50 words that will improve your writing

Word cloud of post

Stephen King famously gave us three of the most useful words to improve your writing: ‘kill your darlings.’ You should treat words as practical rather than precious. They are the bricks to a building: they need to be sturdy and accurately placed in order to create functional and beautiful architecture. Right, 47 more to go…

Headlines

  • How. People always want to know how.
  • Number. Numbers attract attention, often odd numbers work best.
  • Verb. Put some action into your headline. “Man kills woman” is better than “Woman dead” [Hat tip to Jo Higgins for that example.]
  • Promise. Be brave and make a claim.
  • Benefit. Tell your readers what they’ll get out of reading your work.
  • Sensation. Titillation tantalises.

Leads (or Ledes)

Writing to Deadline by Donald M. Murray has this covered:

  • Focus. The lead makes a specific promise to the reader. That promise is contained in a tension that will be released and resolved by the reading of the story.
  • Context. The promise of the lead exists in a world that involves the reader. It has a clear, immediate significance for the reader.
  • Form. The lead implies a form (design, structure, pattern) that will help the reader understand the meaning of the information in the story.
  • Information. Statistics, quotations, revealing details, and description whet the reader’s hunger for information and promise it will be satisfied in the story.
  • Voice. This is an individual, human voice tuned to the purpose of the story, a voice that provides the music to support the meaning of what is being read.
  • Surprise. The promise of something new, something that will give the reader the opportunity to become an authority on the subject and surprise those with whom the reader works and lives.

Spelling

The Oatmeal has brilliantly illustrated the ten words that you need to stop misspelling. Go on, click and check them out, it’s worth it for the dolphin being run over by a jet ski…

Simplify

Brevity is the soul of wit.

  • Although vs. despite the fact that
  • For vs. on behalf of
  • About vs. with reference to
  • Now vs. at the present time
  • Because vs. as a consequence of
  • Let vs. afford an opportunity

Attribute

Quotations lend credibility and a voice to writing, but after a while ‘said’ starts sounding a little abrupt.

  • Added
  • Commented
  • Remarked
  • Noted
  • Claimed
  • Sighed
  • Mused 

Avoid

Knowing what not to say is just as important as saying it right.

  • Literally. Only use this if you are describing exactly and accurately what happened. [The Oatmeal makes this point rather well as well.]
  • Impactful. As I have said before, this is not a word, it’s lazy writing.
  • SolutionUnless you have laid out a specific problem, you cannot offer a solution.
  • A lot. How much? A lot is too vague and can be interpreted too many ways. Write precisely.
  • Passion. No. Especially not in mission statements.
  • Really. Find a more powerful descriptive rather than use really. “It’s an excellent tip” is better than “it’s a really good tip.”

Evoke

As practical and concise as words can be, they are also powerful, emotional and sometimes beautiful. Used carefully, such words will make your writing personal. Remember, whenever you write, speak to the reader.

  • Exciting. Describe and evoke emotions. Bring your own reactions in when they are strong. Don’t be afraid of feeling exposed.
  • Crunched. Evoke the readers’ other senses and let them experience a sense of place.
  • Contrary. People are interested in conflict, they relish it.
  • Serendipity. Whimsy, happy endings and fortune, handled carefully, make people smile.
  • Fuck. Swear words have their place, especially on a blog called Bad Language, and even venerable publications like The New Yorker have accepted the reality and necessity for profanity.

Experiment

And that is number 50. Rules and precision are necessary for good writing. Practice and internalise good standards until they are automatic and then (and perhaps only then) you can begin to play with the infinite possibility of words.

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12 Responses to 50 words that will improve your writing

  1. Nury Vittachi March 19, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    Good article, but hope you don’t mind me making a correction. (I am a novelist and teach writing at university level.)
    Mr King may have said “kill your darlings” but if so, he would have been quoting Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose creative writing teaching long before any of us were born was based around the phrase “murder your darlings”.
    The concept, I believe, comes from 1916 — long before even Mr King was around.
    best wishes

    • Matthew Stibbe March 20, 2013 at 8:06 am #

      Yes, I remember hearing Alistair Cook quote him on this point. You’re not the first person to mention this but thanks for the feedback. However, Stephen King also says it in his book and it’s good advice regardless of the origin or where you heard it first, don’t you think?

  2. Dion March 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Great article. Terrible font.

    • Matthew Stibbe March 20, 2013 at 8:03 am #

      We just updated the design and I think there’s something a bit janky about the font on some browsers/devices. We’re looking into it. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Eleanor March 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    I was with you until the attribution. Changing up from “said” should be done very rarely. Said disappears when used consistently — next time you read the New Yorker, highlight every instance of “said.” It’s used more often than you thin. To me, seeing “commented Susan” followed by “remarked John” followed by “mused Susan” indicates amateur writing.

    • Eleanor March 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      *sigh. And then I noticed the typo in my comment. :)

    • Matthew Stibbe March 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      Yes, I know what you mean. But occasionally, you can replace ‘said’ with something punchier and make a stronger point by breaking the convention.

  4. Ngawang Gyatso March 20, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Great Article Claire. Although most of it I have come across, it definitely serves as a great reminder.

    Cheers

  5. tigerpuddle June 4, 2013 at 1:26 am #

    Thank you, Mathew -great tips.

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