Learning a Lesson from “50 Tips on How to Write Good”

By Mark Nichol

Last week, I wrote a post I didn’t write. In the introductory paragraph, I clearly stated that it was a mash-up of two similar — and, to many people, familiar — packages of pronouncements that illustrate the writing errors (or are they?) they are intended to highlight.

For what I thought were obvious reasons, I didn’t state outright that this list is a parody of writing rules, though I did offer a hint with a reference to “wit and wisdom,” which I considered a tip-off that the article is not to be taken at face value.

Thus, I was flabbergasted to receive a flurry of emails castigating me for 1) using the phrase “write good” in place of “write well” in the headline (which, like the content, I borrowed from the original writers) and 2) writing an egregiously error-filled post.

At first, I was inclined in this follow-up post to write, “Don’t feel bad if you were hornswoggled.” I recalled the schoolroom handout listing seemingly random and inane tasks students are instructed to perform one by one after reading through the entire page first — the last item of which reads something like “Do nothing on this list except write your name on this paper and put your pencil down.”

If you experienced this exercise, do you recall how you giggled while you sat there after writing your name and putting your pencil down, smugly watching your classmates pat their heads while rubbing their stomachs, then hoot like an owl three times, and follow whatever other goofy instructions preceded the injunction to ignore all preceding items?

Or perhaps, like me, you didn’t read the last item very carefully.

But then, when I reread the scolding responses to “50 Tips on How to Write Good” (which, in case you didn’t notice, has 52 items, plus a postscript that counts as number 53), I was reminded that many people don’t read very carefully.

And there’s more to the list than meets the eye. Some items simply illustrate, through deliberate error, the peril of ignoring the admonition within. Others, like “Avoid alliteration. Always.” and “Employ the vernacular,” point out the fallacies within: Alliteration is a valid stylistic device (and one you may notice I enthusiastically embrace), and sesquipedalian sentences arrest one’s ocular organs — just use these strategies sparingly.

Months ago, I wrote a post in which I jokingly titled a section “Write Good.” When several readers commented on the poor grammar, Daniel, the site’s webmaster, and I agreed that the deliberate error was distracting, and he changed it to “Write Well.” But when I decided to disseminate last week’s humorous lesson on writing, I assumed that even if site visitors were initially taken aback by the sight of “Write Good” in the headline, they would, after reading the list, understand why I had erred in my word choice.

For many readers, obviously, that didn’t happen, and for them, “50 Tips on How to Write Good” was a washout. But what was the alternative? “50 Funny, Fallacious Tips on How to Write Good (You Know I Meant ‘Well’)” is a thudding spoiler.

The lesson for me is to write what comes naturally — but to realize that, although I have a role in, and some responsibility for, how my writing is received, it is ultimately the individual reader who determines the success or failure of that writing.

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52 Responses to “Learning a Lesson from “50 Tips on How to Write Good””

  • Casey

    I enjoyed reading everybody’s comments , so why do I have this overwhelming urge to correct all of their spelling errors? After all, I got the intent of your words right away. Bwahahahahaha!

  • Stephen Thorn

    I got quite a laugh out of your post, Mark, and had pretty well figured out that it was meant humorously by the third ‘rule.’ As for those who castigated you for the post let me give you a thought to chew on: They obviously consider you to be an esteemed source of information on writing or they would have not been so flummoxed by your apparent faux pas. If they thought you were a dolt they’d have taken your foolishness in stride, but a wiseman who acts like a fool always finds a mob willing to correct him. So be glad that your readers see you as a textbook instead of a comic book.

  • Stan Ford

    Good is written: Good.
    You did.

  • Bernadette Schane

    I absolutely loved the post when I received it in my email. I immediately laughed out loud. For those who never took the test that you mention above, the problem was with the FIRST instruction, which was to read the entire page before you did anything. But most people skim and missed that direction and started working immediately. The question now is…how many took away from that lesson what they were supposed to? Read everything before you jump in feet first. I’m guessing most of the people who berated you for your “50 Tips on How to Write Good” didn’t get the lesson from that test either.

    I’m generally a rule follower, but I at least get it when something is written in a tongue-in-cheek manner! Thank you for the wonderful laugh and please don’t change your style.

  • Sunny

    I loved the post enough to share it! Keep up the good work.

  • Nancy Vander Meer

    Whew! I am reassured by these comments. I was beginning to worry about all those who didn’t get it. Humor is so effective for getting a point across–except for those who don’t have a sense of it.

    Keep using it for those of us who appreciate your great style!

  • Elizabeth

    See, I would like to think that writers are of the more intellectual arena of society… but perhaps not. The rebel in me desires to print it out and place it in a prominent place at work. I’d giggle wickedly at the humour and exert my intellectual prowess over the dumbfounded nay-sayers 😉

    Please keep up those types of fun posts. I really enjoyed it!

  • Mochi

    I got it and was amused by the post. I guess having the weight of the world on your shoulders makes it difficult to lighten up.

  • Roberto Lebron

    Humor is like jazz: people either get it or they don’t. If they don’t, more’s the pity. Thank you for the smiles.

  • cheri

    Perhaps you should write a post on how to read accurately and for comprehension. I laughed all the way through your “write good” post.

  • Astrid Kähler

    I loved 50 Tips on How to Make Your Writing Good! I enjoyed every bit, imagining what fun writing it must have been:-)

    I shared it with friends of mine whom I know to be “aware” writers and readers:-)

    But, it’s true, many people don’t read carefully, which is good to be reminded of.

    I really appreciate DWT, to be frank, I have become an addict!

    Asty

  • Lena

    It is saddening that you had to explain your previous post but I’m sure this one will leave all those stupids embarrassed.

  • Billy Greene

    Reminds me of the online FreeCycle group I got kicked out of for being too insensitive — I was asking for dead appliances and scrap metal in the post and offered the services of my hearse to transport those cherished formerly faithful machines with the utmost respect and dignity to their final resting places. So many group members complained to the moderator that I was banned from rejoining one and not allowed to post on another. Political correctness has gone way overboard!! It was close to 3 paragraphs by the time I finished and people who responded to me said they hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time. The moderator asked why I needed so much space for what could be explained in one sentence.

  • SDWC

    It’s not just about not having a sense of humor but more about not not reading well. If some readers didn’t get the point and wrote to scold you about it, the joke is on them. I thought it was great fun and very clever, a reminder to review my writing for these errors.

  • Mia

    It was making me sad to see so many people offended by that article, haha.

  • Michael Rochelle

    Hey Mark and Daily Writing Tips Family,

    Don’t be disappointed by the feedback from those who didn’t get it, and don’t allow that to change you or the way you put out information. Because I love humor and I like to laugh, serious people always have criticism or advise that I’m immature. What they don’t understand is that we’re just wired differently and I could also criticize them for being too serious or uptight if I felt it was my place to try to make other people more like me.

    As you noted, you won’t be able to please everyone, but some things are just painfully obvious. For those that didn’t notice the humor, they all need to get feedback telling them to lighten up and don’t take themselves so seriously that they miss the forest for the trees–yes I used a cliche as I was instructed not to in the original post.

    I have to say that I don’t necessarily agree with your last statement noting that “it is ultimately the individual reader who determines the success or failure of that writing.” Maybe that is true from that reader’s perspective in terms of the success or failure of your writing. However, if they obviously don’t get it, but they are clearly in the minority, that is not a reflection on your work as much as it is a reflection on that individuals taste and, sometimes, their comprehension level.

  • Paul

    It took time for you to inject a sense of humor into your lessons. I hope you don’t abandon it now when it’s become clear that some of your visitors are not only ‘writing-challenged’ but may also be just plain stupid.

  • Julie

    Mark,

    This is more of a letter than a quick comment, as I have been meaning to write you for awhile to say how helpful all of your articles have been. I thought the occasion of your sharing of feelings made for a good opportunity.

    Thank you so much, both for the original list, and the follow-up article above. It is affirming to hear from another writer about the experience of being misunderstood by readers.

    You made an astute observation by pointing out the importance of both taking responsibility for communicating effectively, and not writing to the lowest common denominator. It’s a tough balance, and I guess we just have to work it all the time.

    Safire’s work was always so great on two levels, in the same way this list is: so funny and enjoyable on first read, and so useful to save and study later.

    I read the comments under the original list and felt like I was in the twilight zone. It was hard to tell when someone was purposely breaking all the rules in responding, just for laughs, or actually complaining about your “errors”. Ultimately it was obvious because the ones complaining about your rule-breaking were so artless with their mistakes. Hilarious!

    I know I’ve broken a good ten of the rules here – it’s hard not to be self-conscious about it after reading the list. But it’s a very helpful list, like ALL of your articles.

    Thanks so much for what you do!

    Sincerely,
    Julie Boler

  • Roberta B.

    Your post reminded me of how I fell victim to that exercise way back in the 3rd grade. That is to follow the the instructions and read them all the way through before proceeding. Yes, I was thoroughly embarassed, and it was a lesson I never forgot. Just from the heading, I figured it would be a spoof.

  • Jack

    Stand Tall Ye Writers

    Stand Tall Ye Writers and use your grammer well. The power of the pen has stricken the might foe.
    Good God!
    Ya you…ya you the writer.
    In your pursuit to be grammer perfect and impress the people with your turn of a phrase, your audience has walked out to the goldern arches to get a happy meal.
    Writing good or writing well is important…but for what reason.
    The reader will either get it if there is an it or they won’t. The question is did you enjoy writing the it to begin with. If you did, then your grammer was perfect.

  • Lora

    I loved it! And I love your last line: “Although I have a role in, and some responsibility for, how my writing is received, it is ultimately the individual reader who determines the success or failure of that writing.” I’m amazed at how quick people are to judge and complain about things they don’t even understand. I am going to use your line as my personal motto during those many times when I debate how to write or edit, while wondering how to explain myself to that one person who inevitably will find fault with it. It’s not my problem anymore.

  • Lisa

    I thought the article was amusing and engaging but I, too, often forget that not everyone shares my sense of whimsy. I say, stick with what comes naturally. Some people will not be fans, but others will love the real you.

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