WWN5: Thirty-Two Writing Rules

I turned 32 last since the last edition of the Write Way but something was nagging at me…

…and then I realised.

I never posted a “THirTy-tWo LeSsOns I lEarNed” thread.

Well, what’s the point in being a guru if not to do that?

So I here I am writing you thirty-two rules for writing.

But this ain’t no copy-paste clickbait listicle. I guarantee you’ve never read some of these, and all of them will make you think. I got half way and thought “this should really be a paid product” but I’d committed by then (see rule 22).

Maybe we’ll even do a whole issue of the Write Way on each…

But before we dive in, I do have one thing I should mention.

My first ever course is jumping in price by 22% approximately 24 hours after this issue is delivered to your inbox.

So if you want to learn How to Write Bad (so you can write better), now would be the time.

My other course, Speed Daemon Secrets will be following it soon. They’ve both been criminally underpriced for a long time.

I thoroughly enjoyed your course. Your examples and quotes were perfect for the topic. Your delivery of the information was flawless. Thank You! 

Stacey S.

You can check out How to Write Bad here:

And now on with the rules…

1. Simplify

The overarching principle of writing, especially online: Writing should be as simple as it can be.

But those last four words trip people up.

As it can be.

Sometimes you need complexity. Sometimes you need to take the time to nuance things and add details. Hence this whole issue of the Write Way instead of a lame little listicle that I screenshotted for social media.

But overall, you should aim for as simple as it’s possible to be without losing anything.

Simplify words "Never use a long word where a short one will do." Small, not diminutive So, not accordingly Reward, not incentivise You get the point.

Simplify sentences as well.

"If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out."

Don't merge together. Merge.

Don't join together. Join.

And for the love of good writing, remove pointless filler words like “completely”, “absolutely” etc.

2. Avoid jargon

Simple, really. Your "professional audience" will understand plain English, but the random Twitter guy reading it will be lost by jargon. So default to plain English.

But if we want to nuance it a little, use enough jargon that the pro knows you understand what you're talking about, while being plain enough that anyone could follow.

As Orwell once said:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

George Orwell

So don’t write "Let's touchbase with our stakeholders when they have bandwidth." when you can just write "Talk to our customers when they have time."

Jargon sucks.

3. Avoid Cliché

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

George Orwell

In other words:

Avoid being boring.

Look before you leap. A stitch in time saves nine. A penny saved is a penny earned.

The problem with clichés like those is that they’re old hat. You should avoid them like the plague.


The real problem is that if your words sound stale, your ideas seem stale, and you will fail.

I’ll have more to say on how to fix the cliché another time, but if you follow the advice in a few rules time you might just fix it yourself…

4. Reduce adverbs

Reduce, do not eliminate.

I’m going to send out a full issue of the Write Way on adverbs soon because boy do people get this one wrong. But the brief summary is this:

There are different types of adverbs. Specifically, lying adverbs, lazy adverbs, rhythmic adverbs, required adverbs and right adverbs. We’ll break it down when I write that issue in the next few weeks.

Some should be eliminated, some used sparingly, and others embraced.

For now, just think about the lazy adverbs that writers use because they don’t want to work on their vocabulary.

"She was very fat" instead of "She was obese"

"The cat was really ugly" instead of "The cat was hideous"

"It was quite good" instead of "It was decent"

Dig a little deeper, learn a better vocabulary and you'll find yourself not needing to use these lazy words.

Which is our next rule.

5. Read the Dictionary

As author Doug Wilson quipped “the plot will often fail to grip” but do it anyway.

You are a writer. Words are your weapons.

You cannot wield a weapon you don’t have to hand. Build your armoury. Read a page a day. Read etymologies, dictionaries of slang, flick through thesauruses etc.

Find new words to use. New phrases.

Look, you might decide that those words are useless for your purpose because nobody else knows them. Or you might use them anyway.

But either way, making the decision will sharpen your prose.

6. Use Physical Reference Books

Trust me on this.

You might think you can just google words to find out what they mean.

This is a mistake.

I don’t have a thousand words to spare to explain it all here, but the gist is this:


If you don’t know what that means, order a physical dictionary and look it up. In my copy of Webster’s it’s between serene and serenade, and all of a sudden I’m reading about Serbia and I’m wondering about Serbian Serenades.

Suddenly I’m singing a serendipitously serene Serbian serenade.

And just as suddenly, I have my daily email idea for today.

If you’re part of Carran’s Cabin you got that a few hours ago with more insights into the principle that undergirds this exact point. If you’re not, well… You did (or will) get a chance when you finished the Write Way course.

But the point is that you stumble on all sorts of things when you use books instead of google.

Oh, and you can trust the book not to change tomorrow because some nutcase decided to appoint themselves a censor of dangerous knowledge.

And they work better once you know how to use them (especially rhyming dictionaries, the physical is far more powerful).

7. Write every day

Do I need to expand this? You'll never get better without putting in the reps.

No, I don’t think I do need to expand on it. It stands on its own.

8. Be Bored Often

Boredom is a superpower.

I am not even kidding. If you can sit in a room and be bored for a few hours? Without distracting yourself, dopamining yourself, dragging your thumb listlessly across a glass box for an hour scrolling social media?

You have what it takes.

Most of your best ideas will come well into that bored phase when your mind is wandering lonely as Wordsworth’s cloud.

I shudder to think how many writers we’ve medicated out of existence with social media scrolling.

9. Be Distracted Rarely

This is not the same as the last point, but it is related.

If you are constantly flitting from idea to idea to idea, then failing to execute any of them because you got distracted by your phone, then being distracted from that by the housework, then…

…you are NGMI my friend.

Focus is key to good writing. Even when you’re not writing, you need to be able to follow an idea through to the end.

Anyone can think “What if elves were real?”

Few can think “What if elves were real… what would their language look like?” and then follow it through to create The Lord of the Rings.

Learn to focus.

10. Read poetry and fiction daily

Self help sucks.

You never learn anything from all those business books, and the writing is bad and bland, so you pick up bad habits.

Read the greats instead. Dostoevsky, Dumas, Herbert, Tolkien, Pratchett, Lewis, Milton and Tennyson.

You'll be a better writer for it.

11. Read Trash

Two reasons.

One, this will help you realise what’s really important. Popular “trash” novels are just that. Popular.

When you understand why you’ll be well on your way.

And two?

It’s fun.

Bonus three: You don’t know what good prose is until your read really bad prose. Read the best and worst and avoid the bland middle of most content.

12. Read Less Content

Content, for our purposes here, is anything created for the purpose of selling a thing.

I.e. Almost all social media, emails, newsletters etc. It’s all ephemeral created today and gone tomorrow and it’s a waste of time.

Read what lasts.

13. Read Biographies of Great Writers

IT’s always worthwhile to study the lives of the greats, because success leaves clues (I know it’s a cliché, I know…)

I’m currently working my way through Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Dr Seuss.

Read about the lives of the writers you love. How did they become so great?

How will you?

14. Stay Humble

You’re a better writer than yesterday? Good.

You’re a better writer than other writers? Cool.

You’re the best writer that ever was? Probably not but okay, whatever.

You’re still not done.

And you can still be better tomorrow. Be humble and willing to grow and learn.

15. Avoid Negative Modifiers

Simple reason: Human brains are lazy. They skip across the sentences, picking up words and pattern matching.

So a sentence like "He did not touch the button", your brain reads the key words first:

He did not touch the button

Then it notices the "not" in the middle and has to reverse the imagined image. It wastes brainpower and is counter persuasive.

16. Reduce Passive Voice

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

George Orwell

Note those all important “Where you can”. Sometimes the passive is right, which we won’t go into here.

But what do I mean?

Well, take this sentence: The seat was broken by the fat man.

That’s the wrong way to write it. Why? Because we don't introduce the main character until the end, which just confuses the reader.

You probably read it too quickly to notice. Try taking it slow and you’ll see.

The seat…

Okay, I’m picturing a chair, nice wicker chair or something. It’s sitting there, maybe by the fire.

…was broken…

Oh, oops. Um. I guess the chair is broken in some way, not sure how.

…by the fat man.

Oh, I guess the fat man sat in the chair and it broke. Okay, revise the image. Now there’s a fat man on the floor and a broken chair scattered about.

Now translate it to the active voice:

The fat man broke the seat.

Much easier for your brain to process. First, you see a fat man, then he broke the seat. So you’re picturing it in order. Fat man, sits down and breaks seat. EzPz.

17. Vary Sentence Structure

I'm not going to post the Gary Provost picture yet again, you've seen it. Steady sentence structure is dull. Same number of words and structure. It puts you to sleep fast. See?

Instead, you mix it up. You use commas. You dance around, feel the music of the words. Short sentences break it up. Long ones let it breathe, let it flow, but the variation?

That makes music.

18. Use Concrete Language.

Choose concrete, vivid words.

"Some fruit" is bad.

"Two apples" is better.

"Two crisp red apples gleamed on the counter" is better still.

Paint a picture with your words.

19. Practice Other Forms.

If you’re great at content writing, learn poetry. It will kick your ass. If you’re a great fiction author, learn copy. You’ll become a better fiction writer AND you’ll sell more books.

When you write in many different disciplines, you understand your core discipline better because you start to see the similarities that are just “good writing” and the differences that make “good copy” or “good poetry”.

20. Reject Writers Block

Yes. Sometimes you get stuck.

Sometimes the words flow easy, sometimes it’s tough.

But don’t make excuses by calling it “writer’s block” and calling it a day. Go for a walk, read a book, workout. Try again. Sit for an hour or more at the desk if you have to. Get something down.

Sometimes you gotta just force it out.

21. Walk A Lot

Move your body, move your mind.

Trust me, you cannot walk too much as a writer. Ben Settle does ten miles a day. And I bet if you asked him he’d like to do more…

There is almost nothing better than a long walk for stirring up ideas.

22. Finish Everything

Sometimes you get part way through a project and you start to hate it. Persist.

Look, I know. It happens. But trust me. Failure is habit-forming. I gave up my first novel because it was too hard.

It took me a decade to get back in the saddle. But this time I committed to finishing the draft fast and getting it done. Breaking that mental block was tough but now I know I can write novels.

Finish what you start.

23. Write Fast

Writing fast helps break through writer’s block and get more done. And the writer that writes more gets paid more too.

It’s just the way it is. Write Faster.

24. Edit Slow

Take as much time as you can. Leave it, let it sit. Circle over it. Read it backwards, read it out loud, there’s many ways to do it…

Whatever you do, don’t get lost though, the goal is to get it published.

25. Publish Often

Yes, it’s not good enough. But it might never be, so publish it anyway.

You’ll learn more from starting again on a new piece than endlessly circling over the same one.

26. Edit Offline

Not just offline as in no internet. I mean as in pen or pencil and paper.

Whenever I’m editing a piece of poetry and I’m stuck, I print it out. Then I sit in the garden and scribe, your mind just works differently when you’re in a different environment.

Change it up.

And while I think about it…

27. Write Offline Too

Neil Gaiman writes every novel out by hand before ever sitting at the computer.

You don’t have to be that extreme, but give it a try. It’s a whole different experience to sit down with pen and paper and take your time.

28. Keep Your Promises

Writing is a solo occupation and most of it is in your head.

It’s easy to miss an internal deadline and pretend that you never really had it, or an external one and make some excuse.

But the world belongs to those who show up when they don’t want to.

29. Look After Yourself

The stereotype of the writer is there for a reason. Hard-charging, heavy-drinking, never-sleeping.

I’ve been there.

Don’t go there.

Exercise regularly, drink lots of water, spend time with friends and family.

You’ll write better for it.

30. Use More Metaphors

Writing is a gift.

To be able to take abstract concepts and make them real, then deliver them to someone else in a vivid and brilliant way? There’s nothing better in the world.

So do it!

Don’t be one of those bland and boring blatherers online who squeak about being clear not clever.

Be fun! Be creative! Think up beautiful images and then write them down. Take that weird idea and run with it.

People want to see, give them something to feast their eyes on.

31. Never Stop Improving

A lot of these rules flow into this one, but never stop improving your craft. Never sit on your laurels and think “I’m good at this now”

You’re good?

Great. Get better.

You should always be studying and practicing and learning.


32. Break the rules

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Every single one of these rules is made to be broken once you understand it. Well, apart from the ones about learning and stuff. You should always be doing that.

But the writing rules? Use those as a place to start improving your writing but do not treat them as ironclad rules to be followed forever.

Slavish obedience to rules is almost as bad as not knowing them at all. Good writing is clear communication. Break any rule that gets in the way.

"The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything. There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?"

Neil Gaiman

The key is that you have to understand the rule before you break it. To see its weakness. To know what it's for. The moment you understand the rule, then you can break it at will.

When a beginner breaks the rules they're like a bull in a china shop. They’re causing chaos and ruining the art. When a master breaks the rules they're like a carver working marble. Every break enhances the whole. Every chip shapes the piece into something beautiful.

And with that.

We wrap.

There remains but to tell you that rule #33 is to buy How to Write Bad before it jumps in price to $33 tomorrow. Speed Daemon Secrets will get a chunkier price rise soon as well.

And with that we really do wrap.

Rule #34… We won’t go there.

May your pipe be always improving like your prose,

James Carran, Craftsman Writer

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