Twenty-Five Guidelines for Writing Prose

David Randall

The National Association of Scholars has Prose Guidelines for internal use. Other nonprofit organizations may find them useful—as may writing instructors and would-be writers.

Men learn conventions not least so that they are conscious of when and how they depart from them. Expert writers may choose to loose themselves from these strictures—but they should not do so until they have learned how and why to write lucid English.

  1. Make Arguments. Every word should forward an argument. Eliminate words which do not. Articulate to yourself the argument you wish to make—and make sure you state the argument in your work. Compose each sentence, each paragraph, and the work as a whole to make the larger argument.
  2. Argue, Don’t Assert. Provide reasons for your statements. E.g., you merely assert when you say that “I think Michelangelo was a genius.” You provide a grounded argument when you say, “Michelangelo’s mastery of anatomy in his David demonstrates his sculptural genius.”
  3. Substantiate Arguments. Substantiate arguments that depend upon facts. Every sentence beyond common knowledge requires a hyperlink or a footnote.
  4. Organize Paragraphs. Each paragraph should make a coherent, self-contained argument. Craft chains of such paragraphs to forward the larger argument. Substantiate each paragraph’s arguments with at least two examples. Make the reader believe that you possess many further examples to substantiate the argument.
  5. Narrative Order. Organize your work with internal logic and narrative thrust. Craft each paragraph so it necessarily follows the one before and necessarily precedes the one after. Writings whose paragraphs you can re-order possess no such logic or thrust.
  6. Active Sentences. Write active sentences and avoid passive sentences. E.g., “Caesar conquered Gaul”; not “Gaul is thought by many to have been a conquest of Caesar.” Excise forms of to be (is, was, were) wherever possible. Uncompleted action slows prose, so also excise gerunds (-ing). The first word should be the subject or the imperative verb. The last word should be concrete, precise, and dramatic—better a noun than an adverb, but better an exciting adverb than a dull noun. Generally remove flab by eliminating the passive voice and gerunds.
  7. Precise Sentences. Specify the subject, the action, and the object. E.g., “Caesar slew the rabbit”; not “The general did something to the animal.” Word choice: select the most specific and descriptive words.
  8. Simple Phrasing. Reduce the number of phrases within a sentence. Do so by eliminating prefatory phrases wherever possible: Although, However, Notwithstanding, etc. Exception for dates: In 2022, acceptable. Active sentences generally reduce the number of phrases. If you need to use however or moreover, place it within the sentence as a set-off phrase within commas. Note: avoid run-on sentences, but preserve some complex sentences. Hemingway style palls.
  9. Simple Vocabulary. Avoid casual pretension, pedantic whimsy, five-dollar words, and professorial jargon. E.g., avoid the education-school corruption that calls a test an assessment. Be sure you know what a fancy word means when you use it. Distinguish poetic words within your prose by their rarity.
  10. Ideological Vocabulary. Beware ideological vocabulary. Avoid undocumented immigrant, enslaved person, and capitalism; use illegal alien, slave, and free markets. Make your arguments not least by proper word choice.
  11. Formal Diction. Avoid slang and neologisms. “Caesar deceived the Gauls,” not “Caesar conned the Gauls.” Read older prose to learn what slang and neologisms you use unwittingly. Particularly beware nouns wrongly used as verbs: impact, prioritize. Use Google Ngram to detect neologisms: no one used prioritize, for example, before 1970.
  12. Preserve Unities: Don’t split infinitives. Write “to go boldly,” not “to boldly go.” Neither should you separate auxiliary verbs from main verbs. Write “He has improved rapidly,” not “he has rapidly improved.”
  13. Consistent Grammar. Maintain a consistent subject throughout the sentence.  E.g., if the subject begins as Caesar, don’t shift the subject to Caesar’s thoughts or Caesar’s conquests or Caesar’s horse. Also maintain consistent number and tense; don’t shift mid-sentence from singular to plural, or from past to present tense.
  14. Gripping Style. You always must win and hold the reader’s attention. Conceive of the reader as a busy person who will turn away the moment your essay turns dull. Every sentence counts and every word in every sentence. You must propel the reader forward and reward him along the way.
  15. Grace. Write with truthfulness and integrity. Don’t confuse those standards with stodginess. Keep your writing as light, transparent, and inviting as possible.
  16. Pure Expression. Aim for what used to be called “purity of expression.” Never perplex the reader with what you write.
  17. Hyperlink Concision. Omit footnotes in work for online publication; substitute embedded hyperlinks. Also omit phrases such as “According to The Economist”—the hyperlink provides the source, so you do not need to provide the words.
  18. No Rhetorical Questions. Will readers answer rhetorical questions the wrong way? Do rhetorical questions seem an affectation? Should you never use a rhetorical question? Yes, yes, yes.
  19. Recommend Solutions. Don’t moan the darkness; light a candle. Always couple information with solutions.
  20. Cool Tone. Effective polemic requires a cool tone. Avoid emotive adjectives that assert a conclusion—e.g., immoral. Your facts should prove the immorality. Confine such emotive judgments to the conclusion, when your arguments already have substantiated them. Particularly avoid words such as open, blatant, and explicit. An objectionable policy is no worse when conducted blatantly, no better for a veneer of hypocrisy.
  21. Don’t Reify. Refer to individuals, not abstractions—especially when you attribute thoughts or actions. “DEI advocates,” not “DEI”; “Princeton’s President,” not “Princeton”; “socialists,” not “socialism.”
  22. Clichés. Use proverbial phrases sparingly. Familiarity breeds contempt.
  23. Elegant Assertion. Professorial quibbling bores readers. Too-bold assertion risks lawsuits. Craft elegant assertions that make strong points—with loopholes.
  24. Keep Your Promises. You must do whatever you say or imply you will do in the essay. Make sure your conclusion ends properly. Check to make sure it addresses every issue raised in the introduction.
  25. Rewrite. Give yourself enough time to review your work, detect mistakes, and correct them. Read your work out loud. The ear hears errors the eye skips over. But: don’t overwrite as you revise. The best rewriting often consists of eliminating unnecessary material or changing paragraph order.

Image: Aaron Burden, Public Domain

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