The 10 Commandments of Writing

I give you the 15... ooops... the 10 Commandments of Writing!

It’s Passover, so what could be more appropriate for a post than discussing the 10 Commandments? No, not the ones about killing people, lusting after your neighbor’s wife or robbing banks. I’m talking about the 10 Commandments of Writing!

As a writer/editor, I just can’t help it. Last night while at dinner with some friends, I must’ve laughed and groaned about a dozen or so times while reading the menu. The typos were beyond atrocious! “Jumbow Burger.” “Chicken Ribs and fries.” (Chickens have ribs? Big enough to eat?) The list went on and on, way beyond your standard misspelling or two. I honestly wanted to ask for the owner and beg him to let me edit his entire menu. I wouldn’t even charge him. Just a free meal! (Side note, the American Dream Diner in Blauvelt, NY may have pretty awful spelling on their menus, but their food is fantastic!)

Anyways, my point is that whether I’m looking at a menu, reading an article in the newspaper (or 85% of things on the Web), or doing some copy editing work, I routinely see the same mistakes from writers. (Yes, I’m including bloggers as writers.) These are basic things that probably make most of you roll your eyes too. So I figured I’d put together a list of my top 10 writing pet peeves. But, well… that sounded too negative, so I decided to make them all commandments that all writers should follow. And if they don’t, well, don’t blame me if their website is suddenly covered with frogs, boils, hail and dead cattle…

1. Thou Shalt Spellcheck

Seriously. There is zero (as in none, nothing, the absence of anything and everything) reason for a standard typo to show up these days in an article. Unless you’re writing something by hand (kudos to you, by the way!), spellcheck everything you do. Then do it again. Just about every word processing program has a simple spellcheck feature. Even email programs have one! Use it.

2. Thou Shalt Not Plagiarize

It’s okay to covet someone’s writing (there’s always a better writer than you), but that doesn’t mean you have a right to copy their work and pass it off as your own. In fact, it’s not just wrong, it’s illegal. Heck, this actually fits in with a legitimate 10 Commandment. Maybe it doesn’t seem as wicked as stealing your neighbors awesome 50-inch plasma TV, but stealing someone else’s words is stealing nonetheless.

3. Possesseth Thy Possessives

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to correct either “its vs. it’s” or “their vs. there vs. they’re.” It’s (meaning, it IS) not hard to figure out people. Learn them and use them correctly.

4. Showeth, Telleth Not

I recently wrote a post about the value of showing versus telling. Don’t just state the facts. That’s boring. Nobody likes boring. Instead, entertain your readers and place them in the action by showing them what you’re talking about, rather than just being direct. Show, don’t tell.

5. Getteth to Thy Pointeth

This has some wiggle room based on whether you’re writing for a magazine or a personal blog post about your 6-year-old son’s Phineas and Ferb birthday party. (Agent P rocks!) In general, you need to get to the point right away. Or as reporters would say: Don’t bury the lede. You need to get your overall point across a.s.a.p. so your readers have a feel for what’s to come. If you start off by telling us that little Timmy stuck a grilled cheese sandwich in the DVD player again, followed by the world’s most perfect bowel movement, oh and then made the cutest drawing of grandma, before he locked your keys in the car and so on and on…. before you even get to the point of your story (which was Timmy’s birthday party), you’re going to completely lose your audience. Like I probably did just there.

6. Useth Contractions

This one is not technically wrong, but if you are someone who does not use contractions in your writing, you will soon discover that it is very dry, stilted and bland. Toss a few contractions in. It’s easy.

7. Never Misseth a Deadlineth

I’m proud of my perfect record of never missing a single deadline as a freelance writer. There were certainly a few times I cut things close and even once or twice I asked for an extension, but that’s the point… I asked first. As a writer, you’re a professional, so act like one. If someone’s relying on your work to get their part done, don’t be late. It could cause a painful domino effect down the line. If you’re late handing an article in, the editor will be late editing it, which means the designer will get it late, etc. Do your best to make a deadline and if it’s unrealistic when assigned, tell your editor. If you notice that you’re just running out of time, contact your editor and ask for an extension. Communication is key!

8. Accepeth Thy Constructiveth Criticismeth

Nobody likes to be told they stink. But guess what? Nobody’s perfect either. So when your editor (or spouse or friend) gives you some feedback on your article or post, take the emotion out of it. View it as constructive criticism and learn from it. Thicken up your skin and prepare for some negative comments.

9. Forsaken Not Thy Headline

Whether it’s an article or a blog post, the same thing holds true: include a solid, compelling title or headline. Don’t just whip up something quick as an afterthought. Spend some time crafting your title. It’s the first thing readers will see and can very quickly set the tone. If you’re submitting an article or pitch to an editor, a catchy headline will also do the job of getting your editor to look at it quicker. Sure your editor may completely change your suggestions, but anything to make his job easier is only going to help you in the long run.

10. Remember Thy Audience

Editors will probably tell you they’re biggest pet peeve is when a writer submits a story pitch that has absolutely nothing to do with their magazine or website. Before you send a pitch, do your research. Same goes with the article itself. You may be writing about Seasonal Allergies, but who is the article for? What type of audience will be reading it? Med students? Doctors? Business owners? Insurance companies? Regular everyday people? The tone and even content of your article can change drastically based on who the target audience is. So be sure to get all the necessary information up front before you start dedicating any real time to writing.

8 Comments on “The 10 Commandments of Writing

  1. Andrew, you taken all the simple rules that few follow and carved a clear path for folks to follow. This won’t confuse them, it’s clear and to the point. All writers and would-be writers should print this out and paste it on their wall. Really, writing rules they need to follow.

    Thanks for putting the word out there.

    Beau Smith
    The Flying Fist Ranch

    • Hey, Beau! Sincere thanks for the kind words and approval! You continue to be a scholar and a fine gentleman. 🙂

      I’m just in awe at how many writers (not even bloggers) don’t follow the bulk of these. Did they stop teaching these things in school?

    • Hey Randi! Thanks for the comment and double thanks for using a contraction! Appreciate it. 🙂

  2. Hi Andrew, your post just made day. Beau was right writers should print this and pin it to their bulletin boards. School is still teaching this though, I am not sure if the students were listening. Haha I am going to apply these commandments. Regards from the Philippines! Yours, Sam
    Sam Lanuza recently posted..Just a post: Contis’ Mango Bravo CakeMy Profile

    • Hey Sam. Glad I could make your day. Maybe I should follow Beau’s lead and make a printable version of these commandments!!! You’re probably right about the students not really listening too. Glad you’re applying them, though. And hi back from New York!

  3. Great tips with a nice touch of humor. Some of these seem simple and obvious, yet are constantly abused or missed. I’m passing this post on!

    • Hey, Don. Thanks very much for the comment and the praise. Yep, at least half of these “should” be common sense but as common sense says… very few people practice what they preach. 🙂 Thanks for passing it on!