8 Rules for writers

Here is a set of rules that I hope you will find useful. The way I see it, readers’ time is far too precious to waste. People are made to feel guilty, or have somehow been conditioned to feel guilty, if they don't read every possibly useful report. Or every relevant newspaper article. But as writers, or content producers, we have a responsibility too. Here are some rules which I am gradually starting to live by myself.

Rules rules. OK?

The Heading Rule

If you can't tell from the heading what the chapter/article/blog/section is about, at least to start thinking about it, skip it. I was browsing in a bookshop a couple of years ago and was looking at a book about website usability. The author stated that if a heading or link was worded in such a way that the reader had to think about what it might mean, it was no good.

Great stuff. What a pity, then, that he didn't take his own advice. I found it very hard to tell what some of the sections might be about. I didn't buy the book.

The First Paragraph Rule

In a well written piece you will be able to tell from the first paragraph whether you need to read the whole thing. Newspaper articles are a classic example of this technique. No time to read the paper? Then read all the first paragraphs. They contain the gist of the story while the rest of it, usually, is concerned with filling in the details.

Same with press releases. Same with Government reports -- although there the "first paragraph" might be an executive summary of a couple of pages. Same principle though.

The 90 Second Rule

The trouble with podcasts and their video equivalent, vodcasts, is that it's not easy to skim through to see if it's worth listening to or watching all the way through. Now, iTunes lets you listen or watch for 90 seconds without your having to download it. That should be enough time for anyone to decide if it's worth bothering with the whole thing.

Astonishingly, some podcasters have completely failed to understand this. There was one I was interested in, and I tried previewing 3 different episodes. All of them spent at least the first minute and a half on completely irrelevant stuff. Apart from the intro, which took up at least half the time, there was stuff about his loft, his dog, and some other highly interesting (to him) topic. By the time he said, "OK, today we're going to...", the preview timed out. I'm too busy to have other people waste my time: I can do that myself, but far more productively thank you!

The 1% Rule

From what I have seen (and apparently this is a well-observed phenomenon), in any undertaking only about 1% of the people affected are active in any way. What that means is that, on average, if you have a blog, say, that is followed by 100 people, only one of them is going to be moved by your efforts to get them to respond to something you’ve written.

Freedman's 5 Minute Rule

I invented this rule when I was a head of educational technology and educational technology Co-ordinator in a secondary (high) school. The way I saw it, someone should be able to come into my computer suite, log on, do some work, print it out and save it and log off, all in the space of 5 minutes even if they had never set foot in the school before. I set up systems to enable that to happen, and it was highly successful.

I think the same principle applies in other fields too, like writing. It shouldn’t take anyone more than 5 minutes to understand your instructions, the book you’re reviewing, whatever.

Freedman's 100% Rule

Preparation for a talk should never take longer than the talk, or series of talks, will be. To be honest, in the light of experience I think this is idealistic. In the real world, the rule which pertains most often is ….

Freedman’s Rule of Inverse Proportionality

The shorter an article or presentation has to be, the longer it takes to prepare. It once took me a day to prepare a 5 minute talk. If I am given a word count limit of 500 words it takes me longer to write the piece than if the limit were 2,000 words.

I think the reason is that if you’re given room to waffle, you can afford to be imprecise, because you can come back to the same point in a different way and ensure that your meaning is clear in the end. Where the word count limit or time limit is lower, each word or minute has a much higher value, thanks to the old economics law of scarcity.

Freedman's One More Time Then I Must Get On With My Life Rule

Articles should only be revised once before submitting them. Any more than that and they lose their freshness. Basically, if you can't get it right second time, take the view that this will have to be good enough. Tough one that, if you're a perfectionist like me.

See also:

23 Rules for writers