Some time ago columnist and author James J. Kilpatrick met with a group of college students who asked him for a set of newspaper-writing rules. The list that resulted is reprinted with Kilpatrick’s permission.
1. Be clear. This is the first and greatest commandment. In a large sense, nothing else matters. For clarity embraceth all things: the clear thought to begin with, the right words for conveying that thought, the orderly arrangement of the words. It is a fine thing, now and then, to be colorful, to be vivid, to be bold. First be clear.
2. Love words, and treat them with respect. For words are the edged tools of your trade; you must keep them honed. Do not “infer” when you mean to “imply.” Do not write “fewer than” when you mean “less than.” Do not use “among” when you mean “between.” Observe that “continually” and “continuously” have different meanings. Do not write “alternately” when you mean “alternatively.” Tints are lights; shades are dark. Learn the rules of “that” and “which.” When you fall into the pit of “and which,” climb out of your swampy sentence and begin anew.
3. As a general proposition, use familiar words. Be precise; but first be understood. Search for the solid nouns that bear the weight of thought. Use active verbs that hit an object and do not glance off.
4. Edit your copy; then edit it again, then edit it once more. This is the hand-rubbing process. No rough sandpapering can replace it.
5. Strike the redundant word. Emergencies are inherently acute; crises are grave; consideration is serious. When you exhort your readers to get down to basic fundamentals, you are dog paddling about in a pool of ideas and do not know where to touch bottom. Beware the little qualifying words: rather, somewhat, pretty, very. As E.B. White said, these are the leeches that suck the meaning out of language. Pluck them from your copy.
6. Have no fear of repetition. It is better to repeat a word than to send an orphan antecedent in its place. Do not write horsehide, white pellet or the old apple when you mean baseball. Members of the City Council are not solons; they are members of the City Council. If you must write banana four times, then write banana four times; nothing is gained by three bananas and one elongated yellow fruit.
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