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

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

  1. I remember one of those tests. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the classroom at the time when the class took it, so I’ll never know if I would have fell for it.

    Still, in a blogging world, it’s easy for people to miss such a thing.

  2. It just goes to show that you can’t please everybody, and there will always be some people who miss the point you were trying to make.

    All you can hope is that they are outnumbered by those who got the point.

    I suspect (or hope?) that many who didn’t see the point never actually read the whole list, but stumbled at the problems in the title, tutted, and immediately dropped to the comments box.

    Surely, reading through the list people would think “This tip contains the very error it’s warning against… so does this one… hey, just a minute… there’s a pattern here… I get it…”

  3. I’m with Jon, how could you get through the first ten items (much less the entire list) and not realize the joke?

    I consider this a good illustration of why you shouldn’t criticize something you haven’t read (or watched) completely. Context is everything.

  4. The article was hilarious. I really appreciated it. You done good. There’s bound to be people who just don’t understand. And the rewarding part (apart from thank-yous from intelligent people like me :-)) is that this provided you with material for another post. Keep up the well work.

  5. You can take comfort in knowing that the people who did NOT write you were too busy falling over laughing at the list. My favourite was “Be more or less specific” – at least, it sort of was.

    Thanks for your daily tips. They’re useful and a pleasure to read.

  6. Mark,

    Don’t write for those who have no sense of humour, or wit.

    Write good or die!

    For all our sakes, be done with witless pablum.


  7. I’m guessing (hoping) that the people who didn’t get it were a significantly more vocal minority.

  8. Add me to those above. Don’t let common denominators drag you down. Write up. Many of us need that.

  9. I, for one, got much enjoyment from your article. The title threw me at first, I admit, but then when I started reading the “tips”, it made sense. I thought you were very clever and amusing!

  10. Mark, dont you just hate it when you have to explain a joke? ; ) Your “Write Good” post caught my eye *because* of the odd title. I even printed it out and stuck it in my journal for the occasional smile.

  11. The negative responses had to come from newbies to your sight! I look forward to your daily posts. Keep up the awesome work!

  12. Sometimes I get fed up with those who always feel compelled to write and and correct whatever one wrote – especially when they completely miss the point of what you have written. Being right is more important than being well..I mean right, to them.

  13. i thought the list (as well as your title) was clever and funny, and so did *everyone* i shared it with. the fact you had to explain yourself (…and the list) is saddening. are people really that obtuse? yikes.

  14. @Everyone weighing in above: true dat!

    To further illustrate how seriously our culture is suffering from deficits of both attention and humor…

    I reposted this on my Facebook page, with the remark:

    “Hilarious post (especially if you read the comments and see how many people didn’t get the joke) from a consistently excellent site.”

    And even with that disclaimer, the first commenter on my post felt compelled to point out, “[it should be] ‘Write WELL.'”

    What can you do? When the going gets tough, the tough write haiku:

    apologize? Nay!
    and never, ever explain
    the obvious…’kay?

    Incidentally, since this is my first post: thanks to everyone responsible for DWT. I’ve been relishing your daily e-mails and enjoying exploring this site since I discovered it several months ago.

  15. Hi:

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

    I read it and thought it was real good and funny too.

    So, I would like some credit and attention that the ne’er-do-wells got. Also, I’m trying to help you get un- flabbergasted and castigated.

    Thanks for all your good advice,


  16. Ahhhh, maybe here is where assumption gets us in trouble. You assumed that your readers would “read good.” Maybe “sink or skim” might describe your plight. When people skim the surface of the online world, they miss quite a lot.

  17. @Jackie Baisa I have to wonder if it’s limited attention spans or impatience to have their say.

    The best piece of advice I have ever received was to ‘listen to hear, don’t listen with the intent to respond’. People who listen (or read) with the only intention of responding to what they hear (read) will miss the importance in the message.

    They had switched off their ears (grew impatient) and skipped to their rebuttal without taking into consideration the entire message first. Shows a distinct lack in the ability to listen (and read) at all. Their voices are apparently the most interesting of all.

    And yes, I was one of those people who giggled at their classmates and sat smugly at my desk with my name written at the top, pencil down.

  18. I enjoyed the list. It made me smile.

    Thank you for the informative, and sometimes funny, posts.

  19. If it’s the post I’m thinking it is, I saw that on Facebook and had to laugh at all the people pretending to ‘get it’. Also at all the people who then, in rather large words, went on to argue the point of each ‘tip.’ It was clear to me then how many pretenders we have in the world, and how many people read things without actually reading them. One person even said they thought it was great advice.

  20. I shared this list with a ton of folks, all of whom received it as it was meant to be read–a parody of grammar rules. It KILLS me when people don’t read. (And naturally, I am including myself in “people” because in our Internet world, most of us now have limited attention spans.)

    I loved the list!

  21. Mark, the original post was clever; ignore the plodders who can’t keep up. It reminds me of an April Fool’s post you did a couple of years back, and there were so many people who didn’t get it and were still upset about it months and months later. Keep doing what you’re doing. It was obvious from the get-go that the post was intended to illustrate the points in a joking way. I can’t imagine why anyone took it seriously; maybe they were all newbies to the site. You do a great job…don’t change a thing!

  22. Excellent website. Mr. Nichols, you have wonderful posts. Always informative and you make learning English more fun than what I learned in high school. (About the only thing I remember from high school English is the term “Beowulf” and a teacher who looked like a scaled-down version of rotund Orson Wells.) Enough of my misty-watered-colored memories. Thanks again.

  23. Of course you meant well … and humuorously. The list was a pleasure to read, and obviously needed, judging by how many folk didn’t ‘get’ it.

    Keep ’em coming!

  24. Don’t worry Mark, some people just were born without the sixth sense: sense of humor. Not being able to perceive irony, or tongue-in-cheek statements, makes them pitiable. Because they miss out on so many enjoyable moments. Sometimes I find myself being the only one who laughs when watching a movie in a movie theater, and that’s because nobody else got the irony or the funniness of something in the dialogue, which may be a bit embarrassing at the time, but it establishes a sort of complicity between myself and the script writer, like a joke shared between ony two in a roomful of people.
    Keep up the good work, there are many of us who are fully appreciative of it. Irony and all.

  25. Many are far too serious. Those are the same folks who are prone to being literal. Unfortunately, those are the same people who are active complainers!

    Don’t fall for it, don’t cater to it, and don’t change a thing!

    The article was a total delight – every dang word!

  26. First, I asked, “What the hell?” Write good? Who is writing this?

    Then I read the analogy, feathers on a snake and started laughing. The exercise force me to read more carefully and think. A pleasure to read although it took several days for me to get over that thinking business.


  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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!

    Julie Boler

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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!


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

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

  39. 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.

  40. 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!

  41. 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!

  42. 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.

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