Friday the Thirteenth? Bring it on! Let’s celebrate that wonderful third number after 10 with a list of writing advice from famous writers. Focus: simplicity.

  1. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind. Cicero
  2. Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning; if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  3. You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. Thomas Jefferson
  5. Use familiar words—words that your readers will understand, and not words they will have to look up. No advice is more elementary, and no advice is more difficult to accept.  James J. Kilpatrick
  6. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very'; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. C.S. Lewis
  7. The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.  Blaise Pascal
  8. One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand. Quintilian
  9. If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. Robert Southey
  10. Vigorous writing is concise.  …. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. William Strunk and E. B. White
  11. Writing improves in direct ratio to the things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. William Zinsser
  12. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. George Orwell
  13. Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph. Mark Twain

Number 10 is my favorite: … that every word tell. It’s important to see that the writers are not saying to use simplicity because you think your readers have simple minds. The challenge is to not let extra words get in the way of what you have to say.

By the way, the origin of this list is from PlainLanguage.gov, a site dedicated to improving communication from the Federal government to the public.

‘Nuff said.

How would you summarize the advice given in this list? Do you agree or disagree with it?


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4 Responses to Friday the 13th: 13 tips from famous writers

  1. Pat Bean says:

    Good advice. Thanks for sharing. I gave you a Bean’s Pat on my blog for today.

    • Thanks, Pat! You know what else you gave me? A diversion from working on my taxes this evening. I was just about to start, saw your comment, flipped over to your blog, and had to stay for a while. Beautiful photos! I read on one of your posts that you were in a newsroom for a big chunk of your life. What did you do?

  2. When I’m writing, I’m always thinking… how can I say the most with the least amount of words? Which is why #7 is my favorite: “The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal” (By the way, I wanted to say “fewest” instead of “least amount of” but it just didn’t sound right, even though fewest is a fine word. I had to look it up to be sure it was a word!) Simplicity is tough!

    • It is a real exercise, but the task makes you a better writer. I treat it like a game, a puzzle — keep paring that sentence down until it makes the reader want to move forward. I think it was Zinsser’s book, On Writing, that brought this home for me.

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