Winkler’s writing rules

Seal, City of Winkler, Manitoba

Endorsed by the Guardian, which wrote:

“Winkler’s Writing Rules should be required reading
for aspiring writers, online or in print.”

In the world of Winkler, writing rules.

Here are my 20 golden ones:

  1. The hardest part of writing is getting those words out of your head on to a page.
  2. Struggle to get started? Put a timer on for ten minutes and see how far you go. Then set it for another ten.
  3. The first draft always looks a complete mess. Accept it.
  4. Don’t agonise over that perfect first sentence. Start anywhere and return to your stunning opener later.
  5. Think about your reader. Will he or she understand technical terms? Or need simpler explanations? Picturing your reader (age, gender, background) helps get the tone right.
  6. Don’t assume your reader knows what you know. Retain ‘beginner’s mind’. Resist the temptation to show off your superior knowledge – this is about sharing.
  7. A long sentence loses the reader. Four lines is a crime. Break a long sentence into two.
  8. Vary the length of your sentences, and their shape. Every sentence in the same paragraph should begin differently.
  9. Be eagle-eyed about repetition. Use a thesaurus to find alternative words.
  10. Be consistent. If different spellings exist, spell it the same way each time.
  11. It and it’s. Although most possessive forms have an apostrophe (a rose’s smell), when it comes to the dastardly it, the rules are different. The apostrophe denotes a missing letter – it’s stands for it is. If you are unsure which spelling to use, replace your its/it’s with “it is”. Say it is aloud to yourself. Does it make sense? (She loved it is smell). If not, use its. As for James’s rose, (when the possessor’s name ends in an ‘s’) my mother, a stickler for grammar, says: Use an apostrophe only after a one-syllable proper name – such as Charles’s rose – not otherwise.
  12. To make your copy more immediate, use active (doing) verbs, such as “I am writing the rules”. Passive (done to) verbs are less direct, as in “the rules are being written“.
  13. Express one (or max, two) points per paragraph. The first sentence makes a statement and the rest of the paragraph qualifies it.
  14. Group paragraphs dealing with the same topic together, in a logical sequence, starting with the most important, or the one that comes first chronologically.
  15. When it’s time to move to the next main topic, find a sentence to introduce this new topic.
  16. Give signposts such as “The evidence is far from clear”. Don’t be afraid to spell things out: “The main reasons for accepting the evidence are…”
  17. Writing is rereading what you have written, and rewriting. You have to identify the bumpy bits, and iron them out. Over and over again.
  18. Read your finished copy out aloud. The ear can pick up what the eye has got tired of seeing. The cause of the hiccup may be poor grammar, an incorrect fact, punctuation or lack of clarity.
  19. Ask someone else to read what you have written. Request they tell you if they do not understand anything and which bit it is. Don’t get huffy if they do. Responsibility for successful communication lies with the communicator.
  20. Read more. It will help improve your writing, spelling and grammar. You will become more familiar with the way words look and sound. It’s about seeing what works.

Writing tutorial: UK-based, I give tailor-made tutorials for organisations and individuals. Interested? Please drop me a line: elisabeth.winklerATya   hoo.co.uk (use @ instead of AT, and spell yahoo normally – written this way to confound the spammers.).

Feel free to use Winkler’s Writing Rules. Do credit this post and/or leave a comment here.

Thank you!

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36 responses to “Winkler’s writing rules

  1. I really really like your tips – and how generous of you to share them. Of course you deserve a credit – not just for their clarity but for taking the time and effort to be so useful to other people who may be struggling.
    In my experience, using a timer is an excellent way to get over the fear of sitting there with yourself and a blank page – ditto the advice not to agonise over that all-important first line, but to get some words down!
    Also it is always good to hear from a professional that first drafts are a mess – no matter how long you have been writing. In order to write, you have to allow yourself to make mistakes or – as Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down The Bones) says: you are free to write the worst junk in the world. That frees you up a lot!
    Knowing your reader is another excellent tip and goes hand in hand with reading lots – it really does help! Also useful is your reminder that writing is re-writing and re-writing often until you virtually know a piece off-by-heart. Beginner’s mind is the most helpful mind in the world – for everything. Thank you so much for the spirit with which you share all the things you learn and experience.

  2. P.s. As a novelist and creative writing tutor (and a former journalist) I would just suggest that writing rules 12 to 16 are more relevant to journalism than creative writing.

  3. Roz, I agree. Thanks fellow tutor (Roz and I have taught Practical Journalism courses all over the southwest including at the Arvon Foundation.)

  4. Lots of sound advice in these tips. But I have one very minor quibble. You advise using a thesaurus to find alternative words. My own view is, don’t use the thesaurus – choose alternative words from your own active vocabulary, not from someone else’s supersmart vocab.
    So I suppose I’d have to add another tip – no, you’ve got it there at number twenty. Read more. In other words, build up your vocab and language skills from literature.

  5. To expand on 11)

    When substituting for ‘it is’ makes sense then you should use an apostrophe.

    E.g. Only when it’s raining -> Only when it is raining.

    And likewise if substituting for ‘his’ makes sense then you should NOT use an apostrophe.

    E.g. Hold its head still -> Hold his head still.

    Therefore no apostrophe in this case!

  6. Zemanta, thank you for the City of Winkler badge.

    Zemanta popped the image onto my draft blog – one of the canny features of this free blogging tool.

    The City of Winkler exists in real life, in Canada.

    It also exists in my imagination as a safe place for sensitives.

  7. Pingback: Rice is nice « Real Food Lover

  8. Pingback: Friday 20th March 2009 - Writing Rules - OK? « Haddock in the Kitchen

  9. “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice – that is, until we have stopped saying ‘It got lost,’ and say, ‘I lost it.'” – Sydney J. Harris, journalist (1917-1986)

    More on active and passive from http://tinyurl.com/c53k98

    Both Word and Google Docs have tools to count your use of active and passive in a document

    1. Select the Check grammar with spelling check box (see Preferences in Word)
    2. Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
    3. On the Tools menu, click Spelling and Grammar.

    I hope this works…

  10. Pingback: How do you write a book?- Tuesday 19th May 2009 « Haddock in the Kitchen

  11. Thanks for your encouragement on my blog!

    This is a great list that I will return to again and again.

  12. Winkler’s Writing Rules got a fab plug from the judges of the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2009. They said my rules “should be required reading for aspiring writers online or in print”.

    More nice things said about my food blog at the Observer/Guardian Word of Mouth blog here http://bit.ly/NI32Q

  13. sarah scarlett

    thanks for sharing the writing tips Elisabeth. I found them an excellent prompt and also forwarded them onto a friend. looking forward to seeing your recipe for the ginger poultice you were telling me about last week. x

  14. Dear Elisabeth.
    We are in First Nations Country, in Vancouver BCat the moment.
    Love your Winkler Writing Tips. You should have told me about them before. I could have used them. I’ll pass them on to Susanna.
    Love
    Malcolm
    Malcolm

  15. Thank you, Malcolm. I guess it took going to Canada to read my blog. Sigh. No, just kidding! Delighted you visited and glad you liked Winkler’s Writing Tips. Yes, please pass them on to Susanna and have a wonderful visit. x

  16. Ten minute timer – I love it!

  17. Thanks for rule 11 – been meaning to clarify that since I started my blog. The apostrophe- it’s great to know its place!

  18. I’m no blogger, but I liked your site.
    I particularly liked your Writing Tips, and the comment by Roz on rules 12 to 16.
    Being in the process of trying to get my first book, (on my paranormal experiences), published it was helpful to have these reminders – I’m currently at the editing (and re-editing) stage.
    I will try the one about reading my work aloud.

  19. The short (and stat-researchable) Bit-ly link for Winkler’s Writing Rules

    http://bit.ly/17hXUg

  20. Re. my comment above. I have now read aloud my whole work, and have indeed found it very helpful. You have to read it more slowly and so pick up on more than you would otherwise. You also read what is there not what you thought was there.
    A very good tip. Thank you.

  21. seng-gye tombs curtis

    thanks elizabeth.

    my (technical) book was written long before this great set of rules, but i started from rule 6. i specified that the publisher let me work with a writer who knew nothing about the subject because ‘experts’ have probably forgotten what they didn’t know when they were beginners.

    as a result of this, the book was an international best seller (by modest technical book standards) which beat the combined sales of all other books on the subject.

    i can’t recommend these rules strongly enough!

    • Hi Seng-gye

      Thank you. Please remind me of the title of your amazing book.

      Is it still available? Please do add a link here.

      It is fascinating that you used a non-expert to write a technical book.

      We are of one mind.

      In my last post on eating organic, I wrote: “As a journalist, my ignorance is my strength. If I can understand it, so can you.”

      You may also like this post called Keep It Simple on my other blog, Writing On The Web

      http://writingontheweb.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/keep-it-simple/

  22. seng-gye tombs curtis

    it’s called simply The Airbrush Book. if you google my full name there are about 135000 results, mostly used copies for sale and library catalogue entries. it was published 30 years ago and i think the last imprint new was about ’88. there were 12 editions in 9 languages plus the bootleg editions so a lot of the copies for sale won’t be in english.

    the writing technique was a bit complicated because i insisted that someone who had never heard of the said art tool should be able to pick the book up and learn how to use it, yet at the same time it could be a ready reference work for experienced professionals.

    we started from your rules 6 and 5 and probably worked with most of the others as it developed.
    chris was fairly fresh from a literature degree and i had never even contemplated writing a book. as the whole project came about by accident we mostly made it up as we went along.

  23. Hello Elisabeth,
    I am curious to know how Tesco are able to sell their own bread, without any of the products ingredients listed on the packaging. It appears totally immoral to me, even though it may be legal.

    • Hi Brian

      Tesco and other bread makers will list most of the ingredients on the label.

      But they don’t need to list ‘processing aids’ is because of a loophole in the law.

      However, as we have seen from the Vodafone tax evasion scandal , something can be within the law and still be immoral.

      Thanks for your comment

      Elisabeth

  24. Thank you, very useful information for a new food blogger
    Cheers
    Marcus

    • Hi Marcus,

      Thanks for the thanks. I really enjoyed visiting your blog, Countrywoodsmoke, about cooking and eating in the garden.

      It was heartening to hear how you encourage your small children to be in the garden – I think this freedom to explore outdoors (and have a bit of a garden) has to be one of the best educations you can give a child.

  25. “The first draft always looks a complete mess” and if you are writing in a foreign language it will be worse!

  26. When someone writes an paragraph he/she keeps the plan of a
    user in his/her mind that how a user can know it.
    Therefore that’s why this post is outstdanding. Thanks!

  27. Excellent advice, blog and ethos. Keep up the good work and fight the power!

    • Many thanks for your comment! I am liking Freeze Peach radio station – what a great endeavour!

      “In a capitalist environment, freedom of speech is dictated by freedom of means, in that the more means someone has at their disposal the freer their speech can be. Freeze Peach is an attempt to address this imbalance.”

      Viva freedom of expression.

  28. These are really useful to me. Thank you for writing them up. I need to take heed!

  29. Dear Elisabeth
    I’ve just started a blog over on my website and I must say that I really struggle to know how to engage an audience with a subject that most people find rather dry! What would you suggest when writing about a subject that lacks appeal to most audiences?
    http://www.swiftlocksmiths.co.uk
    Thanks

    • Hi Mike B

      I think the subject of locksmiths is not dry because it links to so many interesting topics such as homes, home town events, security, crime, the ancient craft of locksmithing and the history of locks.

      I look forward to reading such a blog at Swift Locksmiths so keep me posted!

      And, hey! Thanks for your help setting up the projector,

      Elisabeth

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