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October 2009
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Principles of Composition

If you cannot write well, few people will be interested in reading or publishing your work. You need to know the rules and guidelines of composition to write well. One of the best books on how to write well is the “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, a reference that all writers should own and read at least once per year. It includes a useful section on composition. Borrowing from the Element of Style, here are 11 guidelines for composition:

1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it. All writing needs a structural design. Before writing, think about what you want to say. Next, create an outline, arranging your ideas into a logical order. Finally, determine how you want to structure your work. Depending on your subject, you have several choices: Q & A, problem and solution, definition, contrast and comparison, cause and effect, process, and exposition.

2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. A paragraph can be any length, a short sentence, or a long, multi sentence paragraph. Each paragraph should also begin with a topical sentence. Divide your subject into topics. For each topic, use one paragraph. If you are going to write briefly about a subject, use one paragraph for all topics. In dialogue, use a new paragraph for each speaker.

3. Use the active voice. It performs the action of the subject. The active voice is more direct and vigorous. Use the passive voice when you don’t know who the speaker is, or when you want to emphasize the subjective complement or object of the verb.

  • Wrong: The novels were written by Hemmingway.
  • Correct: Hemmingway wrote several novels.

4.  Put statements in the positive form. In other words, avoid using “don’t and “won’t and “couldn’t”.  Instead find a word that expressive these negative expressions in a positive form, such as:

  • Not honest for dishonest.
  • Not important with insignificant.
  • Did not remember with forgot.

5. Use definite, specific, concrete language. In other words, prefer the specific to the general and the concrete to the abstract. Using concrete and specific details is one of the best ways to “show” instead of telling.

  • Wrong: The author writes novels.
  • Correct: The author, James Patterson, writes best selling crime novels that take place in an urban setting.


6. Omit needless words. Make each word count. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs. Instead, use nouns and verbs. Often you will be able to find a noun that expresses what the adjective is doing or an action verb that more accurately expresses the action that a verb and adverb combination.

7. Avoid a succession of loose or cumulative sentences. Instead use sentence variety. Write simple, compound, and complex sentences. If necessary, use a sentence fragment. Vary your sentences by writing periodic, antithesis, and balanced sentences. Change the length of your sentences. Make some long, and others short. A series of sentences in the same form are boring to read and don’t create rhythm.

8. Use parallel construction for ideas in the same form. For instance, use parallel construction for items in a series, for two clauses separated by coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, yet), and phrases or clauses joined by correlative conjunctions. (both, and; not only, but also; but, also)

9. Keep the subject and verb together. Don’t separate the verb from the subject with a phrase or clause.

  • Wrong: Toni Morrison, in Beloved, writes…
  • Correct: In Beloved, Toni Morrison writes…

10. In a summary, keep the same tense. In summaries of poems, stories, novels, drama, use the present tense.

11. Place the most important words at the end of the sentence. The beginning and end of the sentence are the most emphatic. As well, place the most important points at the end or beginning of the paragraph.

 Example: After writing for more than 30 years, he won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Next, I will discuss writing style.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please post them to my blog, or send me an email at .


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