"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

My Writing Rules of Thumb

There are different, competing claims about the origin of the term rule of thumb. I prefer the idea that it stems from the fact that the length from the tip of the thumb to the knuckle is about one inch (or if you're a pilot and you use 1:500,000 charts, about 10 nautical miles).

In any case, they are useful guidelines that make it easier to do something without thinking it through from first principles each time. Here are ten of mine as applied to writing:

  1. One-half, one-third, one-sixth. The golden rule: half my time is spent researching and interviewing. One third goes to proofreading and editing. Only a sixth is spent actually writing. I used this guideline when I wrote computer games. It gives you the right proportion for design, testing and coding. It works for writing too.
  2. 1,000 words a day. Factoring in time for research, writing and editing, I reckon on producing an average of 1,000 publishable words per working day - although the work is usually done in stages over a longer calendar period. (There's a story about James Joyce who had written seven words in one day - a highly productive day for him - "but I don't know what order they go in.") Writing is subjective and personal but if you write for a living, measuring productivity is important.
  3. Many interviews. I expect to do one interview for every 250-500 commissioned words. Why? See my post on the importance of interviews. Churchill said that the mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure and I find that telephone interviews pale after about 30-40 minutes so I try to keep them short.
  4. Transcript length. A 30-minute interview yields about 1,000 words of useful transcript and one or two quotes.
  5. Write for the 8th grade. This is the level you should write for if you want to be readable by the "general public." Source: Jakob Neilsen and Hoa Loranger's great new book Prioritizing Web Usability. You can measure readability, at least in crude terms, using simple metrics. See my previous post: readability statistics in Word and Bullfighter.
  6. Proofread (at least) three times. First from start to finish for sense. Then from back to front for typos, grammar and passive-elimination. Then word by word, very slowly and read aloud, to tidy up. I use a spelling and grammar checker in addition to this. Where deadlines allow, I run all my commercial work past a professional proofreader. However, do not expect the same standard on my blog -- I write posts before breakfast and I don't get paid for them.
  7. Writing for reading. Conversations are about 200 words per minute while talking books are around 150-175 words per minute and slide shows are closer to 100 wpm. These are useful metrics for writing speeches and presentations. Source: Wikipedia
  8. Writing for radio. Approximately one page of dialogue per minute of a radio play. Source: my wife, a playwright.
  9. 60 minutes. Minimum time spent by me faffing around with my blog and email in the morning before I start on any paid work.
  10. 15 minutes to flow time. The amount of time it takes to really settle down and concentrate on my work. Psychologists talk about a "flow state" where you commune with the work you are doing and sort of merge with it to the exclusion of the outside world. This is why concentration is so important (see my post on how to concentrate on writing) and why interruptions are so deadly to productivity. Source: the wonderful, wonderful book Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister.


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 17th 2006, 12:56 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
I've been writing for publication for three years and this list excites me because I am hitting the "expert" mark with many of Matt's tips.

I appreciate his POV and see that I still have a couple, okay at least three, that I can improve, namely #2, #6, #10. Although with the last tip, I might have to wait until my four young children fly the nest.

And what a relief to hear that even veteran professionals still struggle with turning over the ignition, (see #9).
Monday October 23rd 2006, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Patricia W.
Thank you for those insights. As a part-time motorcyle journalist I often feel stressed about the length of time it takes to research a piece and get the interview(s). The advice offered in this piece helps me put all that into perspective and gives me a way to evalutate my own work.

I agree with Susan Buding who also posted on this topic. It is a relief to know that full-timers struggle with these issues as well.

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