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  • John Kingston

"Good writing is rewriting"

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

A handful of principles can help to make writing readable. It matters, too. My colleagues and I published a paper that showed emergency procedures were too difficult for half of their readers. But even when safety isn’t at stake, the reader’s patience will be. According to Ernest Hemingway, re-writing should be routine or, as he puts it: the first draft of anything is shit! One of the best targets for re-writing are ‘topic’ sentences—the ones that start most paragraphs. The idea is to lead from the top: state the point first, and then support it with evidence and explanations. In practice, this order often seems to be reversed, with facts and arguments presented first, and the point made last (or frustratingly not at all). Prof. Rudolf Flesch, he of the handy readability statistics you’ll find in Word, argued that this is the dead hand of classical Greek rhetoric. Perhaps it’s just how writing happens when writers are working out what they think. A well-written topic sentence tells the reader what to look for and the writer what they were trying to get at. Another rule that seems to work is splitting or shortening long sentences; in English this means a sentence with 26 words or more. However, mix it up a bit, because reading a whole paragraph of sentences like ‘the ball is red’ is torture. George Orwell’s six rules are also golden, especially the last one: it’s better to break the rules than say ‘anything outright barbarous’!

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