Wilbers: 'Top 10 Tips for Great Writing' could use some tweaking

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2012 - 6:24 PM

How trustworthy is the information we find on the Internet?

When I Google "great writing," I find a link titled "Top 10 Tips for Great Writing" as the second result in a list of 69.8 million, produced in 0.19 seconds. Pretty impressive, wouldn't you say?

Or is it? The access to information and the speed at which it is delivered are mind-boggling. But is the information valid?

The 10 writing tips are posted on Listverse, a site "dedicated to top 10 lists of trivia from a variety of categories." The headings for the tips are "1. Activate your sentences. 2. Abolish Index words. 3. Kill the Romance. 4. Rephrase for Clarity. 5. De-clutter your Sentences. 6. Control the flow. 7. Dead Sentences. 8. Short Sentences. 9. Punctuation and Speeling. 10. Revision."

Every tip is valid, most represent standard writing advice, a few are poorly explained and one is excellent.

What I like most about the post is the author's playful voice. He begins, "As an expert in writing -- okay, I just made that up (count how many times I break my own rules below) ...," He also intentionally misspells spelling in the heading for tip 9.

What I like least are his unintentional errors, including a however comma splice ("Machiavelli's essay demonstrated what the qualities of an effective ruler should be, however, he neglected the common people's reaction"). He also uses inconsistent capitalization and nonparallel wording in the 10 headings (the first six are worded as command statements, the last four as nouns or noun phrases).

The tips offering standard advice are "Activate your sentences" (prefer the active voice to the passive); "De-clutter your Sentences" ("removing all the unnecessary weeds" -- which I would have written as "remove unnecessary words" or "remove the weeds," having never encountered a necessary one); "Short Sentences" (prefer short sentences to long, complex ones -- but I would have cautioned, don't make all your sentences short; as Joseph Williams observes in "Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace," if we "never went beyond twenty words, we'd be like a pianist who could use only the middle octave"); "Punctuation and Speeling" (edit for errors that undermine your clarity and credibility -- errors, I might add, such as comma splices and nonparallel structure); and "Revision" (remember that good writing is revised writing).

The explanations for "Abolish Index words" and "Rephrase for Clarity" (which, ironically, is about the need to maintain parallel structure) are unclear, as they are for "Control the flow" and "Dead Sentences."

The tip titled "Kill the Romance," however, is excellent. It illustrates how words such as fight and crush that are Germanic in origin are stronger than words such as attempt and destroy that "come from the Romance languages" or "languages that have their roots in Latin -- Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian," as well as Catalan. The point is illustrated by comparing these sentences: "The British attempted to destroy the Colonial uprising in America" and "The British fought to crush the Colonial uprising in America."


Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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