The Golden Rule of Writing

woman writer

A guest post by Eric Cummings of On Violence

I learned what I consider the “Golden Rule of Writing” – the only rule that can help every writer – in the first creative writing class I ever took. Of course, I didn’t learn the rule immediately, or even in the first class. My classmates and I first had to learn how different we were from one another as writers.

Our teacher, an old bald Caribbean man with missing front teeth and a stoop, began by asking the class, “How do you write?”

Some students wrote on computers, others in journals; I wrote long hand on legal pads. Some wrote in the morning at their home, others at night with friends; I wrote by myself at the library in the afternoon. Our professor wrote memoir fiction about his sexual escapades in the Caribbean standing at a lectern a la Hemingway. We wrote literary fiction, memoirs, and detective stories; newspaper articles, editorials, and e-mails. We were men and women, young and old, lazy and prolific, borderline illiterate and consummate professionals. Some of us needed two drafts, others needed dozens. We were a microcosm of the rest of the writing universe: no two writers write the same way.

The problem with learning the “rules” for writing is that none of them apply to everyone.

How can any rule possibly apply to everyone? I co-write my blog with my twin brother, and we don’t write the same way. What rule can cover journalism and blogging, poetry and prose; authors like James Joyce, who struggled to write seven words a day, or Nora Roberts, who writes multiple books a year? If a golden rule exists, it needs to unite all writers.

I learned the Golden Rule of Writing on my second day in class, as my story about a farmer and a mule was read aloud. I had spent some time writing it, one day rewriting it, and another afternoon editing it. I was nervous but confident. It was a good story.

The story began, “Light barely flooded into the room.”

“Wait.” Less than a sentence in, the Professor stopped the student reading my story. He turned to me, “Eric, what do you mean, ‘Light barely flooded into the room.’?”

“Well, it is sunrise, and the sun is coming up.” I said.

“But how can light ‘barely flood’ in? Do you mean the word flood?”

Light could either barely trickle in, or flood in, but it couldn’t do both. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to be clearer and more precise with my language–though I did–it was that I didn’t know what my words meant. I didn’t own the words on the page. The questions the professor asked us over the course of the quarter were always the same, “What do you mean?” “What did you intend here?” or “Why did you use this word?”

What is my Golden Rule of Writing? It’s this:

Intend every word you write.

Be aware of what your words mean, and make sure that the meaning aligns with what you are trying to say. Writing is communication; don’t we all want to communicate as accurately as possible?

(I hear the guy in the back saying, what if I want my writing to be confusing? Then be confusing, but do it intentionally.)

Notice how my professor coached me on my writing. He didn’t tell me what words to use, he didn’t tell me my mistake. He asked questions. Perhaps I meant to put the words together, as a poetic statement. Or perhaps the idea or the image I meant to convey wasn’t being conveyed. He made me aware of what my words meant. The lesson was clear: these were my words, dammit, and I needed to own them.

As my above example shows, the Golden Rule of Writing is not an easy one, especially when you write for readers. Your intention needs to jibe with what you want them take away from you work. (Perhaps you write only in your journal. You follow the Golden Rule every time you write, because you express what you mean every time you write, because you are writing for yourself.)

Below, I have seven tips for implementing intentionality behind your writing, to better convey what you want to say.

1. When you revise your work ask yourself, “Does this convey what I want to convey?” Ask yourself this question after every line, especially when writing fiction.

2. Think about your reader. Who is your intended audience? If you’re writing your church newsletter, then you probably aren’t going to want to include any swear words. Think about your reader, and write to them, being aware of how they will react to your words.

3. Think about the meaning of every word you write. James Joyce spent whole days writing just a handful of words, spending hours thinking about them and their meaning. Now, I hear you saying, “Whoa, I don’t have that much time.” True. But you can ask yourself, “Do I really know what this word means?” “Am I using it correctly?” “Will my intended audience get what I am trying to say?” Spend more time on longer sentences and bigger words.

4. Look out for especially “arty writing” The best writing is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. But I’m not F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy, and neither are you. So when you write something especially clever, unique or “arty,” double check it to make sure it makes sense. I learned this rule from personal experience.

5. Use a dictionary. Check it to see if that word means what you think it means.

6. Listen to podcasts about grammar, and read books and blogs about it. Did you know that non-plussed means confused, or bewildered? Do you know what a gerund is? Neither did I, until I started educating myself. I recommend the podcasts Grammar Grater and Grammar Girl, the books Writing With Style By Trimble and The Writer’s Reference. If you are revising your work and something strikes you as strange, look it up. It will add to your overall knowledge of grammar, usage and the written word.

7. Read. This is the single best way to add to your vocabulary and your knowledge of language and writing.

Ultimately, the Golden Rule of Writing is not about conformity, but freedom. Do you dislike semi-colons? Don’t use them. Do you want to start sentences with “and,” “but,” or “because?” Then go ahead, it’s your writing. If you want to use a word incorrectly, go ahead. But use it incorrectly on purpose, knowing the implications of that misuse.

With the Golden Rule of Writing, you are free to convey whatever idea, thought or image you want. You are free to tell whatever story, write whatever essay, or compose any poem you want. But write it with intention.

Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on counter-insurgency warfare, military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

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41 Responses to “The Golden Rule of Writing”

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  1. torbjorn says:

    “Eric Cummings writes about for On Violence,”…is how the author is described in italics at the bottom of the post. See it?

    For a post on writing it’s an unfortunate mistake.

    Enjoyed the post though. K.I.S.S (keepitsimplestupid) is the heart of the business and proposal writing classes I have taken. Very true on intention & every word should have a purpose. Always pay attention to how writing makes the reader feel because that can have fortunate/unfortunate consequences. Finally, avoid unnecessary adjectives, or avoid their use at all.

    Cool!

  2. Jeffrey Tang says:

    I agree completely, Eric. But I’d also like to point out that this runs counter to the popular image of a writer letting a piece just “happen” by itself, which is a misleading image. Good writing often does seem to write itself, but a great writer must always control the intent of every word she writes.

  3. Eric C says:

    @ Jeffrey tang – Well, I had a tough time finding an image connecting gold and writing. The thing, is for me personally, I’m a big brainstormer. I have to write, and write and write, and then pick and choose from what I write. So journal writing works right into that method.

    @ Torjborn – I would say avoid unnecessary adjs. but don’t cut them out completely. They have a place.

  4. Write what you mean. Yes, great advice! I wonder why this is so hard, though. It’s easy enough to check the dictionary for correct definitions of words. But the problem arises when working on a piece (fiction or nonfiction) and you feel the need to balance pared-down clear language with more interesting, creative word choices. And we don’t always know exactly what we mean to say to begin with and hope that writing about it will somehow help us understand the topic more. It’s sort of like learning a new language and flubbing it along the way while you practice with native speakers. It’s a constant journey full of missteps along the way.

  5. Mary Jaksch says:

    @Torbjorn
    Thanks for pointing out the mistake at the bottom of the post. I’ve corrected it. It was my bad :-(
    Eric is blameless..promise :-))

    I think this is a great rule! I’m working hard at minimizing every bit of fluffy expression in my writing.

    Erm… Fluff Alert: BLINK–BLINK–BLINK

    I’ll try it again:

    “I’m working hard on eliminating fluff in my writing.”

  6. Redford says:

    I like the anecdote about reading to your professor and him stopping you. I think this process of critiquing is often avoided by writers because thy are afraid their work might be debased before their eyes. But fantastic post. I feel your rule is a commonality all writers should aspire to.

  7. Eric C says:

    @ Redford – Yeah, even with this post I had to cut words as suggested by my editor and co-blogger. I think the idea is the piece can always be better.

    @ Easy Steps – It is funny, but I feel like I have the opposite problem, I know what I want to say but not how to say it. I know the idea, but getting the words in the right order is the hard part.

  8. LPC says:

    Eric, great post. I like it because it supports what I have been vaguely feeling:). That is, ask myself, did I mean that? It’s odd how words can just come out of us, without intention, but it happens. And almost everything I question for intent is better when I’m done.

  9. Iapetus999 says:

    What does “convey” mean?

    Just kidding. :)

    I’ve been learning there are no rules. There’s just “good”, “better”, and “awful.” I try to stay away from the third.

  10. joylene says:

    Not very often do I consider printing something, but this stuff is worth it. Thanks.

  11. Eric C says:

    @ LPC – isn’t it funny how when we write we write words we didn’t mean? I know exactly what you mean, especially when we write quickly or brainstorm

    @ IApETUS – that is why I wrote the post, to convey my frustration.

  12. Michael C says:

    Hi everyone, thanks for the support for the post. I am the co-blogger mentioned in the description. We actually ask each other this when editing our posts and it helps.

    @LPC- Eric and I have the same problem when we write our posts. Especially with foreign policy posts, writing exactly what you mean is very important. The best solution is to ask for almost every question, did I mean this?

    @IAPETUS999- Staying away from awful is good.

    @Joylene- Thanks for the compliment.

  13. YES!

    This so neatly articulates my own intention for my writing. I dedicated myself to this years ago as my writing goal; a deep sifting down into what I want to say, to try and tell my truth, as clearly as possible. It’s hard and it takes me a long time but when I do this, I (usually) feel peaceful and sure of what I have written.

  14. Kylie says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m especially excited to look into the grammar podcasts. These are just the sort of reminders I need every day.

  15. Eric,
    I recently subscribed to this blog and with good timing. Tip #6 is one of my new year’s goals for improving my real estate blog so the resources mentioned are ideal. Thank you!

    PS. Just typing this comment makes me anxious someone will take a red pen to identify the grammer errors after I click “submit”.

  16. Mohan Arun L says:

    Another professor-like spotting!
    I think this sentence could have been written differently – “Your intention needs to jibe with what you want them take away from you work.”
    -> Obviously you mean ‘your work’.
    I paused and reflected for a moment and re-read the sentence thrice to make sure I got the meaning of what you were trying to say… “Your intention needs to correlate with what you want them (your readers) take away from your work.”

  17. Darni says:

    The golden rule is “no rules”.Write in your own way,own style,own personality.:)

    For me,I like wirite alone with my computor in my own room at deep night.

  18. Your description of your teacher made me think of Yoda. But Yoda would say, “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Which is becoming my golden rule for writing. :)

  19. Eric C says:

    @ Jennifer – Thanks for the kind words

    @ Kylie – The grammar podcasts are short, but packed with information. I’m surprised more people don’t recommend them.

    @AMI – I love the Yoda reference

  20. Steve Hall says:

    I am starting to copyedit short works by friends of mine. I recommended this article to all of them, and of course I intend to heed it as well.

    I’ve encountered phrases similar to “sunlight barely flooded” and it’s reassuring to have my instincts reinforced here.

    Thank you, Eric, for putting my “feeling” about words, into words!

  21. I thought the article was excellent. It is difficult to write what you mean and always have someone else understand it. This is especially true for me becsause I write about illness and the psychic aspects of healing.

  22. Frances says:

    Eric, you have managed to capture two good guides, your golden rule, and in your storytelling, a guide for providing feedback.

    And if I may respond to the comment that “good writing just happens”, please tell me where that can be found. I would love to read it!

  23. buen says:

    I like the article. It makes me realize that there is really no true Golden Rule of Writing. It is for each individual to discover what works for himself/herself–all we should focus on, however, is to use the right words to convey what we truly want to communicate to the readers.

  24. Wonderful. I am constantly trying to educate myself about writing – this is a great addition to that education. Thank you for the recommendations!

  25. Eric C says:

    @ Steve Hall, Kathleen, Laura – Thanks for the kind words.

    @ Buen – I came up with my rule out of a frustration with rules. Most writing is about breaking the rules anyways!

    @ Frances – Good writing, for me, never happens either. I have to write, and write and edit and edit some more. I can’t tell you how many drafts this post went through.

  26. I think it’s great to try not to focus so much on the artsy-ness of your writing. I found it takes a few rewrites to really get to what you meant to say in the first place.

    The way I see it, it’s like the first draft is your mind beating around the bushes. Then you hone it in during the editing phase.

  27. Very informative article and one that every writer should read, just for the tips if nothing else. I especially liked that you stressed to make sure you know what a word means and that you really should be using it. In my editing experience I too often find authors are tossing in words because they like them or the word sounds interesting, but it just doesn’t fit.

  28. Excellent advice and it sounds like you had a great teacher, but we teachers and writers know the old saw is true that the master appears only when the student is ready…so it sounds like you were ready to learn from this master. Putting two words back to back that point in opposite directions is never a good thing a sin barely flooded. Great article.

    Author, Dead On Writing. Wordclay books and Kindle books

  29. Colleen Costello says:

    Eric, I loved your piece and writing tips which are very essential indeed to every writer. I have and do apply them to all them to my writing. I keep a dictionary next to me and am so paranoid in writing my emails that I consult it for just that – emails, not just my writing. I will not use or write a word that I don’t know or is not in context. Grammar, punctuation, vocabulary – these are our “tools” and we must be masterful and ever mindful in their use. I have kept studying! But I have not kept writing since my last publication! I do not like reading what I write. That’s a problem, as is brevity AND I loathe editing but I AM getting better at it!!!

    As for your teacher’s comment, I can say this: In 1996 I had a flood. It was not an “ominous” flood, in fact water “barely flooded” my basement apartment as there was sufficient water inside to deem it a flood. Things had to be brought outside and dried for days. So, you see, your words work for me and I think, in many other cases, would work for others too. For light – I got it too. I was an audience of those words and they were “delicate” and “subversive” and I liked them.

    See how long this post is? I told you brevity was a problem! But I saved your post and emailed it to myself for reference. I believe I have a good grasp of the rules/tools but it’s moving on them that is a problem for me. The post, however, is priceless.

  30. Anett says:

    Thanks for this article. This article really helped and inspired me. I actually had to write down keywords in my journal. Thanks for all the good hints. I’ll try to the grammar podcast, too. Will probably help much as my mother tongue is not English.

  31. Eric C says:

    @ Nathalie – I think people focus on making their writing creative, especially in the beginning, when they should be focused more on making it accurate. I have a lot to say on this subject.

    @ Maryanne – That’s why editors are so useful.

    @ Robert Walker – Thanks for the kind words.

    @ Colleen – My co-writer and I had a debate over that phrase. Maybe in the future i’ll use it.

    @ anett – If English is your second language, then you need to read, read, read. Good luck.

  32. You can’t protip your way to writing. What was proposed is a recipe for mediocrity. And those who write to be mediocre aren’t really writing, they’re producing commodities. If you love the type of literature that gets wide exposure right now, then yeah, follow this list. If you despise the literature getting wide exposure, this list is just going to help you write like those you hate.

    All real artists are performance artists and compositions are merely a by-product of an artistic modality. People who don’t have a natural inclination to do the really ridiculously obvious items suggested above, shouldn’t be writing.

  33. Arc says:

    Wow, great article! Definitely made me think twice before I typed these words. lol

  34. Great post. Think about your reader should be number one. If your reader is not interested or is bored, all the other points are meaningless. Use a dictionary should be up a little higher. It is amazing how many writers don’t.

  35. Thomas Lloyd Kerr says:

    I write not because I want to, but becauce of an over whelming desire to be connected to others.
    The content of what I write is a tool. This tool can wield great responsibility; in the right hands it can bring peace and tranquility to a state of chaos and disorder.
    This is where the term “The pen is mightier then the sword” came from.
    Remember the next time you begin to write, how powerful the written word really is. Things come and go, but words can last forever.

    THOMAS……

  36. like the anecdote about reading to your professor and him stopping you. I think this process of critiquing is often avoided by writers because thy are afraid their work might be debased before their eyes. But fantastic post. I feel your rule is a commonality all writers should aspire to.