Passion in Personas

Joshua Porter:

I think passion is a real issue with personas. Personas might elicit
empathy with the people you design for, but they don’t elicit passion.
Passion comes from having a stake, having a long-term commitment.
Passion is what gets you that last 10% to make something great.
Designers designing for themselves are often passionate.

So I think focusing on personas is actually a red herring. If you’re
doing research and learning about your users, then it doesn’t matter if
you create personas or some other research construct. Whatever works
for you. What is really important is having passion for what you’re
doing and putting all of your energy into it. If you are a designer and
you’re not a potential user of what you’re designing, you have a higher
hill to climb. Better get started now.

Personas may or may not be necessary in your project. It depends on
the group of people you’re designing with. If you can’t communicate
what you need to without personas, then consider using them. If you
can’t get into the right mindset, consider using them. If you do end up
creating a persona to get yourself into the right mindset or to
communicate better with others, great! But that doesn’t mean it’s the
right process for other designers and it doesn’t mean that someone
else’s personas are right or wrong. Stop defending turf you don’t need

Powered by ScribeFire.


Jakob Nielsen, December 17, 2007

Facebook has much drama that makes for good press coverage, but most of its features are worthless for a B2B site
that, say, is trying to sell forklift trucks to 50-year-old warehouse
managers. Instead of adding Facebook-like features that let users
“bite” other users and turn them into zombies, the B2B site would get
more sales by offering clear prices, good product photos, detailed
specs, convincing whitepapers, an easily navigable information architecture, and an email newsletter.


Eleven Tips For Optimizing PDFs For Search Engines

The SEO purist may argue why anyone would ever want to use PDF
content on a website for search purposes. The reality, however, is that
many businesses have a lot of PDF assets. These may include sell
sheets, brochures, white papers, technical briefs, etc. The purist
simply says why not convert these to html? In the real world, not
everyone has the time, budget, and expertise to do that. There may also
be other “marketing” reasons. Perhaps a company wants its
prospects to experience the content along with all the other brand
elements inherent in its print materials. Whatever the reason, there
are lots of PDFs available on the web, and you can optimize PDFs to get
high-ranking search results. Here are some tips on the right way to do

1. Make sure your PDFs are text based. Okay, this first one
is pretty obvious. However, we still find companies whose materials
were designed in an image-based program. When the PDF is made using
these programs, the PDF is an image; there is no text for the search
engines to read.

2. Complete the document properties. It seems like the vast
majority of PDFs are without specified document properties, the most
important of which is the Title. The Title property, if present, almost
invariably represents the words that will be displayed as the heading
of the search result. It’s the equivalent of the html title tag.
If you don’t complete the Title property, the search engine is
going to generate a title from the PDF’s content, and it may not
be what you would choose. We’ve all seen some pretty goofy
looking titles to search results associated with PDFs. Not only do they
look ridiculous, but they probably won’t get clicked. In the full
version of Acrobat, go to File>Document Properties to specify the

There are other document properties (meta data) you can supply,
including Author, Subject, and Keywords, but presently these appear to
have little search-related affect. It would be nice if Subject acted as
the meta description to be displayed under the heading of the search
result, but I haven’t seen this to be true. For now, however,
I’d complete the Subject property as if it were a meta
description. Perhaps in the future search engines will treat it as such.

3. Optimize the copy. Copy in text-based PDFs is no different than web-page copy. Optimize it.

4. Build links into PDFs. Make sure you include links in your
PDFs, and pay attention to the anchor text used. Search engines do
recognize these links. Not very often, but sometimes you’ll find
backlinks in PDFs. Their limited occurrence, however, is likely related
to the fact that most people don’t put links into PDFs; most
people treat PDFs as static print documents. In addition to including
links in PDFs for search-related purposes, there’s also a good
business reason. Often, PDFs are passed along to others via email.
Accordingly, a reader may be viewing the PDF in isolation (i.e., not
associated with your website.) By placing links into PDFs, you give
these readers an easy way to click back into your site, where you can
further influence them.

5. Pay attention to the version. While search engines do
“read” and index PDFs, search engines’ capabilities
tend to lag new versions of Acrobat. Although Acrobat 8 is out, for now
you should save your PDFs as version 1.6 (Acrobat 7) or lower to ensure
search engines can index the content.

Not only is saving PDFs at a lower version good for the search
engines, it’s also good for users. Not everyone has the latest
versions of Acrobat Reader. Accordingly, I’d recommend saving
PDFs as version 1.5 or lower. This way it will be good for search
engines and most readers.

6. Optimize the file size for search. Don’t post a huge
PDF for download. Not only is this annoying and unnecessary for site
visitors, it’s also burdensome for the search engines. If
it’s too big, the search engines may abandon the PDF before even
getting access to its content. Using the full version of Acrobat,
select Advanced>PDF Optimizer to “right-size” the

You may also want to enable the “Optimize for Fast Web View” option
in the Preferences>General Settings panel. This allows the PDF to be
“loaded” a page at a time, rather than waiting for the
whole PDF to download.

7. Pay attention to placement. If you bury links to PDFs deep
within your site’s file structure, they’re less likely to
get indexed. If you want to use PDFs for high-ranking search results,
links to those PDFs should be on web pages closer to the root level of
the site’s file structure.

8. Influence meta descriptions for PDFs. For web pages, the
meta description is what is displayed under the title in a search
result. With PDFs, the search engines search the copy of the PDF and
select something to display. While with PDFs you have less control of
what is displayed as the description to the search result, you can
still influence this. The best way to do this is to make sure that you
have a good, optimized sentence or two near the start of your PDF. If
these sentences correspond to the search term used, it’s likely
that these sentences are the ones that will be displayed as the
description under the search result’s heading.

9. Specify the reading order. As noted above, search engines
search the copy of the PDF and select something to display as a
description under the search result’s heading. Depending on how
the reading order of your PDF is specified, this may lead the search
engine to select some pretty strange stuff to display.

In a previous column, Organic Landing Page: A Case Study, I noted a search result for “transit seating.” That search result is noted below:

Admittedly, this is not a very enticing description, and it’s
not likely to get clicked even if it ranks highly in the search
results. Why did Google select this text to display? Because it’s
the first thing Google read in the PDF.

Every PDF has a reading order. Similar to properly optimized web
pages, you want to make sure that valuable content is read first. How
do you know the reading order? With the PDF open and while using the
full version of Acrobat, select Advanced>Accessibility>Add Tags
to Document. Then select Advanced>Accessibility>Touch Up Reading
Order. Then the reading order of the PDF will be displayed.

You can see in the image above that the reading order of the transit
seating PDF does not start with valuable content. Rather, many
extraneous items are “read” before the valuable content.
That’s why Google displayed what it did in the search result. If
you want PDFs to be optimized for search, make sure you understand the
reading order of the PDF and use the Touch Up Reading Order tool to
manage what the search engine will read first.

10. Tag your PDFs You can also add tags to your PDFs,
similar to html tags. Again, with the PDF open and while using the full
version of Acrobat, select Advanced>Accessibility>Add Tags to
Document. Acrobat will give you a document report and recommend things
you may want to consider changing. You’ll have the ability to tag
headings, alternate text for images, etc.

11. Pay attention. Every time you open a PDF, make even a
small change, and save it once again, major unseen things may change.
The reading order may change automatically. You may inadvertently save
it as a higher version. It may get saved using the default size setting
instead of a properly optimized size. If you’re going to further
optimize existing PDFs, may sure you check all of these things before
posting a new version of the PDF.

Galen De Young is Managing Director of Francis SEO,
a firm specializing in B2B search engine optimization, and Francis
Marketing, one of the leading marketing consulting firms specializing
in repositioning B2B companies and their brands. You can reach Galen at


Communicating about Biodiversity


If you use the word
biodiversity, explain what it means. Otherwise, talk about the web of life,
nature, the natural world, ecosystems, habitats, etc.


Talk about biodiversity in the
context of real places, real ecosystems, real species and real issues.
Ground the abstract concept of “diversity of gene pools, species and
habitats” in real places and experiences. Illustrate with forests, river
systems, deserts, coastlines, wetlands, etc. and the variety of life that
depends on them, instead of statistics about global species loss.


Use local examples and
experiences to provide context and meaning — a real place or problem that
people can identify with, e.g., loss of local songbirds, loss of the
region’s sugar maple trees, destruction of a local marsh, invasions from
zebra mussels, kudzu, etc. Eschew the exotic (Biodiversity: its not just for
rainforests anymore!) when the local example is available. As long as
species loss is taking place in far away places, it remains an abstract


Thanks to
nature, life itself is possible:
and explain how healthy ecosystems sustain human life, from fresh air and
clean water, to food, fiber and fun.

Healthy natural
systems keep us healthy:
Balanced ecosystems
promote human health, from supplying clean water to protecting us from
exotic viruses, exploding insect populations, and toxic pollution. Health
is the primary environmental concern for Americans; fear of toxics is the
#1 concern.

Potential loss of future sources
of medicines interests some audiences (younger adults) and not others.
But, don’t just talk about medicines that might come someday from exotic
places. Instead explain common medicines that have already come from
nature (cortisone, for example, from South African plant roots, or
digitalis, from foxgloves) to illustrate how important natural sources of
medicines already are. Start with the familiar, bridge to the possible.


Most Americans believe that we
have a responsibility to maintain a clean and healthy environment for our
families and for the future generations that will inherit the world we leave
behind. This sense of “stewardship” provides common ground for starting
conversations, after which the facts can be introduced.


Not everyone looks at the
natural world the same way. Some think we should protect it because it is
the responsible thing to do for the next generation, others, because it is
God’s creation, others, because it is beautiful, others because they believe
in the intrinsic value of nature, etc.. Know which values your audience
embraces before you invoke a particular value in your argument. When in
doubt, retreat to stewardship.


There’s nothing like the
imminent collapse of the planetary life support systems to really turn off
an audience. Don’t sugar coat the bad news, but always offer hope,
alternatives, options: “there’s another way of doing things.”


Talk about species or
particular habitats in terms of relationships: explain the links to human
well-being whenever possible. (E.g., we need spiders because they eat
insects and keep the insect population in balance, which in turn protects
humans from out-of-control insect populations.) People understand that
nature is an interdependent system, but they don’t know much about the
specific relationships.


Most people appreciate the
concept of nature as a balanced system, but many don’t know what it takes
for nature to stay balanced. Explain basic concepts such as diversity
provides resilience/ lack of diversity makes systems vulnerable; explain the
value of predators, scavengers and other “undesirable” species in terms of
the whole system. Explain, explain, explain.

plain Spanish, etc.). Avoid scientific, technical, and other jargon.


How do I create a high quality landing page?

[google] As part of our commitment to make AdWords more effective, we have
outlined some site-building philosophies to better serve our users,
advertisers and publishers. We have found that when our advertiser’s
sites reflect these guidelines, two important things happen:

  • The money you spend on AdWords ads
    will be more likely to turn into paying customers.

  • Users develop a trust in the positive experience provided
    after clicking on AdWords ads (and this turns in to additional
    targeted leads for you).

The guidelines below are not hard-and-fast rules, nor are they
exhaustive. However, they do reflect the site quality principles that
we will incorporate into factors such as ad approval status and
. So, following these guidelines, when appropriate, will
improve the performance of your AdWords advertising.

Provide relevant and substantial content.

If users do not quickly see what they wanted to find when they
clicked on your ad, they will leave your site frustrated and may
never return to your site or click on ads in the future. Here are
some pointers for making sure that does not happen:

  • Link to the page on your site that
    provides the most useful and accurate information about the product
    or service in your ad.

  • Make sure that your landing page
    is relevant to your keywords and your ad text.

  • Distinguish sponsored links from
    the rest of your site content.

  • Try to provide information without
    requiring users to register. Or, provide a preview of what users
    will get by registering.

  • In general, build pages that
    provide substantial and useful information to the end user. If your
    ad does link to a page consisting of mostly ads or general search
    results (such as a directory or catalogue page), provide additional
    information beyond what the user may have seen in your ad or on the
    page prior to clicking your ad.

  • You should have unique content (should not be similar or
    nearly identical in appearance to another site). For more
    information, see our affiliate

Starting with your ad, each interaction that you have with your
potential customers and customers should be geared towards building a
trusting relationship. To avoid leading users astray:

  • Users should be able to easily
    find what your ad promises.

  • Openly share information about
    your business. Clearly define what your business is or does.

  • Honour the deals and offers that
    you promote in your ad.

  • Deliver products, goods and services as promised.

If your business does not actually provide a
service but refers clients to another business, say so in both your
ad and on your site.

If you advertise an offer for a free product or
service, users should not have to pass through excessive obstacles or
make a purchase in order to receive the offer.

Treat a user’s personal information responsibly.

Most internet users are concerned with understanding and
controlling how websites use their personal information. In order to
build an honest relationship with them, providing clear answers to
these questions on your site is a must:

  • Why are you collecting personal
    information? (This is particularly important to address if you
    collect information soon after a user enters your site.)

  • How will you use or potentially
    use, personal information?

  • What options do users have to easily limit the use of their
    personal information?

If a user could receive promotional emails from
multiple businesses, give the user the option to decline emails from
all businesses, some businesses or none at all.

Develop an easily navigable site.

The key to turning your visitors into customers (and making your
ads earn their worth) is making it easy for users to find what they
are looking for. Since it is not always enough just to pique their
interest, you need to guide users through the transaction. Here is

  • Provide an easy path for users to
    purchase or receive the product or offer in your ad.

  • Avoid excessive use of pop-ups,
    pop-unders and other obtrusive elements throughout your site.

  • Avoid altering users’ browser
    behaviour or settings (such as back button functionality, browser
    window size) without first getting their permission.

  • Turn to Google’s
    Webmaster Guidelines
    for detailed recommendations (which will
    help your site perform better in Google’s search results as well).

  • If your site automatically installs software, consider
    adopting Google’s
    Software Principles


Creating climate change communications

Make climate change a local issue

suggests that most people in the UK think climate change is a global
issue, not a local one. We need to show people how climate change will
affect them at home – and what they need to change to tackle the

Positive associations

climate change with people your audience admires or respects, or with
things they care about, like home improvement or local green spaces.
Often you can make these associations indirectly – for example
using a photo of a celebrity who happens to be using public transport.

Changing attitudes, then actions

people’s attitudes to climate change don’t match their actions –
and you show them – they’re more likely to change their attitudes
to justify their behaviour than change their behaviour to match their
attitude. So don’t confront your audience like this unless you make
sure you show them how they can take positive action to achieve change.

Don’t rely on people’s concern for their children’s future

suggests that people with children are no more likely to be concerned
about the effects of climate change on the lives of future generations
than people without children. Arguably, parents have more pressing
short-term concerns than non-parents with fewer commitments and higher
levels of leisure time and disposable income.

Don’t even rely on people’s concern for their own future

human instinct for survival is strong. But evidence suggests that it
only really works in the immediate term, and rarely works collectively.
Think about how many people smoke, even when they know the harm they
are doing themselves in the long term – and how much harm they do
to others.

Scaring people doesn’t work – show them how they can change

we need people to see climate change as an important issue, we can’t
scare people into doing something about climate change if they don’t
know that their actions can make a difference. On its own, fear just
creates apathy and people avoid the issue.

Don’t get personal

need to maintain a balanced approach when we identify who is
responsible for tackling climate change – government, industry,
communities and individuals need to feel they are acting together.

often unhelpful to put all the blame on the individual and to criticise
behaviour that people consider normal in their home or family. Instead,
make it clear everyone has a role to play in acting together. We also
need to make behaviour that reduces the threat of climate change seem
positive or desirable.

People aren’t always rational

rarely carefully weigh up the outcomes of the decisions they make, and
then make the choice that’s clearly in their own interest. Rational
arguments alone aren’t enough to persuade people to change.

More than information

information is very useful when you want to show people how important
climate change is. But lots of scientific or technical information
alone is not enough and can be confusing. We also need to show how
climate change is linked to people’s day-to-day lives.

More than money

are motivated by opportunities to make – or save – money.
But often when these opportunities are linked to tackling climate
change, they are not seen as socially desirable. Economic incentives
alone are not enough.


Online Reputation Management Beginner’s Guide

Andy Beal

Every single day, someone, somewhere is discussing something
important to your business; your brand, your executives, your
competitors, your industry. Are they hyping-up your company, building
buzz for your products? Or, are they criticizing your service,
complaining to others about your new product launch?

A great brand can take months, if not years, and millions of dollars to build. It should be the thing you hold most precious.

It can be destroyed in hours by a blogger upset with your company.

A new product launch could take hundreds of TV commercials, dozens of newspaper ads, and an expensive ad agency.

It can also spread like a virus with the praise of just one customer, at one message board.

A company can dominate market share, throttle competition and hold the #1 brand in the world.
It can also crash in months if it fails to listen to what its customers want.

By now, you should have an understanding of just how powerful
consumer generated media (CGM) is. Your next action could be the
difference between your company’s success or failure. Do you
click the “back” button and ignore the conversation, or; do
you read the tips and strategies outlined below, arm yourself with
valuable knowledge and join the foray?

You may decide you need online reputation management services. Or you may simply follow the advice we’ve put together below. Either way, you should engage!

What to track?

* Everything related to your company: variations of company/product
names, names of your key employees, all applicable product or service

* Information related to your competition: variations of
company/product names, names of key employees, all applicable product
or service names.

* Information related to your industry:
(feeds include retail investor news, clothing industry news, consumer
durables news, retail sector news, etc.) as well as applicable trade

Online reputation monitoring

* If possible, monitor hourly as early action is crucial.

* Create custom RSS feeds based on keyword searches:,,,,, MSN Spaces, Yahoo! News, Google News, MSN News and PubSub.

o Monitor This allows you to monitor a single keyword across 22 different search engine feeds at the same time.

* Filter all feeds into one RSS Reader for easy and time-efficient monitoring options include:,, Google Reader or

* Sign up for Google and Yahoo email alerts using your desired keywords ( and

* Determine message boards/forums to track:,,,, iVillage, Yahoo Message Boards, MSN Money

* Determine groups to track: Yahoo Groups, AOL Groups, MSN Groups, Google Groups.

* Track changes on web pages via tools such as Copernic Tracker, Website Watcher and Monitor every page of your competitor’s web site and specific keywords on pages, etc.
o Also, a good tool for tracking posts to user groups, message boards, forums and blog comments.

Helpful Short Cuts for Online Reputation Management:

* Create your own search engine at This is a great way to track sites that do not offer RSS feeds for keywords such as,,,, Better Business Bureau and

* Use to search for tagged blog posts across multiple blog search engines.

* Get a feel for stories that are creating “buzz” in the blogosphere via sites like and

* Acquire an overview of blogger opinions (both negative and positive) via, a blog search engine that allows you to type any subject into its search box.

* Learn about a specific blog’s traffic, credibility and popularity via, and

* and
show you the popularity and audience-reach for any entered blog URL.
Use it to get a snapshot of the credibility of any blogger discussing
your company.

* Research backgrounds of bloggers, owners of forums and web site editors via domain name search tools such as and

* Get creative with the classified search engine,
Search for job listings in your industry, then subscribe to the RSS
feed. You’ll get an early alert of all the job listings your
competitors’ post. Now you’ll know which areas of their
business are expanding or get clues about potential new products, based
upon who they are hiring.

* Not sure what keywords to track? Start entering your main “buzz” word at Google Suggest and see what’s most commonly searched. Or try Google Trends for the latest search query trends.

* Want to know what the blogosphere is saying about the page you’re viewing? Use the Technorati Favelet bookmark to quickly view inbound links and posts according to Technorati. If you use Firefox, install the Blogger Web Comments extension to see what users of Google’s Blogger have to say about the page.

* Need to know what news stories influenced your company’s stock price? The new Google Finance
site let’s you analyze what stories appeared at any given stock
price movement. Simply move the “slider”, located above the
stock chart, and watch the stories on the right correlate with the date
and time.

Overall Consumer Generated Media (CGM) Tips

* Investigate facts internally before taking action – could this be a competitor spreading rumor?
* Always take the high ground
* Be honest!
* Explain what you have done to rectify any issue
* Offer to resolve any complaints personally – have a senior-level
staff member make the offer – try to continue discussion offline
* Rally friends, clients, peers and utilize your allies
* Don’t create new “personas” to support your
position in blogs, forums and message boards as you’ll likely be

How to conduct outreach to CGM

Forums, user groups and message boards

* Task someone in-house with joining and participating in any applicable forums or user groups.
o When trouble strikes, impact will be reduced if someone from your
organization is a regular contributor (has credibility already) and can
voice your company’s side of the story.
* Consider sponsoring most influential forums.
o Less likely to see sustained criticism if you are a supporter/sponsor.
* Build alliances/partnerships with most vocal members.


* Identify the author of the blog, read their profile.
o Who are they? Who do they work for?
* Read author’s previous work to get a feel for his/her “persona”
* Understand the threat level – How respected are they? What is their audience reach?

* If a blog post is factually incorrect:
o Ask for removal or retraction and send supporting evidence.
o Offer to keep blogger informed of future news – Google used this on me :-).
o If these outreach methods garner no response from the blog author,
consider correcting the post in the comments section. This is a last
resort – what you really want is correction/retraction.

* If blog post is true, but negative:
o Send your side of the story.
o Explain how you are addressing the situation.
o Add comment to post.
o Indicate your willingness to receive any email questions – take it offline.

Balancing Negative CGM

* If it’s true:
o Don’t ignore or hide
o Participate in the discussion and be honest
o Add response to your web site
o Issue statement addressing what has been done
o Engage crisis communication expert with CGM experience

* If it’s not true:
o Politely request blog, forum, news site owner remove or retract
o Consult a lawyer
o Contact other blog and forum owners with correct information
o Ask them to consider publishing your response
o Add statement to your website – work with a search engine optimization consultant to ensure all content has been optimized and will achieve top search rankings

Authored by Andy Beal, with assistance from Cindy Akus


A Guide to Writing Well

Compiled by Joshua Sowin

This guide was mainly distilled from On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Other sources are listed in the bibliography.
My memory being stubborn and lazy, I compiled this so I could easily
refresh myself on writing well. I hope it will also be helpful to
others. If you have any suggestions about additions or changes, please
let me know.

Table of Contents

Before You Start Writing

Before you start writing an article, ask the following questions:

  1. How will I address the reader?
    (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
  2. What pronoun and tense will I use?
    (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and causal?)
  3. What attitude will I take toward the material?
    (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
  4. How much of the subject do I want to cover?
  5. Have I done enough research and/or have enough experience with the subject to write intelligently?
  6. Is there anyone I can interview to gather more information on the subject and to quote? (See also: “Interviews”)
  7. What is the one point I want to make?
    1. “Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader
      with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.
      Not two thoughts, or five—just one.” (Zinsser, 53)

[ Back to the Table of Contents ]

General Principles

  1. Be yourself. Don’t alter your voice for a subject. Relax and
    write with confidence and in a way that comes easily and naturally.
    Sometimes this will mean discarding the first few paragraphs until you
    start writing naturally. “Never say anything in writing that you
    wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation” (Zinsser, 27).
    When possible, use the first person – it usually comes out
    more natural.
  2. Write for yourself – that will make it interesting to the reader.
  3. Write with humanity and warmth.
  4. Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter. Don’t add words for “style.”
    1. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph
      no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should
      have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
      (Strunk and White, 23)
    2. “Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word
      that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word,
      every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the
      verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who
      is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterations that
      weaken the strength of a sentence.” (Zinsser, 8)
    3. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome,
      and sometimes nauseating.” (Strunk and White, 72)
  5. Be clear. Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Know logic, rhetoric and your subject.
    1. “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a
      destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly
      worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase
      in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met
      at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.
      Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When
      you say something, make sure you have said it.” (Strunk and
      White, 79)
    2. “Jaw-breaking words often cover up very sloppy thinking.” (Thomas Sowell)
    3. “Remember this: a well-written book with bad arguments will
      have more influence than a poorly-written book with endless nuance and
      lifeless prose. Remember this too: lifeless prose comes from lifeless
      minds.” (Scot McKnight)
    4. “Good writers write in such a way that one can read them
      aloud and know what they mean. Bad writers have to be studied and
      re-read and pondered.” (Scot McKnight)
  6. Avoid fancy words.
    1. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” (George Orwell)
    2. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.
      Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center
      handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so
      use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to
      style, one’s ear must be one’s guide…” (Strunk
      and White, 77)
    3. “Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.” (Jacques Barzun)
  7. “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you
    write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is,
    after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would
    die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by
    its triviality?” (Dillard, 68)
  8. Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of
    meaning. Use a dictionary for any word you have doubt on its meaning.
    Use a thesaurus to “nudge your memory.” (Zinsser, 36)
  9. Talk about a person, not people. Specificity will raise interest.
  10. Pay attention to your metaphors – what are you communicating with them?
  11. Have a unity of pronoun (first person, etc.), unity of tense (past,
    present, future) and unity of mood (casual, comedy, irony).
  12. “Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan.
    Writing is no respecter of blueprints.” (Zinsser, 53)
  13. Don’t save good ideas for later.
    1. “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book,
      or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to
      save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it
      now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”
      (Dillard, 78-79)
  14. Don’t over-explain.
    1. “Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by
      telling them something they already know or can surmise. Try not to use
      words like ‘surprisingly,’ ‘predictably,’ and
      ‘of course,’ which put a value on a fact before the reader
      encounters the fact.” (Zinsser, 92)
    2. “It is seldom advisable to tell all.” (Strunk and White, 75)
  15. After every sentence, ask yourself what the reader wants to know next.
  16. Use orthodox spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
    1. “Do not write nite for night, thru for through, pleez for please,
      unless you plan to introduce a complete system of simplified spelling
      and are prepared to take the consequences.” (Strunk and White, 74)
  17. Make your writing interesting. (See also: “Humor ”)
    1. “[F]ind some way to elevate your act of writing into an
      entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable
      surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote,
      paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish
      detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These
      seeming amusements in fact become your ‘style.’ When we say
      we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his
      personality as he expresses it on paper.” (Zinsser, 288)
    2. “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more;
      it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying
      examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be
      excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.” (C. S. Lewis)
  18. Learn to interview others and weave their quotes into your writing.
    “Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in
    proportion to the number of ‘quotes’ you can weave into it
    as you go along” (Zinsser, 101). (See also: “Interviews ”)
  19. Learn to write about place, because “people and places are
    the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built” (Zinsser,
    116). (See also: “Travel ”)

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Usage Principles

  1. Use active verbs. Example: “He was seen by Joe” should be “Joe saw him.”
    1. “Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid
      the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work.
      Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t
      say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did
      he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.”
      (Zinsser, 69)
  2. Most adverbs are unnecessary. Replace them with precise verbs.
    Beware of adverbs that have the same meaning as the verb
    (“grinned widely,” “sadly moped”).
  3. Most adjectives are unnecessary. Kick the “adjective-by-habit.”
  4. Remove common clichés, cheap words, and made-up words.
  5. Remove qualifiers: a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense.
    1. “[Qualifiers] are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” (Strunk and White, 73)
    2. “Good writing is lean and confident.” (Zinsser, 71)
  6. Keep sentences short.
    1. “There’s not much to be said about the period except
      that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” (Zinsser, 71)
  7. Remove laborious phrases. Why use “at the present time” instead of “now”?
  8. Remove “experiencing.” “Are you experiencing pain?” could be “Does it hurt?”
  9. Remove unnecessary euphemism. A “depressed socioeconomic area” is a “slum.”
  10. Remove long words when a short one will do. Examples: Assistance
    (help), facilitate (ease), implement (do), referred to as (called).
  11. Remove word clusters that explain to go about explaining: “I
    might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is
    interesting to note.”
  12. Remove verbal camouflage. Corporations and governments are often
    tempted to use this. “A negative cash-flow position” means
    a corporation is bankrupt. “Involuntary methodologies”
    means layoffs.
  13. “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t
    say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’;
    otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about
    something really infinite.” (C. S. Lewis)
  14. Use exclamation points sparingly. Instead, try to “construct
    your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis
    where you want it.” (Zinsser, 72)
  15. Alert the reader to mood or subject changes. Examples: but, yet,
    however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now,
    later, today.

    1. Sentences can begin with “but,” no matter what your teacher said.
    2. “Don’t start a sentence with
      ‘however’—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And
      don’t end with ‘however’—by that time it has
      lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can….
      Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.” (Zinsser, 74)
  16. Use contractions when they sound natural.
  17. Don’t be ambiguous – use personal nouns. For instance,
    “The common reaction is incredulous laughter” could be
    “Most people just laugh with disbelief.” (Zinsser, 77)
  18. Don’t use overstatement or people will never believe you in a million years.
  19. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. For instance,
    “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time,
    though it has advanced in many other ways” could be “Since
    that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly
    advanced in fortitude.” (Strunk and White, 32)
  20. Don’t use dialect unless your ear is good.
  21. Avoid foreign words. Use English.
  22. Regarding quotations:
    1. “When you use a quotation, start the sentence with
      it…. Nothing is deader than to start a sentence with a
      ‘Mr. Smith said’ construction—it’s where many
      readers stop reading.” (Zinsser, 110)
    2. “Don’t strain to find synonyms for ‘he
      said.’ Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate
      just to avoid repeating ‘he said,’ and
      please—please!—don’t write ‘he smiled’ or
      ‘he grinned.’ I’ve never heard anybody smile. The
      reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so
      it’s not worth a lot of fuss.” (Zinsser, 111)
  23. That/which: Always use “that” unless it makes your
    meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its
    precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” (Zinsser, 76)
  24. Regarding e.g./i.e.:
    1. For “e.g.,” think of “example given.” (It is an abbreviation for the latin exempli gratia, which means “for the sake of an example.”)
    2. For “i.e.,” think of “in effect.” (It is an abbreviation for the Latin id est, which means “that is.”)

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The Introduction

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If
it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence,
your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce
him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such
a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is
hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 55

General Principles

  1. Make your lead as long or short as it requires – each article requires a different lead.
  2. Look for material everywhere. Many good leads come from finding some odd fact or overlooked daily absurdity.
    1. “Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and
      portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are
      often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from
      everybody else’s.” (Zinsser, 60)
    2. “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly.
      Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not
      course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down
      until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and
      strength.” (Dillard, 78)
  3. Tell a story if possible – “look for ways to convey
    your information in narrative form.” (Zinsser, 62)

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Does my lead capture the reader’s attention and force him to keep reading?
  2. Does it tell the reader why this is written and why he ought to read it?
  3. Is my lead fresh?
    1. If it has to do with future archaeologists, visitors from Mars,
      what various figures have in common, or a recent cute event, it
      probably isn’t.
    2. If it starts with “John Doe was born on…” then it definitely isn’t.

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The Conclusion

Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of
perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t
stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.

–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 64

  1. Give as much thought to the last sentence as the first.
  2. Don’t conclude with a summary.
    1. “[Y]our readers hear the laborious sound of cranking. They
      notice what you are doing and how bored you are by it. They feel the
      stirrings of resentment. Why didn’t you give more thought to how
      you were going to wind this thing up? Or are you summarizing because
      you think they’re too dumb to get the point? Still, you keep
      cranking. But the readers have another option. They quit.”
      (Zinsser, 65)
  3. “When you’re ready to stop, stop.” (Zinsser, 66)
  4. Don’t use “In conclusion,” or other derivatives.
  5. “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by
    surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the
    article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said. But
    they know it when they see it.” (Zinsser, 65-6)
  6.  “Conclude with a sentence that jolts … with its fitness or unexpectedness.” (Zinsser, 66)
  7. If possible, bring the lead story full circle. It gives symmetry and pleases the reader.
  8. Often a quotation works best – especially one that is surprising.

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You can save some sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle
if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in
themselves or hard-won.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 5

  1. Rewriting is the essence of writing well. Clear writing is the result of much tinkering.
  2. A first draft is never perfect. “Most first drafts can be cut
    by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the
    author’s voice.” (Zinsser, 17)
  3. Rewriting is tweaking the text, not starting over. Simplify,
    clarify, rephrase drab sentences, add information and alter the
  4. Listen to how your words sound – rhythm and alliteration are important. Read all your writing aloud.
  5. Have a friend read your article before making it public – writers often miss obvious errors in their writing.
  6. Rewriting is rereading. “I reread a sentence maybe a hundred
    times, and if I kept it I changed it seven or eight times, often
    substantially.” (Dillard, 31)

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Genre Specific


  1. Interview people who are passionate and know more about a subject than you. Have them tell your story.
  2. Learn about the person you are interviewing, if possible, before
    your interview. “You will be resented if you inquire about facts
    you could have learned in advance.” (Zinsser, 105)
  3. Interesting information is “locked inside people’s
    heads, which a good nonfiction writer must unlock” (Zinsser,
    103). Ask questions that elicit interesting answers.
  4. Make a list of likely questions, but better questions will often
    occur to you in the interview. Tailor your questions to the
  5. During the interview:
    1. “Interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better
      at. You will never again feel so ill at ease as when you try it for the
      first time, and probably you’ll never feel entirely comfortable
      prodding another person for answers he or she may be too shy or too
      inarticulate to reveal. But much of the skill is mechanical. The rest
      is instinct—knowing how to make the other person relax, when to
      push, when to listen, when to stop. This can all be learned with
      experience.” (Zinsser, 104)
    2. Take time to chat before you start interviewing. It will put them at ease.
    3. Use pad and pen/pencil. Use a tape recorder only when it is
      important to transcribe every word (for instance, when someone speaks a
      different dialect than you.) (Zinsser, 105-107)
    4. If you get behind in your notes, politely ask them to stop talking
      while you finish. Nobody wants to be misquoted. But as you interview
      more, you will develop shorthand and get faster at writing.
  6. After the interview, distill the essence of the interview. Single
    out sentences that are most important or colorful. Present his position
    accurately, even if that means putting two quotes together that were
    not together in the interview:
    1. “If you find on page 5 of your notes a comment that perfectly
      amplifies a point on page 2—a point made earlier in the
      interview—you will do everyone a favor if you link the two
      thoughts, letting the second sentence follow and illustrate the first.
      This may violate the truth of how the interview actually progressed,
      but you will be true to the intent of what was said.” (Zinsser,
  7. When unsure about a point, contact the person for clarification. Again, nobody wants to be misquoted.
  8. Never fabricate quotes.

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  1. Travel writing is very hard. “It must be hard, because
    it’s in this area that most writers—professional and
    amateur—produce not only their worst work but work that is just
    plain terrible.” (Zinsser, 117)
  2. While traveling, keep in mind what will interest the reader.
  3. Be specific and avoid travelese. “Travelese is also a style
    of soft words that under hard examination mean nothing, or mean
    different things to different people: ‘attractive,’
    ‘charming,’ ‘romantic.’” (Zinsser, 118)
  4. Choose words with unusual care. Keep a reign on adjectives.
    “If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion;
    it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven
    their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to
    make a special effort not to use them…. Strive for fresh words and images.” (Zinsser, 118)
  5. Be selective about descriptions and events. Find details that are
    significant and concrete; talk about things that will interest others.
    Leave out the rest.
  6. Practice travel writing locally before trying something more ambitious.
  7. Bring out the place and the people.
  8. Examples of travel writers: Bill Bryson, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Jonathan Raban, V. S. Pritchett, James Baldwin.

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  1. Write what you know, what you think and what makes you unique.
  2. “Think narrow…. Memoir isn’t the summary of
    life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in
    its selective composition.” (Zinsser, 136)
  3. Bring in details whenever possible.
  4. “Summon back the men and women and children who notably
    crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable—what turn
    of mind, what crazy habits?” (Zinsser, 145)
  5. Remember that people are hoping you are the most interesting character in the book.
  6. Examples of good memoirs: Speak, Memory by Nabokov, Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, This American Life by Annie Dillard, The Education of Henry Adams, The Confessions by St. Augustine.

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Science and Technology

  1. Assume the reader knows nothing and explain concepts accordingly.
  2. Start with too much material.
  3. “Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at
    the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any
    more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the
    pyramid wider, [and so on.]” (Zinsser, 150)
  4. Include the human element using yourself or others. Weave a story around a person.
  5. “Relate [unfamiliar facts] to sights [your readers] are
    familiar with. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can
    visualize.” (Zinsser, 155)
  6. Write like a person and not like a scientist.
  7. Examples of good science and technology writers: Stephen Jay Gould,
    Neil Postman, Lewis Thomas, Bill Bryson, Oliver Sacks.

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  1. Know and love the medium you are reviewing.
  2. Don’t give away too much of the plot.
  3. Use specific detail. Don’t only say “Mr. Jones is a poor writer” – give examples of what you think are poor writing and let the reader decide.
  4. Avoid the ecstatic adjectives: wonderful, marvelous, dazzling, etc.
  5. For critics:
    1. Steep yourself in the literature of the medium. Place each work into its tradition.
    2. You can presuppose certain shared knowledge with your readers, unlike general reviews.
    3. Be personable. “We like good critics as much for their
      personality as for their opinions.” (Zinsser, 199)
    4. Criticism should be stylish, allusive, disturbing. It should
      “jog a set of beliefs and force us to reexamine them.”
      (Zinsser, 202)
    5. Humor is a good lubricant.
    6. “How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an
      immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are
      about to enter. Even if they are broadly educated men and women they
      need to be told or reminded of certain facts.” (Zinsser, 204)
      (See also: “The Introduction”)
    7. Take your stand with conviction.

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Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s
secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best
tool—and sometimes their only tool—for making an important
–William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 208

  1. “Humor… is urgent work. It’s an attempt to say
    important things in a special way that regular writers aren’t
    getting said in a regular way—or if they are, it’s so
    regular that nobody is reading it.” (Zinsser, 209)
  2. “Don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise,
    and you can surprise the reader only so often.” (Zinsser, 215)
  3. Control is vital. Know when stop.
  4. Be vulnerable. Making yourself the victim or dunce can be funny – to a point.
  5. Example humor writers: Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Robert Benchley, S. K. Perelman, Bill Bryson, Garrison Keillor.

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How do I get better at writing?

  1. Know the rules of writing and learn when to break them.
  2. Establish a schedule for writing and stick to it. Force yourself to write regularly.
    1. “Every day for years, Trollope reported in his
      ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30
      a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of
      himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he
      finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of
      paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a
      long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he
      said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he
      produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so
      well, he urged his method on all writers: ‘Let their work be to
      them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts
      will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor
      sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat,
      or said that they have sat.’” (Acocella)
  3. Practice, practice, practice.
  4. Read good writers. Writing is learned by imitation. Find model writers, read them, and imitate them.
    1. “[The writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what
      he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he
      will know.” (Dillard, 68)
    2. “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part
      of the creative process for anyone learning an art or craft….
      Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their
      work aloud.” (Zinsser, 238)
    3. “We should accustom the mind to keep the best company by
      introducing it only to the best books.” (Sydney Smith)
    4. “To learn to write one must learn both a considerable portion of what has been written and how it was written.”
      (Berry, Life is a Miracle, 71)
  5. Ask friends to read and critique your writing. Be sure to tell them you want the truth.

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Where should I write?

  1. Write where you are most productive (it is not always the place you think).
    1. Experiment with various locations. Wendell Berry writes in front of
      a large window; Wallace Stephens and Osip Mandelstam composed poetry on
      the horseback; Annie Dillard, on the other hand, says “Appealing
      workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so
      imagination can meet memory in the dark.” (Dillard, 26)
    2. Regarding computers:
      1. Writing at the computer is often an invitation to distraction,
        unless you don’t have internet access. Paper and pencil are old
        favorites that many writers still use today. If you must use a
        computer, turn off your email and other distractions.
      2. “A computer, I am told, offers a kind of help that you
        can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you write
        faster, easier, and more. For a while, it seemed to me that every
        university professor I met told me this. Do I, then, want to write
        faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and
        quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing
        with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I
        would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other
        humans, not a machine.” (Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, 74)

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What should I write?

  1. Write about what you know and love, like hobbies or work. Your love
    of the subject will come out and make it interesting.
    1. “Why do you never find anything written about that
      idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with
      something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is
      something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is
      hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you
      begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own
      astonishment.” (Dillard, 67-68)
  2. “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or
    nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a
    long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all your possess and learn.
    A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’
    inventions and richnesses. Much of those years’ reading will feed
    the work…. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a
    recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” (Dillard, 71)

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I’m stuck on a sentence, what should I do?

Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by getting rid
of it, or starting the sentence over again. If that doesn’t solve
it, move on and come back to it.

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Appendix 1: Orwell’s Six Rules of Clear English

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Taken from George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

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Appendix 2: Mark Twain’s Rules of Story Writing

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of
    corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses
    from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall
    sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely
    to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning,
    also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the
    neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader,
    and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of
    anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in the
    tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf,
    hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning
    of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as
    “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the
    forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities
    and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must
    so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the
    personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the
    reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the
    reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Adapted from Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895).