professional entity.

Define your limits. State what they are, and write them beside your screen. This is how you edit your content: using these limits as a reference, question your writing and see if you can slot in improvements.

Write from the ending.

This is the meat of the sandwich. You can’t have a burger without a patty in the middle. Well, you can, but that’s not what you paid for.

In anything you read, there is a point to be made or a message sent across that acts as the climax. It’s what we’re here for: it could be a lesson, or a conclusion, or thoughts by the writer that you obsess over.

Your climax is the most powerful tool in your writing piece. Instead of starting from the beginning and build it up, why not write from the message and work backwards? You can then visualize in your mind how the user is meant to arrive at that message as well.

When writing, vary your sentences.

How many commas can you fit in one sentence? A ton.

People can get exhausted from reading long sentences. I learned that the hard way: I thought it was standard to write like Nietzsche. A paragraph for him is one sentence, but for us it’s different. My friend told me he became ‘tired’ from reading my writing. I had to change.

Punctuation, in this case, acts as directions for the reader:

Stop here. Read this part, think, then move on. Wait, what about this question?

You don’t have to show off how many words can you fit in one sentence. Break it apart. Use less commas and more periods.

Just like how silence plays in a conversation to emphasize a point, a period gives the reader time to think about what they absorbed. Once you learn how to effectively ‘direct’ your readers in a certain way, the regulars will learn your writing style.

Punctuation helps us understand you better.

Reconsider words ending in -ly.

In non-fiction, most sentences barely require any need for added description. These are adverbs: big, small, red, long, wonderful. Those are fine.

However, the words that end in -ly, -y start to exude a sign of weakness: you may have had trouble conveying your intended message.

If your sentences start to fill up with -ly words, the scale of each piece of information becomes a growing factor. This could be intentional, but if it’s all the time, would it help the reader?

Though in the cases of fiction, you might be able to justify their usage (The dog isn’t just big, he’s biiiiig. Massive. A mountain. It blocked the sun over me.).

When considering words ending in -y, you may find opportunities to expand your vocabulary. There could be better words to replace adverbs like this.

Instead of largely, you can say colossal or gargantuan. Instead of costly, you can say expensive.

Crimson. Murderous. Blissful. Enthusiastic.

Plenty of words can help you out with your writing. You just need to take time to find them.

On that note:

Take out ‘very’.

This point is very important. The message is more or less the same.

^Woops. This point is important. Was there a huge difference in removing it?

Succinct message delivery (ie. written in a clear manner) ensures proper translation. Readers will interpret your sentences in a way different from what you wanted. By cutting out the fluff (less -ly, no ‘very’) and choosing specific words, your message is clearer.

The last thing you want is your readers misunderstanding what you’ve written. You don’t want that.

When you take out ‘very’, the message doesn’t change as much as you think. We have our own interpretation of ‘very’, and as much as it is attractive to emphasize the scale, it can backfire.

There is a word for every iteration of ‘very _____’. Take a look at this list for more info on that.

This point is important. Remember that.

Imperatives. Use them.

Start powerful. Start snappy.

When you do so, the reader will know what to expect: the writer started with this sentence: that means the rest of this section talks about it in detail.

These short, powerful sentences are imperatives: essentially ‘command’ sentences, they also provide an element of direction for the reader.

Read this book. Clean your room. Eat your vegetables. Write better.

Think about it.

Commands compel us to react. The imperative format emphasizes the verb in the sentence, and in the context of something you’re interested in reading, even better. When our favorite writers tell us something, we listen. When they tell us to do something, we may be willing to.

Start with the point you want to make. Of course, it depends on who you’re writing to:

Write it all for one person.

Imagine an audience.

Do you have an ideal reader? Who do you write for?

For the aspiring writer, they may start with themselves.

I’m writing this for myself. I am writing for satisfaction.

That is fine. But it does create a bias: as you write for yourself, you forgive the mistakes and look past possible improvements on your writing.

It’s okay, I understand what I wrote!

That thinking is what creates the bias. Writing for personal satisfaction is a great reason to write, but for the sake of improvement, you will need another reason. Another person, if you will.

Wouldn’t it make you happy to have someone else read your writing, and tell you where you can improve? Having another set of eyes to tell you how to write better is a necessary tool.

Enter, the Imaginary Letter.

This rule is simple. Write it all for one person, like a letter if you will.

Is it for your parents? Your closest friend? Your significant other? Your children?

When you tell a story, the delivery of said story can be altered depending on the other party. You would leave out intimate details if it was told to a stranger for example. You may take out the swearing when narrating to your parents.

Our sentences are narration: it is us in writing form, narrating to our beloved readers a tale. Defining your readers helps form an imaginary second opinion:

  • What would she think of this?
  • Would they understand this?
  • Is this too crude, too inappropriate?
  • Am I okay with letting them know this part of me?

You control your own writing. It’s your world after all. In it, you build your audience, and you want them to react accordingly.

On that note, you can compel someone to feel a certain way.

When you feel it, they will feel it too.

The most prolific of writers in terms of emotions go by this rule.

They have worlds they want to show you.

By reading their writing, you go on the rollercoaster ride of your life. It could range from comedy to romance and tragedy. In every one of those genres, we have reactions to them.

It is a writer’s duty to make someone feel a certain way, through the medium of words. It is a sign of good writing if you can feel the same emotions you want your readers to feel:

  • If what you wrote made you cry, maybe it can make others cry as well.
  • If a joke you wrote down made you laugh, it can make others laugh too.
  • If you wrote a sentence that empowers you, others may want that feeling.

In terms of editing, this rule plays a few roles. Content-wise for example, you may have a sentence that gets the point across. As for how it is written, was it provoking?

As a reader, did you make me care? Did you make me laugh? Did you make me think? Did you make me cry?

If a sentence made you think, others may do the same. That is powerful writing.

When you edit your content, do a check for emotion: is it a boring ride? Was there too much of a drop in emotion? Which parts were flat? What parts are meant to be fast and slow?

When you feel it, they will feel it too.

Read others for inspiration.

Adding to the previous note, it’s always nice to learn from other writers.

They’ve been through the struggles you have as a writer, and they have the experience to prove it. A rule I have in my writing is to learn from others.

Learn the way they write. Use their thought processes, study it and add it to your own.

Ask yourself why the writer did it in a certain way:

  • Why this word?
  • Why in this specific narrative?
  • How did this character speak?
  • How did they describe the scene?

Writers always use their best tools when publishing their greatest work. Other than reading the story, you can learn by analyzing their writing style, vocabulary, usage of punctuation, and other aspects.

It is up to you what you want to learn.

Follow a template.

When in doubt, create a template.

A bit of structure helps in fostering creativity. This is not limiting in any way: structures help to control your creativity and aim it in a certain direction.

Going absolutely crazy with the things you write may backfire: it may feel nice, but is it the output you desire? I could write something romantic here and all of a sudden, technical the next.

This is when the template helps. It doesn’t have to be static: it could be a set of questions for each section you are working on. One way to gain direction to further our writing is through compelling thoughts:

  • What else?
  • Why else?
  • How else?
  • Why should the reader know this?
  • What do I think?
  • What do other people think?
  • What happens if _____?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • What am I afraid of happening?

This applies to both fiction and non-fiction writing. You could find example book outlines, or content templates that help aim your writing. They work really well: I have my own template to work from. Useful indeed.

Justify everything.

Remember, we have to justify the words in our pieces.

Tell me why you wrote this word down. What is the scene, how are you describing it to me, everything.

Why are you telling me this? What is the point of showing me data? What should I learn from this? What do you want me to think about afterward? How should I go about it?

We read to answer the questions in our heads. Create your own rules, and you may find that it’s easier to answer that way.

If you justify your words, I can tell from the emotions within me and the lessons learned that you are a good writer.

Earn your place in this world through writing.

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