17  Four technical tips for writing

If you find acronyms useful as you work on your writing (or to help you teach or coach others to write better), you may find the following offerings useful.  They’ve helped me for nearly thirty years.


This acronym slightly revises one I found in a business writing textbook by Jeanne Halpern, Judith Kilborn, and Agnes Lokke.  It works best for expository or critical writing, but it can help with fiction, too.  The P is purpose:  get your purpose for writing clearly in mind before you begin–and keep it there.  The R means reader:  who will read your work, and what will they need or want to find there?  The I reminds us to collect all the information we need beforehand, and make it clear and complete in the text.  The S indicates we must select the proper style for the task at hand.  The M refers to method of organization:  how can we best structure the text to make it easy to follow and enjoy?  I recommend putting PRISM right at the top of one’s page to assist in the composition process:  it immediately eliminates that deadly enemy:  the blank page.


This acronym revises one from the linguists, SVO:  subject, verb, object, the simple deep structure of English sentences.  It casts the idea in a way to remind writers to focus on using active verbs:  subject, active verb, direct object.  Replacing passive verbs, being verbs, or boring verbs with good, descriptive, active verbs immediately improves sentences by an order of magnitude.  The word SAD implies not the construction of melancholy sentences, but the Renaissance and Romantic meaning of the word:  serious and pensive.  Even humor writers must take their work seriously and think it through.


One of my “rules of thumb” aims to help writers think about structure:  remember to include a clear, informative thesis statement that gives the reader the main point of your work; think as you go about the unity of the whole work (it shouldn’t stray too far from its purpose); in the Poetics Aristotle mentions the power of metaphors, and we should remember that trope as we write–a few good metaphors can improve even the most technical piece or writing (all words are, after all, metaphors); finally, balance implies giving all aspects of a piece of writing appropriate and sufficient weight, avoiding excess and sentimentality, comparing and contrasting, trying to keep the piece fresh and energetic throughout.


For you football fans, I’m not thinking of points-after-touchdowns, but punctuation as traffic signals.  I’ve read the work of even brilliant critics who do so badly with punctuation that they annoy readers and drive them away rather than easing them in.  Punctuation clarifies for a reader when to stop, pause, yield, or maintain or change direction.  Writers should know that even though a hyphen and a dash look a little alike (the dash is longer), they mean each other’s opposite:  a hyphen says “link these two things,” and a dash says “separate these two things.”  A semicolon implies a two-way stop (the same grammatical unit on either side), while a comma implies a yield (giving way to a new syntactical unit).  Thinking through the process provides a fun and helpful way to think about punctuation in a logical and repeatable way.

I hope these acronyms prove as useful to you as they have to me, and, as always, thanks for reading.