Sign in

Five Principles to Improve Your Writing

Excluding the poets, there are two kinds of writer: those that are geniuses and those that are not. The geniuses need no guidance. The other group, where most of us must accept our place sooner or later, require, in addition to a working knowledge of grammar, some general principles to guide us in the pursuit of style. For non-geniuses to hope to do without them is folly; one non-genius may succeed without principles — this is true — but another nine will flounder, fall, and eventually fail, when they might have otherwise succeeded. Therefore, writing without principles is a gamble to be cautioned against.

The following general principles are suggested by the Fowler Bros. in the opening chapter of The King’s English:

(1) Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

(2) Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

(3) Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

(4) Prefer the short word to the long.

(5) Prefer the Germanic word to the Romance.[1]

They are, in essence, an extension to the maxim touted by your old high school English teacher: Keep it simple stupid. (Though perhaps it is more appropriate to say the KISS principle is a reduction of the Fowler Principles.) Despite its good intentions, KISS flicks the student’s ear, yet offers no substantial advice.[2] I certainly never knew what was meant by “simple”. I confess that some explanation of the above is necessary; however, once the Fowler Principles are elucidated, the writer should find them effective for whatever purpose.

The first principle, that the writer should prefer the familiar word, ought to cause no trouble. Simply use the word that immediately comes to mind, for it is usually the right one for the task. Do not right-click and source a more impressive synonym. Sometimes, if the writer is in doubt, it is pertinent to check a word’s meaning, after which the writer may need to source a more appropriate word; but this process should be restricted only to those words that cause a doubt of serious concern.

The second principle, that the writer should prefer the concrete word to the abstract, is difficult to treat summarily. Concrete writing is that in which substance and action function together effectively to create a stable thought-image before the mind’s eye of the reader. This is the short test: if the reader cannot perceive the intended thought-image, then the writing is abstract. The Fowler Bros. explain that abstract writing and the excessive use of nouns are virtually the same thing. In other words, abstract writing is that in which substance predominates, viz., in lieu of verbs, nouns are daisy-chained together with prepositions. Some abstract writing is necessary, particularly in the scientific disciplines, but if it can be avoided, it should be.

There is another kind of abstract writing that is pure solecism. It is employed because the amateur writer, through no fault of their own, misinterprets the Show Don’t Tell principle. For this they deserve no blame, because the Show Don’t Tell principle, like the KISS principle, does not explain itself very well. This kind of abstract writing (which blends with the third principle below) is the proclivity to avoid concrete nouns, to relentlessly describe everything instead. It occurs when the amateur writer says “The great beast with a long serpent-like trunk and massive legs like red-woods etc.” when they mean “The elephant”. The wonderful thing about a word like “elephant” is that it encompasses the entirety of this description. Do not fear: if you write “elephant”, the mind’s eye of the reader will perceive the thought-image of an elephant.

The third principle, that the writer should prefer the single word, is difficult for amateur writers to accept. They often hold the belief that more is not only better, but a sign of superior literary talent, as if the carpenter could improve the chair by adding more legs. Otherwise it is a hallmark of a writer’s lacking confidence; they hide behind their many words like a schoolyard bully hiding behind his lackeys — such inflation gives the impression of strength, but almost every time, the impression is false. Either way, the writer who practices circumlocution — as its etymology implies — does nothing more than talk around themselves. For example: “the question as to whether” means nothing more than “whether”; “in the contemplated eventuality” means nothing more than “if so”; “in the case of John Jenkins deceased, the coffin” means nothing more than “John Jenkins’ coffin”.

I will add under the heading of circumlocution the tendency to modify every noun with a concatenation of adjectives, and every verb with an adverb. If the correct word has been used, it rarely warrants modifying. If a noun must be modified, prefer the definitive adjective to the descriptive, and the descriptive to the evaluative.[3]

The fourth and fifth principles are the least important. The writer may do without them, for the Fowler Bros. explain that if the first three principles are adhered to, the fourth and fifth will naturally follow. Suffice it to say the fourth, that the writer should prefer the short word, speaks for itself. Have is always better than possessed in the sense of having an ability, a quality, or a condition, e.g. “I have good endurance”, not “I possess good endurance”. The fifth, that the writer should prefer the Germanic word, is beyond the ability of most to employ, particularly now that Latin is no longer taught to school children. But the writer will find it useful to make a habit of searching the actual meaning and etymology of various words they encounter. After a time, they will know the scent of the Romance word, and should be able to compare its appropriateness and effectiveness with the Germanic alternative.

It must be said that there are exceptions to all five principles. For example, note the use of two words that denote virtually the same thing from Book 3 of Rieu’s translation of The Iliad:

Hector dispatched two heralds at full speed to the town to fetch the sheep and summon Priam; lord Agamemnon sent Talthybius off to the hollow ships and told him to bring back a lamb.

The use of dispatched appears to break the fourth, fifth, and possibly the first principle. But while the two words denote virtually the same thing, they do not denote absolutely the same thing. Sent, in the general sense, means to cause an object to go; dispatched means to send off post-haste a messenger or message: so the alternate use is appropriate in the context, for Hector had sent a summons to Priam, whereas Agamemnon had merely sent for a sacrifice. Myriad other exceptions could be exampled. Indeed, the Fowler Bros. allow for exceptions with the following advice: “The above rules must not be applied either so unintelligently as to sacrifice any really important shade of meaning, or so invariably as to leave an impression of monotonous and unrelieved emphasis.”

So much for the Fowler Principles. If further reading is desired, I recommend the following, which have contributed in small and in large parts to the above: The King’s English by H.W. Fowler & F.G. Fowler; The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.; On the Art of Writing by Arthur Quiller-Couch; Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin; Style manual for authors, editors and printers (Sixth Edition).

[1] The Fowler Bros. give the fifth principle as “Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance”, but I do not think they intend to exclude those Norse words that the language inherited about 1,000 years ago, so I have changed Saxon to Germanic.

[2] The science department of my old high school, believing the KISS principle as stated was derogatory, amended it to the following: Keep it simple science.

[3] In this order should multiple adjectives run, with the noun standing at the end: evaluative, descriptive, definitive. A comma should be inserted only between members of the same adjective class.

Papa of Goob | Spouse of Dawn | Writer of Prose and Poetry

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store