A Harvard Linguist’s (and Bill Gates’s Favorite Author) 13 Simple Tips for Becoming a Great Writer

Writing well is hard, but Steven Pinker managed to boil the essentials down to just 13 tweet-length tips.

If you were looking for someone to teach you how to become a better writer, you probably couldn’t do any better than Steven Pinker. The famed Harvard linguist is the author of several bestsellers, and Bill Gates even called one of them his favorite book of all time.

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why?

  2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.

  3. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”

  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”

  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms and technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, and prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.

  6. Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).

  7. Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).

  8. Put old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.

  9. Save the heaviest for last: A complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.

  10. Prose must cohere: Readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”

  11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.

  12. Read it aloud.

  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.

CopyWork: How Benjamin Franklin Taught Himself to Write Well

With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

..  Ben Franklin’s Writing Lessons

  1. Read an article.
  2. Write short hints about each sentence (you could also outline the piece) and set it aside for awhile.
  3. Rewrite the article in his own words.
  4. Compare with the original.
  5. Revise and improve your essay.