Learn plain English rules

Once you have planned your book outline, it’s time to expand on it. Many first-time authors worry about their standard of written English.

Perhaps, you’re one of those people who had a bad experience at school, with endless criticism from teachers. (I know I had many stinging comments about my English over the years). Perhaps, in your professional career, people have made negative comments about your written reports. This can make people question their ability to write well.

Others worry they write too slowly. They feel getting their ideas on paper will take too long.

Don’t let these two potential issues hold you back. Here’s how to solve them.

The simplest way to improve the quality of your writing is to learn 14 plain English rules.

I’ll give you an example of the two most important which I know make the biggest difference in people’s writing

  • always write using short sentences
  • always use short words

When authors follow those two rules, their writing becomes clear and concise, and a joy to read. The book’s quality and reader value dramatically improves. The beauty of this approach is that these rules are quick and easy for anyone to learn and apply.

Get into the habit of

  • checking the word count of your sentences, shortening the longer ones
  • looking for words with three or more syllables, and replacing them with a shorter equivalent

You can use your word processor to calculate the word count of a sentence. Select it by clicking and dragging your mouse over the text. The status bar at the bottom of the screen gives you the total.

You’ll find using short words and sentences quickly becomes your natural writing style. You’ll use them on autopilot.

People who persist in using long words and sentences come unstuck during the review. Reviewers complain the explanations are clumsy and confusing. Every single sentence needs swapping for its shorter, concise counterpart. A skilled, professional editor often does this slow, painstaking work.

This extra step inevitably means the inconvenience of easily avoidable delays and additional expense.

Make sure you have writing with short words and sentences nailed before you start expanding on your outline!

Learn about readability

All 14 plain English rules improve the readability of your writing.

You may be surprised to discover that the average reading age of adults in the UK or the US is around 13 years old! Not 21! You need to make sure that your writing is suitable for the average reading age.

This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your information. It means making it “clear and simple”.

You don’t want your ideas to be exhausting to understand. If your reader feels like they wading through “insurance small print”, they won’t thank you for it. They’ll write a stinging negative review.

You want your concepts to be quick and easy for your readers to enjoy. You can test

  • how readable your writing is
  • the required reading age to understand it

at another free website called www.read-able.com.

Take a paragraph or two of your text and simply paste into the big form field on the website.

It will assess it in seconds and give you the required reading age. Double-check your writing meets the 13-year-old level.

It will also give you useful statistics like the

  • total number of sentences in a paragraph (longer paragraphs are less readable)
  • sentence length
  • word complexity

This will quickly show you if your paragraph, sentence and / or word length is bumping up the reading age.

It’s okay to have a few sentences where the reading age is higher than the average, but the standard you’re aiming for must be 13 years old. Did you know

  • the fiction writer with the most readable text is the respected Ernest Hemingway
  • Tim Ferriss is one of the best nonfiction writers, has one of the lowest required reading ages and still has a string of bestsellers to his name

When readers pick up your printed book, they will skim a paragraph or two, to “see how it reads”. If that sample is clunky and difficult to get grips with, they’ll put your book straight back down – and you lose the sale. Clearly, an outcome any author worth their salt should avoid at all costs.

Learn to draft

For speeding up your writing, the trick here is to use a technique called “drafting”. When you draft, the goal is to get the ideas out of your head quickly.

Explain the background to your outline’s bullet points, using your short words and sentences writing technique and get the gist of your elaboration down paper.

It’s important to recognise that not everything needs to be “perfect” at this stage. Just a reasonable explanation of your point is fine.

You’ll find the bulk of your writing will be acceptable as it is, but occasionally, you might hit something that you feel needs tweaking. You might feel tempted to start swapping your words for better alternatives. Perhaps you want to stop and research some facts and figures you had planned to include, which you now feel could be inaccurate.

Resist the temptation to stop drafting and be side tracked into solving the problem there and then. You lose momentum. Just add a ## comment ## that you need to return to that item and keep going. (The ## marks help you find problems later).

I recommend you come back to any of these minor issues at the end of your daily writing session, or at the end of the chapter, whichever you prefer. It’s more efficient.

Imagine how much more productive you are when you get into a rhythm, researching 10 facts and figures in one go at the end of your chapter. The alternative is

  • stopping to do each one as it crops up
  • losing momentum
  • fighting to get back “in the zone” to carry on drafting

If you’re always stopping or getting side tracked swapping bits in and out, your progress is slow and it knocks your confidence. You quickly end up in a bad place. Anger and frustration builds.

Slow, arduous progress and self-doubt mean the death-knell for author dreams.

Just keep going, keep drafting. Trust me – it’s the easiest way to go about getting your book completed!

Write 2-3 sides of A4 (letter paper) daily

Concentrate on getting the basic gist down as quickly as you can.

Aim to write the equivalent of 2-3 sides of A4 or letter paper a day. This equates to roughly 1,500 words. Within 20-25 days, you’ll have enough for a 30,000-40,000 word book. It really is that simple. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed.

If 1,500 words a day still sounds like a lot, let me show you why it’s not:

  • it’s merely the equivalent of five short emails made up of a handful of brief paragraphs
  • if you’re a social media addict, it’s around 30 short status updates

In reality, you often write this much during a typical day, without feeling “crushed” or “overwhelmed” at the thought of the effort required.

Fifteen hundred words is easy to achieve when you are simply expanding on your book outline key points – a topic you already understand well.

Add images

You’ll need to plan and source any visual elements you want to include. These could be

  • photographs
  • flowcharts
  • data tables
  • charts
  • annotated diagrams
  • icons to denote tips and warnings
  • perhaps cartoons to add a little humour to your book

Remember the old saying a picture paints a thousand words. A well-chosen picture can profoundly improve the clarity your explanation for your reader.

You’ll recall, we looked at this requirement during the define phase when you assessed how other bestselling books use imagery to good effect.

If you don’t have exactly the right image to hand

  • add a rectangle to your book as a placeholder
  • add it to the list of images you need to source

You can get someone to help you with that if “arty things” are not your scene.

Once you have expanded on your entire outline, you’ll be the proud owner of a completed draft book.

Now, it’s time to move onto review. We’ll be looking at that tomorrow.

See you on the next lesson.