16 Rules for Better Writing with Scott Adams

Scott Adams is the author of one of the most popular cartoon strips of all time, Dilbert. Here are his 16 tips to improve your writing: 

1. Choosing a good topic

Does it make you feel something? If you don't feel anything when you choose your topic, neither will your readers. It should be familiar to your audience, that way they can understand and follow. Remember that you're writing for your audience, not for yourself.

Use the 'Invisible Friend' trick - imagine somebody sitting next to you. If you write something which will make them say "Wow", you've got something good.

2. Write for the reader, not for yourself. 

You're writing for your readers, don't forget this. 

3. Your first sentence should evoke curiosity

You don't have a lot of chances to make an impression. People decide based on the first sentence if they'll continue reading or not, so make it count.

Make it provocative.  Get your reader to say, "Woah, where is he taking us?"

4. Pace and lead your reader

This has to do with persuasion. Writing is generally done to persuade someone to give you money or like you. Pace and lead your reader means you should match your reader and give them something to relate to. 

Speak how they speak, care about the things they care about, and show the kind of emotion which they feel. Find ways to be like them. 

People will get comfortable with you, they'll say "I think the same way as you do. " When you change your thinking, readers tend to come with you. Call out what readers are thinking and address that.

5. Use direct sentences

"The boy hit the ball" instead of "The ball was hit by the boy."

Your brain processes the direct sentence quickly and effortlessly. Indirect sntences over a long piece make for exhausting reading.

6. No jargon, adjectives, adverbs or clichés

A test: When editing, imagine somebody is giving you $100 for every word you can take out without it changing the meaning of your writing.

You're writing to have somebody remember you. If you haven't made your reader remember you, you haven't done anything. That's why the words that don't mean anything can be removed.

7. Brevity = Brilliance

The mind translates brevity into brilliance.

Somebody who takes less words to explain the same thing is seen as more intelligent. That's just the way we're wired.

That's why big words and technical terms tend to come across in a different way to intended. It appears as if they're knowledgeable about the topic, but they're kind of dumb in the way that they presented it.

8. Sixth Grade Vocabulary

Most people know big words, good writers choose not to use them.

9. Musicality and percussion

Some letters have hard sounds and can sound ugly when you put them together. Look for something which sounds good in your head.

You know musicality when you hear it, so look for it in your writing. 

An example: "Make America Great Again." You may not like it, but it sounds good. 

10. Avoid ugly words

Avoid words like moist. The kind of words which people think of as ugly. A counter example: Scott Adams is famous for the phrase 'Moist Robot.' It works because it's 2 words which are very different and pique your interest. It's not easy to do, but it can make people interested

11. Associations

Associating two things causes people to think in a certain way, so be careful of it. For example, don't say you like babies, and that you like weapons. The brain automatically associates things. 

12. Use visual language

We're visual creatures and visual dominates our imagination. 

The McGurk Effect illustrates just how powerful this is. 

Good example: Trump saying he wants to build a wall, it creates an image in your mind.  You should add other senses if you can, like smell or sounds. If you're in a hurry, just go visual. 

13. Violate a norm

Violating a norm means there's something about your writing which feels dangerous and makes your reader a little bit uncomfortable. 


Why dangerous? People like to feel danger, to live close to the edge. We love to read something dangerous when it applies to other people.

If you think, "Woah, he's going to get in a lot of trouble from that group or that group" then you've got something good. 

Remember: Not everyone is your reader. Write for your readers.

14. End clever or provocative

Use a call back. If there's something clever or funny in the body of your article, make a clever reference to it in your closing statement. 

15. Writing is like any other skill

Do it everyday and you'll get better at it. Don't write and you won't improve. That's why it's difficult to leave it for a while and return back to the level you were at.

If you plan to be a writer and you're not doing it every day, you're not really taking it seriously. People who want something, practice it, and they don't only do it once in a while.

16. Humour formula

This is for comics or humour writing. You'll be surprised, but there is actually a formula for what makes something funny. 

You need at least 2 of the following things:

  • Clever

  • Naughty - Sex and bathroom jokes.

  • Bizarre - Two things out of place e.g. Talking animals.

  • Cute - Kids and animals e.g. Calvin & Hobbs. This was a talking animal too.

  • Cruel - Staple in humour, making fun of somebody.

  • Recognisable - Humour requires something familiar for the reader, something they can relate to.

You can find the original video from Scott Adams here, as well as more writing advice from David Perell here. 

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