If you’re looking for a helpful introductory book on writing that will actually help you to write better, The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles for Clear and Effective Writing is worth checking out. This book shares what are arguably the twenty most important principles for expositional writing, along with charts and exercises to help you hone your writing skills.
Author Brandon Royal shares the importance of mastering the basics of writing in the book’s introduction, “Students and young professionals who develop outstanding writing skills do so primarily by mastering a limited number of the most important writing principles, which they use over and over again.” We need to master the basics to further hone the writing craft.
As I read through the Kindle edition of The Little Red Writing Book, I highlighted the key principles and quotes and share them below.
Summary of The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles for Clear and Effective Writing
Writing has four pillars structure, style, readability, and grammar and each pillar is like the single leg of a sturdy chair.
- Structure is about organization and deciding in which order to present your ideas.
- Style describes how one writes, including how to use specific examples to support what is written.
- Readability is about presentation and how to make a document visually pleasing and easy to read.
- Grammar, including diction, is about expressing language in a correct and acceptable form.
This book addresses the first three pillars; the fourth pillar, grammar, is given extensive coverage in The Little Gold Grammar Book.
Principle #1: Write your conclusion and place it first.
Expository writing [unlike creative writing] explains and often summarizes a topic or issue.
Strategically, the summary or conclusion should come at the beginning of an expository piece, not at the end.
Principle #2: Break your subject into two to four major parts and use a lead sentence.
Consider using a lead sentence, which is similar to a topic sentence. Whereas a topic sentence summarizes the contents of a single paragraph within an essay or report, a lead sentence summarizes the contents of an entire essay or report.
Principle #3: Use transition words to signal the flow of your writing.
Principle #4: Use the six basic writing structures to put ideas in their proper order.
The six commonly used structures in writing include: (1) categorical, (2) comparative, (3) evaluative, (4) chronological, (5) sequential, and (6) causal.
Principle #5: Finish discussing one topic before going on to discuss other topics.
Principle #6: Use specific and concrete words to support what you say.
Examples and details are the very things people remember long after reading a piece.
This is arguably the most important of all writing techniques.
Principle #7: Add personal examples to make your writing more memorable.
Principle #8: Use simple words to express your ideas.
The everyday writer should err on the side of using simpler words.
Principle #9: Make your writing clearer by dividing up long sentences.
Principle #10: Cut out redundancies, excessive qualification, and needless self-reference.
Principle #11: Favor active sentences, not passive sentences.
Principle #12: Avoid nominalizing your verbs and adjectives.
[Nominalizing] describes the process by which verbs and adjectives are turned into nouns. Nominalizations weaken writing for a variety of reasons, mainly because they make sentences longer and force the reader to work harder to extract the sentence’s meaning.
So, “reduction of costs” is best written as “reduce costs,” “development of a 5- year plan” is best written as “develop a 5- year plan,” and “reliability of the data” is best written as “rely on the data.”
Principle #13: Express a series of items in consistent, parallel form.
Consider the parallelism in the famous quote by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Principle #14: Vary the length and beginnings of your sentences.
The normal sentence pattern in English is subject- verb- object (S- V- O), as seen in the example “I play tennis.” Most sentences should follow this subject- verb- object sequence because it produces the most power. However, if all sentences follow this order, our writing becomes choppy and monotonous. Particularly noticeable are series of sentences all beginning the same way, especially with “I” or “we.” Here are ten ways to vary sentence beginnings.
- WITH A SUBJECT
- WITH A PHRASE
- WITH A CLAUSE
- WITH AN ARTICLE
- WITH A VERB
- WITH AN ADVERB
- WITH ADJECTIVES
- WITH A GERUND
- WITH AN INFINITIVE
- WITH CORRELATIVE CONJUNCTIONS
Principle #15: Write with a positive, personal tone.
Principle #16: Avoid using the masculine generic to refer to both genders.
Principle #17: Add more space around your writing to increase readability.
Principle #18: Make key words and phrases stand out.
Such adornments might include boldface type, italics, dashes, bullets, enumerations, and shading.
Principle #19: Use headings and headlines to divide or summarize your writing.
Principle #20: Wait until your writing stands still before you call it finished.
Rare is the writer who can sit down and knock out a perfect writing draft without corrections. Most proficient writers take at least three drafts to finish short pieces of writing.
Skill, luck, boldness, and naiveté are key ingredients in the writing process.