Bertrand Russell: 3 Simple Writing Rules

Bertrand Russell, especially in his book, Why I Write, offers great advice on how to move from wordy, verbose, lengthy, purple prose to shorter text without losing any meaning.


Here’s the three step formula he provides:

  1. Never use a long word if a short word will do.
  2. If you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences.
  3. Do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.

To demonstrate this, lets’s look at this academic writing example:

“Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner”.

After he translates it into simple English:

“All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.”

This is shorter and more intelligible – and says the same thing.

Russell added, “But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.”


PS: don’t forget to get The Bertrand Russell Collection: 8 Classic Works