1. Use examples.

Examples make your writing more concrete.

Paul Graham uses lots of examples. Ellen Fishbein points out in an article that seventy percent of Paul Graham’s essays contain the word “example”, usually within the phrase “for example”. She notices that “when Paul Graham introduces an abstract idea, you’re never more than a sentence or two away from a well-picked example.”

When you use an abstract idea, immediately reach for an example to make the idea concrete.

Examples from Paul Graham (h/t to Ellen again):

The more of a noob you are locally, the less of a noob you are globally. For example, if you stay in your home country, you’ll feel less of a noob than if you move to Farawavia, where everything works differently. And yet you’ll know more if you move.
Nothing owns you like fragile stuff. For example, the “good china” so many households have, and whose defining quality is not so much that it’s fun to use, but that one must be especially careful not to break it.

2. Get to the grammatical subject quick.

Let me expand:

Put the grammatical subject, verb, and object(s) as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible, with minimal interruptions between.

J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone wrote this good sentence:

Hermione Granger was shrinking against the wall opposite, looking as if she was about to faint.

We can make her sentence less readable by delaying the subject (bolded):

Looking as if she was about to faint, Hermione Granger was shrinking against the wall opposite.

We can also make her sentence less readable by delaying the verb (bolded). 

Hermione Granger, looking as if she was about to faint, was shrinking against the wall opposite.



Some writers delay the subject to be artsy. For example, you can delay the subject to create a dramatic impact. But do it in moderation. See my guide to rich and elegant sentences 🤗

3. Put technical terms at the ends of sentences.

Easy to read:

Wizards inflict excruciating pain onto their victims with the Cruciatus Curse.

Harder to read:

Wizards use the Cruciatus Curse to inflict excruciating pain onto their victims.

I wrote this clear sentence in an article on How Not to Die:

The killer? Pockets of cholesterol-rich gunk in the walls of our arteries called atherosclerotic plaque.

I could have written a more confusing sentence, by putting the technical term earlier:

The killer? Atherosclerotic plaque, pockets of cholesterol-rich gunk in the walls of our arteries called atherosclerotic plaque.

For technical writers, this tip entirely changes the game.

4. Use topic sentences.

A mentor at an internship told me once this lesson: always frame information before presenting it. In a draft for an article for work, I had intermingled the high-level concepts and the low-level details.

My mentor encouraged me to order the high-level concepts before low-level details. If I do that, he explained, readers can hang the low-level details they read on the high-level concepts they already have in memory.

Frame information before presenting it. That’s my idiosyncratic way of saying: start with the point.

Reader, whether its a paragraph, subsection, section, document, or series of documents, start with the point:

To write a document that readers will think is coherent, open every section, subsection and the whole with a short, easily grasped introductory segment. At the end of the opening segment, put a sentence that states both the point of the unit and the key themes that follow. Such point sentences constitute the outline of the document.

- Joseph Williams

This is what we should salvage from the carcass that is the five paragraph essay.

Earlier in this article I used a topic sentence:

Paul Graham uses lots of examples. Ellen Fishbein points out in an article that seventy percent of Paul Graham’s essays contain the word “example”, usually within the phrase “for example”. She notices that “when Paul Graham introduces an abstract idea, you’re never more than a sentence or two away from a well-picked example.”

We would struggle to read this paragraph if the topic sentence was omitted or delayed. Notice that the detail sentences elaborate on the topic sentence.

5. Avoid nominalizations.

Avoid nominalizations, which are nouns derived from verbs and adjectives.

Examples: promote → promotion, run → running, stupid → stupidity

This changes “our analysis of Gryffindor performance” to “we analyzed how Gryffindor performed, which is clearer.

Sentences with nominalizations tend to (1) omit the subject, (2) use weak verbs like to be or to do and (3) be verbose. All bad.

This one is crucial.

6. A sentence’s beginning should reference the end of the last sentence.

Compare:

Gringotts is the safest place in the world for something to hide—except for Hogwarts. Dumbledore makes Hogwarts even safer.

With:

Gringotts is the safest place in the world for something to hide—except for Hogwarts.  Hogwarts is even safer, because of Dumbledore.

Our sense of “flow” calls for the first version, because in it, the second sentence starts with Hogwarts. A sentence starting with Hogwarts, because Hogwarts was just referenced, is easy to read. Whereas Dumbledore seems to Apparate in there out of nowhere.

I’m working on improving at this 😅

Related: Have you ever felt that writing on the Internet reads as choppy? That’s because Internet writers (like me) aren’t great at cohesion. We use one-sentence paragraphs and rarely set up new sentences with words from old sentences.

h/t to Stewie for the wording of this rule.

7. Ignore these rules while drafting.

Otherwise, you will never finish drafting.

Tying it all together

Go through your draft sentence by sentence and apply these rules:

1. Use examples.

2. Get to the grammatical subject quick.

3. Put technical terms at the ends of sentences.

4. Use topic sentences.

5. Avoid nominalizations.

6. A sentence’s beginning should reference the end of the last sentence.

7. Ignore these rules while drafting.

Happy revising :)