My Writing Tools

by F.

I have very few writing tools, but here are a couple that serve me well. I don’t claim these are original at all.

1. Don’t repeat important words.

Sometimes when I’m writing freely (which is most of the time) a word will get stuck in my head and will show up two or three times in a paragraph. That’s bad. Distinctiveness is inversely related to frequency. To fix this, switch your brain into associative mode and look over what you’ve written. Listen to your “inner ear” for synonyms. (If your inner ear needs a hearing aid, try this prompt: “In other words….”) Insert synonyms that sound good.

2. On average, a paragraph gets one “twist.”

By this I mean: you shouldn’t say “but” “yet” “on the other hand” or similar things more than once (on average) in a paragraph. Why? Because the reader can’t process it. One twist is the norm:

When the first exchange-traded fund (ETF) hit the market in 1990, it caused barely a ripple in the world of investing. But if ETFs continue to enjoy the spectacular rates of growth they have seen over the past five years that year may one day be seen as one of the asset-management industry’s milestones, along with such landmarks as 1774 (when a Dutch merchant cobbled together the earliest mutual-style fund, Eendragt Maakt Magt, or Unity Creates Strength) and 1924 (the launch in Boston of the first modern mutual fund).

Notice the twist? (The red text may help you find it.) This is from The Economist. If the paragraph had another “but” in it, there would be too many twists and the reader would get whiplash.

Most articles start like this: we wait for the “but.” It’s the same in stories, though often it’s a “but then!” For instance: a man an a woman fall in love. But then they discover that she has cancer. They move New Zealand to take part in a clinical trial for a new treatment. But then when they get there, they learn that the trial was for monkeys, not people. And so on. Those twists make the story. After them comes something unexpected.

The “twist” sometimes occurs between grafs, too, by the way. There’s a set up graf, then the second graf twists:

When the internet took off in the 1990s, it was demonised as a steaming cauldron of porn. It has certainly made pornography more widely and easily available than ever before. The online porn industry is difficult to measure, but was valued at $1 billion in 2002 by America’s National Research Council. Google, which publishes its “zeitgeist” list of top search queries, redacts sex-related terms from the rankings for fear of causing offence. But the popularity of pornography is clear from figures compiled by companies that track user “clickstreams”. Last year about 13% of website visits in America were pornographic in nature, according to Hitwise, a market-research firm. For comparison, search engines account for about 7% of site visits.

Yet the Hitwise data suggest that sex sites are now being dethroned. In Britain search sites overtook sex sites in popularity last October—the first time any other category has come out on top since tracking began, says Hitwise.

Feel that? Pattern + twist. Familiar + new. Context + news. Now look back at the first graf. It has a “but” in it, too. There’s a little “mini-twist” inside the first graf. It goes like this: “internet porn is big; it’s hard to get accurate stats, but still this conclusion seems right; here are some numbers.” Then we move to the second graf, which starts with a twist. Then comes the news: sex sites are being eclipsed by community sites. (Though there’s a “but” later in the article: community sites are used for—Can you guess?—hooking up.)