Your favorite authors’ first drafts are bad — no better than yours.
However, they aggressively rewrite their first drafts.
They know that when an idea is first written down, it’s articulated in whatever disjointed way immediately comes to mind.
So they rewrite it in pursuit of four objectives:
The enemy of those objectives is being precious about what you’ve said and how you've said it.
The process of writing your second draft is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.
Clear writing is writing readers can follow.
It’s okay to make readers work through the implications of what you’re saying, but it’s not okay to make them piece together what you’re saying in the first place.
Readers must easily understand every point.
We'll explore two tools for increasing clarity:
Write sentences that a thirteen-year-old could follow.
If they can understand you, so can everyone else.
That isn't to say children should understand your references and jargon. Do not over-simplify your language and weaken your ideas. Rather, children must be able to follow the logic of every argument.
While talking to children, you instinctively simplify:
Use these techniques in your writing too.
Here’s a sentence with complex phrasing:
"The obstacle facing media organizations is to chart an economically sustainable course through a landscape of commodity journalism.”
Let’s rewrite that sentence plainly:
“News companies are having a hard time staying in business because anyone with a blog or Twitter account can report the news now."
That's how you talk to a thirteen-year-old. In fact, that's how you should talk to everyone all the time.
In the revised example, I removed abstract words like "charted" and "landscape," and I reduced a conceptual idea into a specific example.
By removing grammatical overhead, the underlying point stands out.
Grammatical simplification such as this doesn't make your writing worse. The complexity of your writing should emerge from the strength of its ideas, not from how those ideas are worded.
Just don't drop key information while simplifying. This, for example, would be bad:
"News companies are not doing well today."
That loses the point of why news companies are not doing well.
Simplify your sentences without dumbing down your ideas.
There's another simplification technique you use when talking to children.
Consider this bad paragraph:
“There is a fast growing collection of data describing the structure and functional capacity of human gut bacteria in a variety of conditions. Ongoing efforts to further characterize the multitude of functions of gut bacteria and the mechanisms underlying its interactions will provide a better understanding of the role of the microbiome in human health and disease.”
Let’s rewrite that for a thirteen-year-old:
“There’s a lot of research on gut bacteria. We’re quickly learning what roles bacteria play and how they interact with each other. Researchers want to better understand how these bacteria affect our overall health.”
The original paragraph's sentences contained two ideas each. That’s a problem. Your brain interprets the meaning of a sentence after it's done reading it. So, the longer the sentence, the more details you hold in your head at once. That makes understanding a complex point even harder.
Don't be mean to your readers. Make it effortless to read your words.
When authors restate a point, they point it out:
“In other words…”
“That is to say…”
“Put another way…”
These are often red flags: the point that came before needed to be rephrased to be understood.
Instead, delete the rephrasing and reword the original statement to be self-evident: use plain wording and use fewer ideas per sentence.
If simplification can't achieve the necessary clarity, it's time to provide examples.
Anything that can be said can be said clearly.
Providing examples is another tool for improving clarity. Examples make abstract statements specific. Your brain best remembers things this way.
A few tips for providing examples:
After you've rewritten your article for clarity, you’re left with a better understanding of what you’re trying to say.
That’s when you can rewrite it for succinctness: remove everything you now realize is not required to make your point.
Succinctness is a ratio. It’s the number of meaningful words per paragraph — regardless of how many paragraphs there are.
Your goal is to make your writing so succinct that it can’t be summarized further; it shouldn't be possible to compress it into a tweet without it losing critical elements.
Books that can be summarized are not worth reading.
You cut filler from your writing with a three-step process.
For each section:
The version written from memory will take a more direct path toward your points. The fluff falls away while you focus on trying to effectively re-articulate your idea.
Next, go through each sentence in your rewritten section.
To be brief on the sentence-level, you should remove filler words that don’t add necessary context to the sentence. This isn’t intuitive to novice writers: these extra words cause readers to unwittingly slow down and do extra work while reading. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s true point. Reading many extra words is also a chore for your brain. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
Stop. That was a terrible paragraph. Let’s rewrite it without its unnecessary words:
To be brief on the sentence-level, you should remove filler words that don’t add necessary context to the sentence. This isn't intuitive to novice writers: extra words cause readers to unwittingly slow down and do extra work while reading. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s true point. Reading many extra words is also a chore for your brain. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
That leaves us with:
To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
With the unnecessary words removed, it's clearer what we're trying to say.
This helps you accomplish the final step.
Your last step is to rephrase what remains as succinctly as possible.
Again, here’s what we have:
To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you bore readers, they quit reading.
Let's rephrase that from scratch:
Your sentence is brief when no additional words can be removed. Being succinct is important because filler buries your talking points and bores readers into quitting.
Repeat the (1) word removal and (2) rephrasing from scratch process for every paragraph. When you’re done, your article will be a third as long and less boring.
This protects against readers abandoning half your articles (Source).
When filler is removed, readers gain momentum: they make it to the end without pausing to wonder what's for lunch.
"How long does it take you to prepare a speech?" asked a friend of President Wilson. "That depends on its length," answered the President. "If it is a ten minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech, it takes me a week; if i can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now."
Intrigue is the quality most responsible for reader satisfaction. When you're highly intriguing, readers overlook your clarity and succinctness issues.
Two things make writing intriguing: insights and surprises.
Recall my psychological principle for introductions:
The hook principle — "A captivating intro buys goodwill with readers so they overlook an imperfect middle."
Pair that principle with a second:
The peak-end rule — “People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its most intense point and at its end. This implies they do not judge the experience based on the average of every moment.”
Together, these two principles guarantee readers enjoy your writing:
That’s it. There’s your formula for intriguing writing. The rest of your article can be weak and most readers will still enjoy it.
Take comfort in the implication: Not every paragraph has to be interesting.
On the previous page, I shared my process for generating insight and surprise: use yourself as a proxy for the reader, and lean into what excites you.
To form your article’s peak, simply condense your most insightful and surprising talking points into one section. Craft a climax.
The previous page also discussed how to make your ending satisfying: poignantly summarize how your ideas are relevant to the reader’s life going forward.
A reader's goodwill eventually fades. The longer your article, the greater you must work to sustain its intrigue.
I do this with a technique I call dopamine counting:
If you've read this far, dopamine counting is the technique that got you here.
Place gold coins along the path.
Let's re-frame where you are:
The difference between good writers and bad writers is good writers know when their writing is bad.
How do you know when your writing is bad?
You ask for feedback.
Feedback is not optional. It's the most efficient way to improve your writing.
Ask for feedback from the audience you’re writing for: Have them score how satisfied they are between 1 and 10 after reading your article.
Keep rewriting your article until you average 7.5+ across a handful of respondents. That puts you in the "interesting article" category.
Do not waste time on perfection. It's impossible to get a 9+: One reader's 9 is not the same as another's, so trying to satisfy everyone results in a bloated post that satisfies no one.
Here’s a template for requesting feedback:
Could you score this from 1-10 on how satisfied you were after reading it?
Don’t be afraid to give me a low score. The more people tell me this isn't good yet, the more I'm motivated to make it even better.
Also, feel free to point out problems with:
Logic — What didn’t you agree with?
Clarity — What was unclear?
Interest — What bored you?
Brevity — What unnecessary things should be removed?
Expansion — What unanswered questions were you left with?
Your best source of feedback is often you with the benefit of hindsight.
But you need a break to get that perspective.
Take it from Stephen King: he shoves his manuscript into a drawer for six weeks before writing his final draft. When he re-opens it, he sees its flaws with fresh eyes.
I’ve found a week is often enough time to sufficiently defamiliarize myself.
Style has three components:
Pardon me while I open a wormhole into your brain and thrust style advice into it.
See, that’s an example of style. I could have just said: "And now let’s learn about style."
How would your friends describe talking to you? Perhaps they’ll mention your:
Convey those same traits in your writing, and readers will recognize your voice.
The more authentic your voice, the more they'll relate.
If you're comfortable doing so, practice being radically honest: Discard your reflex to self-censor. Reveal your vulnerabilities. Talk like you do with friends.
Even bad writing is enjoyable when the author writes like they’ve known their reader since childhood. It’s a breath of fresh air. It feels personal.
Inauthentic voice happens when you read a lot of someone else’s work and absorb their style.
Writers also absorb fake prestige: They use words like "plethora" and “myriad.” But if they don’t use those words in conversation, they shouldn’t use them in their writing. They’ll just look pretentious.
The antidote to inauthenticity is reminding yourself how you talk with friends. Record yourself talking, transcribe it, and work off that.
There are infinite ways to tell your story. How you tell it is a matter of presentation:
Would analogies, anecdotes, humor, or multimedia better entertain your readers or help convey your points? If so, consider using them.
Style is also creativity, which is the art of delighting readers with poetic thought and language.
Here’s an example of creative style.
Blogger Venkatesh Rao remarked on novelist David Foster Wallace:
I like to define poetry as finding evocative and unconventional ways to make meaningful statements. For example, instead of saying "the day was hot," you could write that “even the bugs were looking for a room in the house with air conditioning.”
Here, we're describing the effect caused by the object you're focused on—instead of directly describing the object and its status. In other words, you're one step removed from its straightforward description.
The more steps removed you can be while successfully communicating the intended point, the more "poetic" your prose tends to feel. Further, the more profound your underlying insights are, the more "deep" your prose feels.
This isn't a complete breakdown of creative writing. The topic in its entirety is sadly outside the scope of this handbook.
I've noticed bloggers and course creators repurposing my work and passing it off as their own. Please be thoughtful about plagiarism. I keep a third-party timestamp of my handbooks, and I can see the history of changes on your site by using Archive.org. Together, they identify when someone has taken my work.