Writing guide

House style

Hyperlinks should be made on words that describe the target of the link. In the sentence “Bill spoke at the seminar on web standards” you might turn “seminar on web standards” into a link if you were linking to a page about the whole seminar. However if you were just linking to Bill’s talk then you might link only the word “spoke” or perhaps “Bill spoke” because in that case it’s the substance of his talk that the link targets. Avoid linking to “here” or “their website” and so on.

Academic pieces can contain endnotes and bibliographies, but in general they should be avoided.

Substance

The subject matters. Think carefully about the subject that you intend to cover in your article. How popular is that subject? Will there be a lot of people writing on the same topic? Do you have something interesting and fresh to say on that subject?

What do I know? Have you done enough research and/or have enough experience with the subject to write intelligently? This might seem like obvious advice, but if you are thinking of voicing your views – whether on current affairs or politics, philosophy or the beliefs of others, science and nature, art and culture – make sure that you have a command of the facts. Always try to follow the famous writers’ golden rule: “write what you know”.

How does you topic relate to Humanism? Humanists will have all kinds of interests, opinions and specialisms. You don’t have to write about Humanism. Indeed, too many “inward-looking” pieces would be insular. But Humanism is a worldview, so do think about ‘worldview-level’ implications of your subject. Ask yourself, how does this subject relate to:

  • to humanity?  to where we’ve been or where the whole Earth is heading?
  • to morals or values?
  • to society? to social concerns? to civilization?
  • to our deep knowledge about the world? (science, nature)
  • to humanity’s conception of itself, now and into the future?

What do I want to say? Knowing what you want to say before you start writing will really help you.  It is a good idea to create a list of the important points that you want to make and arrange them in the order that you want to make them. Think about dropping any ideas that are not directly related to these points.

What is the one point I want to make? It’s best to have one clearly defined point that your piece of writing is going to make. You may find it helpful to stop and think about what that point will be. It will help to focus your writing and keep the reader engaged.

Style

What style should I write in? It would be nice to say: write in your own style, keep it conversational and be yourself. But this is not always the best approach to writing for a public space. Think about what attitude you will take toward to the material; Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused? Try reading it aloud to see if it sounds natural, engaging and appropriate to the subject.

Am I clear? This may be the most important rule of all. If your writing isn’t clear then the reader will not be able to appreciate the point you are making. Try looking at your writing with an objective eye. Think about what might be misunderstood and rewrite it. Find what is irrelevant and delete it. Notice what’s missing and insert it.

Brainstorming. Set yourself a period of time, say 10 minutes. Write everything that comes to mind concerning your subject. You may also find it helpful to draw out a plan mapping out the points that you want to make.

Keep sentences short. For general purpose writing, short sentences are easier to read and understand. Each sentence should have one simple thought. More than that creates complexity and invites confusion.

Use simple words. Since your purpose is to communicate, simple words often work better than big ones. Write “get” instead of “procure.” Write “use” rather than “utilize.” Use longer words only if your meaning is so precise there is no simpler word to use.

Be specific. Don’t write “Many doctors recommend Brand X.” Write “97% of doctors recommend Brand X.” Don’t write “The Big Widget is offered in many colors.” Write “The Big Widget comes in red, green, blue, and white.” Get to the point. Say what you mean. Use specific nouns.

Pronoun, tense and mood. It is good to have a unity of pronoun (first person, etc.), unity of tense (past, present, future) and unity of mood (casual, comedy, irony)

Omit needless words. Write simply and without clutter. Don’t just add words for “style.”

After every sentence, ask yourself what the reader wants to know next.

Don’t over-explain

You are fallible

Sleep on it! Never submit an article straight after writing it. Try taking a long break and returning to it with a fresh mind, perhaps a day or two later.

Ask a friend. You may find it helpful to get constructive critical feedback from a friend or colleague before submitting your article. BHA members can use the HumanistLife contributors’ forum to post their drafts for feedback. You’ll be surprised to find what you thought was clear and concise might not be.

A first draft is never perfect. Rewriting is tweaking the text, not starting over. Simplify, clarify, rephrase drab sentences, add information and alter the sequence.

Rewriting is the essence of writing well. Clear writing is the result of much tinkering. Don’t forget, rereading is also rewriting.