Plain, simple language. That is the way to write English

“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English.”

So said master stylist Mark Twain, way back in 1880. Even though he would have celebrated his 177th birthday last November, Twain’s views on good writing still sound utterly contemporary. What’s more, they can be applied to content produced for any medium, including plenty that didn’t exist when he was alive.

A particular stylistic bugbear of Twain’s was the over-use of adjectives — what he referred to as the “adjective habit” and compared to a vice. We agree with Twain that for adjectives to have impact, they need to be used sparingly:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Twain also commented on the thorny issue of how to put forward an idea as succinctly as possible (we suspect he’d have been a dab hand at blogging and tweeting!):

“Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

And let’s not forget the value he placed on rigorous editing to improve content quality:

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

In today’s world of commercial pressures and time constraints, we may not always have the luxury of starting over in this way. But careful planning and a robust review process will help you get your message across as effectively as possible — whatever the publishing medium.

Photo via pbs.org

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