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

By Mark Nichol

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

  • 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.

  • 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!

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