15 writing tips from great 20th-century authors

Hemingway, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell—even a couple of guys named Strunk & White—offer insights about keeping text lively and informative.

Although bloggers and novelists have different roles, we’ve gathered some favorite writing tips from outstanding authors of the 20th century.

Their timeless advice applies as well to your next blog post as it does to fiction. Use these tips to improve your blog writing skills and avoid some of the pitfalls that tend to detract from quality.

Ernest Hemingway

Staring at a blank Word document? Ernest Hemingway had a simple trick for overcoming writer’s block:

1. To get started, write one true sentence.

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

Let’s say you’re writing about global versus local supply chains. One thing you know—your one true sentence—might be, “Supply chains have become more complex over the last five years to meet global demands.” That’ll work nicely as a starting point to build on.

2. Be brief. Hemingway had little regard for writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” If you can say something clearly in 20 words, leave it at that.

David Ogilvy

Ogilvy was an advertising guy, not a novelist, but he had great advice for writers nonetheless:

3. Do your homework.

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

Ogilvy spent years working for George Gallup, founder of the Gallup Poll, during which time he realized the true value that comes from knowing exactly what your target audience is thinking and how they behave. He believed that you can’t write something meaningful and valuable unless you know:

  • Whom you’re writing it for
  • How that person thinks
  • What that person needs

He added, “To write great copy, you need to understand your audience to the letter, so that you know how you can best serve them. Nothing else will do.”

Kurt Vonnegut

4. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. In other words, provide something valuable. Reward readers’ time with something they’ll be able to use to make their job easier or more effective.

FREE WHITE PAPER: 10 ways to improve your writing today.


5. Start as close to the end as possible. When background is unnecessary—that is, when your target audience understands the general topic—don’t bore them with a lot of detail or history. Our attention spans are alarmingly short, so whittle away anything that’s not integral to the point you’re trying to make.

Ray Bradbury

6. Stuff your head. Bradbury recommended that would-be writers read one short story, one poem, and one essay each night before bed. This, he believed, was the best way to learn how to write well. In the case of blogging, we know that filling your head with relevant writing expands your perspective and teaches you things you didn’t know. Each day—or twice a week if that frequency isn’t reasonable—your bloggers should be reading relevant trade publications, industry reports, other blogs and news related to your industry.

George Orwell

7. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print. Avoid the temptation to use “at the end of the day,” “level the playing field,” “all hands on deck,” and others, unless it’s the very best way to make your point. For more annoying metaphors and figures of speech, read this post by Jeff Bullas.

8. Never use a long word where a short one will do. You may feel smart using a phrase like, “obliterate any and all pedantic verbiage you’ve integrated into your writing,” but readers would prefer “get rid of dull wording.” They can relate better, and it’s more effective in making your point.

9. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. This advice takes Hemingway’s “be brief” a step further, telling writers to read what they’ve written and ruthlessly remove anything that doesn’t have to be there.

John Steinbeck

10. Forget your generalized audience. “In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place…it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” It’s almost as if Steinbeck was describing target personas.

Strunk & White

(William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell; E. B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web,” etc., was his student.)

11. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. All sentences that make up a paragraph should work together, linearly, to make a single point.

12. Use active voice. Instead of “The book was read by everyone in marketing,” write, “Everyone in marketing read the book.”

13. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Vague writing is hard to read (right up until the point the reader gives up). Be clear.

14. Keep to one tense. This is a surprisingly common mistake. If you start your blog talking in the present tense, keep it that way throughout.

Truman Capote

15. What I am trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter’s evening. Capote encouraged writers to write in a conversational, relaxed, and familiar way. Even when writing about industry research you can make it highly relatable by avoiding stiff, complex sentences. Write instead as though discussing your topic with a friend.

All this advice was given to help would-be novelists become better writers, not to help marketing people become better bloggers. Funny, though, how well each piece of advice applies to the art of the blog post. I guess that means that to be effective in connecting with the reader, writing in any form comes down to these same simple principles.

A version of this article originally appeared on Weidert Group.

This article first ran on Ragan.com in Nov. 2014.

(Image by Vdjj1960, via)


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