Want to write like a pro? Here are five rules to follow.

In the realm of writing, language is your ally, time both friend and foe, and rules, your guiding light. In this article, Kelvin offers a reality check of what it takes to craft compelling prose, unveiling the ingredients of purposeful writing, meticulous planning, reader engagement, judicious decision-making, and the omnipotence of knowledge.

Without a writing regimen—not that I’m nagging—rules can feel… restrictive. Simply put, the absence of practice defeats the very purpose of rules.

Before we begin

Let’s skip the part where I keep telling you how immensely useful it is to be proficient at writing in English (assuming that being a global citizen already sounds good to you because good luck reaching the world in Malay or Russian), how that’s a skill not too terribly hard to acquire (given that your brain is evolutionarily hardwired to accomplish that), and how lucky you are to have had such expansive access to our lingua franca at such a young age (thus it is imperative that you fully capture this opportunity). But, before we jump right into business, there are three things to keep in mind.

First, because being good at any skill requires willful, constant practice, time is naturally both your best ally and your worst enemy. In the case of two similarly proficient students, why should one end up with a grade A essay in well under an hour, while the other a sorry slop after a full day of scrambling and editing? It boils down to this: To write like a pro, not only do you have to be fluent in the language, but also effective in the process of writing; that is, to minimize the time spent on maximizing the outcome. In this light, good rules can guide you there.

This brings me to my second point: Rules get more productive the more you observe and experience them. Without a writing regimen—not that I’m nagging—rules can feel… restrictive. Simply put, the absence of practice defeats the very purpose of rules. And trust me: when demotivation kicks in, ineffective writing will be the least of your concern. On a brighter note, as you continue to write, it’s inevitable that you’ll create your very own rules, or principles—just because you will have found them useful by then—only that they won’t be much different from mine, as you’ll see. 

Thirdly, here are a few specific Murphy’s Laws that should come in handy in case you couldn’t afford a therapist or, at times, just to keep you momentarily afloat. The writing process is best explained by the Second Law: “Nothing is as easy as it looks”; the Third: “Everything takes longer than you think it will”; arguably, the Seventh: “Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse”; and last but not least, the Thirteenth, and my personal favorite: “Every solution breeds new problems.” However, do bear in mind the disclaimer: “If Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it will.

So, without further ado, here are the five rules to help you own at writing.

Rule #1: No purpose, no talk

You see, no other rule beats this one, which is in fact so extraordinarily useful that even a little overthinking is encouraged. Now, why do you write?

In a classic academic text, such as an exposition or an argument, your purpose as the writer is often reflected in your opinion about the underlying topic and overarching theme. You wish to inform your readers of what you believe as important or valuable (such as how vaccines don’t reduce fertility) and, every so often, convince them to adopt your point of view—or to at least take it seriously.

Contrasting the above, then, is the age-old human tradition of engaging emotions and imaginations through storytelling, of which the narrator’s purpose is overlaid in character development on top of an immersive plot. Be it comedy, tragedy, or anything in between, do you have a much bigger picture or perspective to offer? Do your characters and their journeys shed implications about our zeitgeist? Or are you mocking the past if not speculating about the future?

Of course, the more complex your topic or view is, and generally the longer you write, the more dynamic your purpose tends to be. Therefore, in these situations, you may find it more practical to discover that as you go. Just remember: until you’re able to nail down your purpose with confidence, you’d be wise not to be satisfied just yet.

Rule #2: No pain, no gain

“Teacher, must I plan?” In all honesty, nothing grinds my gear more than this question. Much like asking a pastry chef if high blood sugar is going to be your problem if you eat too much of his product, wondering if one needs to plan before he writes makes him sound like he’s clearly not too happy to write. Not another assignment!

How about this: “Teacher, can’t I just plan in my mind?”

To which I’d give one of two replies—either: “Do you happen to have a save button in your mind I didn’t know about?” or: “When you have spent a certain amount of time writing, you will have gotten your answer by then.”

Look, I know, the universe is unfair; you didn’t choose to have your plate stuffed with two hundred other things on a weekly basis. But if you don’t plan, and especially if you’re just starting to write, you turn something inherently difficult into something even more difficult. Particularly, good writing takes time and about 10 million times that in effort, let alone pure will and whatever perfectionists eat for breakfast.

Take it this way: excellent writing is twofold. The writer needs to be creative and fluent at the same time. At the same time! Really? Sure, pros can do that, but not in their right mind they won’t, for they know that the human mind is ultimately limited.

By planning, you take care of that first fold without having to worry about the second. When you have just begun a project or task, you want to experience creativity as purely as you can without having to be constantly nudged by that critical side of your brain that just cannot stop thinking about ideal clause placements, punctuation, paragraphing, or a hundred other synonyms for that keyword which you know will come up more often than the avid reader could bear (such as ‘plan’ here). This is especially true when you have a bunch of research to crunch through at the same time. Essentially, a well-thought plan gives you confidence and helps you focus on what matters at each stage of the writing process, lest you enjoy chasing wild geese on the internet from thesauri to paraphrasers to reverse dictionaries, only to find yourself walking in circles.

Sure, it will likely take more time. Because while it is true that planning might take away an extra minute or two, or anything beyond—heavens forbid—half an hour off your Presidential routine, the benefit only gets more evident with time. In the long run, as all full-time writers will no doubt assure you of, regular planning does wonder to your capacity for organizing and coordinating thoughts, not to mention the knowledge you will have gained along the way.

Rule #3: Readers are real

Writing is communicating. Of course, that’s unless we’re writing to ourselves, or—I don’t know—New Year’s resolutions? But I’d much rather stay with the presumption that just by reading this article, you are already far more interested in writing than just excelling in tests or persuading your boss to finally give you a raise. Perhaps you envision yourself as a novelist, a journalist, a researcher, or a very famous blogger (should that mean something). So long as you write, understanding readership is incredibly important.

If you are writing to non-native speakers, quit showing off your talent with jargon or references that no one but you can relate to. If you happen to be studying in a class that is highly international, don’t give culture-specific content without explaining or contextualizing it one way or another. In the case of narrative writing, reading your own draft, ask: “Can I imagine myself as the characters? Are the interactions and contexts believable? Is the plot coherent? Does the story reflect my purpose?”

Ask: 'Does the story reflect my purpose?'

Then there’s academic writing. While you should avoid getting too poetic with an explainer such as “How an earthquake happens” or an opinion piece titled “Social media is a terrible idea after all”, I generally think understanding how rhetoric works, to a reasonable extent, is particularly helpful. Learn about the rhetorical triangle (really, Google about it), for starters. Strictly speaking, though, you do not have to know what an ‘epistrophe’ is to use it in writing, in speech, or in thought—see what I did there? We use rhetoric all the time, from bargaining in the market to participating in a democracy.

And whatever it is that you are trying to say, do be mindful of your audience demographic. Are they always “busy”, and thus prefer the on-the-go reading experience? Or are you trying to appeal to heavy readers who don’t mind, for instance, a little philosophy or even a dash of poetry? If you are writing a children’s book, use simpler, imaginative words, although kids don’t always have to be fed with fairy tales.

Rule #4: Learn to say no

Have a gazillion ideas but, after a gazillion attempts, absolutely no idea how they could all come together? Want to write a short story but have barely made it through the first two pages? Or are you just like me, who keeps finding myself in the all-too-often predicament where for every hour I spend producing words, at least another ten get flushed away in inexhaustible rounds of editing, and then a hundred more doing anything but writing?

If your answers are yes, yes, and yes, heed my advice:


Seriously. You have got to be pragmatic. You either manage to stay focused or go insane before, worse, giving up. So, politely nod at so-called writing experts who tell you that you should “go big or go home”, go big on your smile, and go home immediately. 

Instead, you shall learn to set yourself free by facing up to the ultimate paradox of perfectionism—one that every perfectionist knows—that there is simply no perfection, but only the pursuit of it. You see, the word here is “pursuit”, not “expectation”. Just as Will Smith will tell you that happyness [sic] may not exist after all, it also isn’t smart to be so obsessed with a nonexistent optimum that you lose track of your objectives. Plus, who’s to say that you won’t change your mind about what’s great or otherwise embarrassing about your ideas sometime between tomorrow and next Monday, right?

Remember, when you’re down with a bad case of writer’s block, quit trying to do something that has never been more eager to prove its unviability. Say, you have drafted three pages worth of work only to realize that, despite your belief that they are filled with ideas that only come once in a blue moon, either they don’t fit together at all, or that they keep leading you to bottleneck situations. What are you going to do? Spend the next two hours moping and trying to go about it all over again because, let’s admit it, you just cannot let it go?

Quit trying to do something that has never been more eager to prove its unviability.

Or would you just please let it go? And while you’re at that, here are two ways to calm yourself down when you eventually hit the delete button.

First, take seven deep breaths (because seven), then proceed to reassure yourself that great ideas, just as mediocre if not terrible ideas, come and go. Removing a great idea—or, in my case, archiving it—does not make you less awesome, because if you are truly awesome, and if whatever you have just deleted is ultimately relevant to your work, like the Terminator, it will be back before you even know it.

Secondly, maybe a reader’s perspective will finally be helpful here. People aren’t exactly patient these days, to say the least. This is especially so in the case of informative and opinion pieces. So, you want to be straightforward. I, for one, can never go past an entire article on the “best printers to buy” these days without questioning why I often find myself somewhat humanly obliged to read through the first half where the author just cannot stop telling me how “choosing the perfect printer is getting wildly difficult these days” (duh), or why he feels that I, his apparent big-time fan, have first the need for a deep dive into the printer industry’s latest business whatabouts before I should be able to make a sound judgment on which printer to get. 

So, anyway, does that mean it’s generally a good idea to keep things short and simple, as in the my-professor-just-cannot-stop-repeating-it KISS acronym, at all times? (though I prefer the originally coined “Keep it simple, stupid.”)  The answer, if academic writing is your concern, is a sound, definite yes.

However, if you’re writing a story, especially in an extended format, you should definitely feel free to dial it up—be it immersive world-building, extravagant geekiness about how your version of time travel works, psychological slow burn, gratuitously caustic humor, or the most epic action sequence ever. 

Having said that, turn that dial at your own risk. Every serious writer knows just how very real it is, the human tendency to be overambitious. So is overthinking, which partly explains why this article has taken longer to write than I had hoped.

In short, if you really want to be productive, be open to bold changes. More often than not, albeit most of us are too stubborn to admit, saying no is the best way to move forward. If it helps, here’s a variation of Murphy’s Law aptly known as the First Law of Holes: “The first step in getting out of the hole you dug for yourself is to stop digging.”

The first step in getting out of the hole you dug for yourself is to stop digging.

—the First Law of Holes

Rule #5: Knowledge is power

“Wait a minute, have I just been reading a bunch of stuff I (kind of) already know?” 

If this is what you’re thinking, great! It means you are well on your way to becoming a writer yourself. To you, writing is no longer just another academic necessity or career prerequisite, nor is it something you find yourself to be doing only because people around you have been saying how much of a great idea it is—or so they think. To you, writing incentivizes you to be curious and adventurous, though it also sometimes leaves you frustrated and feeling dumb. But such is life! And as you gain technical experience, your perspectives grow. You keep brewing better ideas and shaping sharper opinions. It’s become your habit to think, and your second nature to write.

It's become your habit to think, and your second nature to write.

So, here’s one more no-brainer for you: If you cannot cook, don’t write a recipe book. Yet, you’d be surprised to know just how many students out there think that spending ten lousy minutes in the toilet scanning through news articles about the James Webb space telescope somehow qualifies as research, then audaciously expecting to have what it takes to write an essay about it—because surely the “top ten facts” about an invention, realizing which had taken, if you don’t already know, just a little over ten billion dollars, thirty odd years, and 1,200 of the most brilliant minds around the world, can all be digested in under one instance of egestion, no?

No. Yet of course, I’m not saying that you need to know everything. Nobody does, and nobody can. What you do need, however, is to identify what’s relevant and then to go down one or two rabbit holes. And if you’re writing about a particularly controversial issue, consider all sides of the debate. When facts are relevant, make sure to also get them from multiple sources. In this day and age of misinformation, the importance of credibility simply cannot be understated.

Besides, you must have been somewhat passionate about something to want to know and write about it in depth, anyway. That enthusiasm, coupled with knowledge and perspective, makes for a highly engaging, original, and insightful writing. And much more important than figures, charts, and anecdotes, you want to trigger a conversation. You want your readers to think, reflect, and engage. That, my friend, is the power a real writer possesses.

The same goes for fiction. While a fantasy needn’t respect the laws of physics, your characters, for instance, should nevertheless carry real-life resemblances, and their decisions and actions must have believable implications, allowing your reader to relate and reciprocate accordingly. Notice how many movies out there absolutely suck, boring, if not also insulting, the intelligence of viewers? In an overwhelming majority of such cases, lazy writing rightfully takes the blame.

At the end of the day, none of us wants to spend hours planning and writing only to have everybody including ourselves cringe at it, right? Plus, there’s no harm in being a little smarter, is there?


Great writing is ninety-nine percent reading and one percent writing. Of that one percent, ninety-nine goes to thinking and one to producing. And of that one-hundredth percent, another ninety-nine is spent on compulsive editing and one on printing. That said, the best writer is thus the worst economist, but provided that you heed Socrates’ words in critiquing yourself, you shall find joy and purpose in the process of navigating that miraculous thing you call your mind.

Any comment?

Let's talk!


Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Read our latest.

The Grammar of English Literature

In this essay, the author explores the intricate interplay between syntax and semantics in the grammar of English literature. Focusing on two passages, the essay delves into the challenges of...

Want to write like a pro? Here are five rules to follow.

In this article, the author delves into the intricacies of crafting compelling prose. Unveiling the secrets of purposeful writing, meticulous planning, reader engagement, judicious decision-making...

Access learning resources.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *