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Stephen Lau

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Learn How to Write by Writing

Learn how to write by writing: this is the key to effective writing. Practice makes perfect. The more you write, the more you know how to begin your writing. That said, when you begin to write, beware of two extremes: doing too little, or doing too much.

On the one hand, if you write too little in the beginning paragraphs, you may give the impression that you are too eager to jump into the subject without giving your readers time to reflect on what you have prepared for them.

On the other hand, if you write too much in the beginning paragraphs, you may give the impression that you are summarizing the subject. Your readers may think that they already know what you are going to say to them, and hence they may not wish to go on reading.

An effective beginning needs to accomplish the following:

Capture the readers’ attention by stressing the importance of the subject, arousing the readers’ curiosity, or entertaining the readers.

Introduce the subject appropriately to the readers through the use of relevant lead-ins:

A famous quotation alluding to your topic
A factual statement with statistics and examples supporting your topic
A short description or story with emotional appeal
A personal experience related to your topic
A controversial question or a paradoxical statement about your topic
An analogy or comparison relevant to your topic
A statement of problems leading to your topic

Provide adequate details to create anticipation in the readers’ minds.

Beginning to Write

To begin writing, initiate the writing process in three basic steps:

Think about the topic, or what you are going to write about.

Write it. Put down any idea that comes to your mind.

Write it again, revise, and re-write it.

Both drafting and revising are creative processes in writing. Drafting is more spontaneous, while revising is more thoughtful and critical. When you write, you see words from your point of view; when you revise, you see words from the readers’ point of view.

Points to remember during revision:

Read slowly: this forces you to focus your attention on each word.

Read aloud: this not only slows down your reading but also contributes to objectivity to your writing.

Look for choice of words, sentence construction, and paragraph structure.

Be alert for errors in grammar and usage, as well as in spelling and typing.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

The Origin and Meaning of Words and Phrases

The English language is full of words and phrases, which can add spice to your writing. Knowing their origin and meaning may help you remember them through visualization (i.e. creating "reality" with a mental image). Repeating aloud also helps you remember them.


Hamburger is made of beef; it has little to do with pigs. It was invented in Hamburg-an easy way to make steak by frying beef. The word began to appear in English at the end of the 19th century.


Blockbuster was a term used by British pilots in World War II to describe extremely large type of bombs. Nowadays, it refers to a box office movie.

e.g. Did you watch that all-time Hollywood blockbuster-Gone with the Wind?

Brass tacks

Brass tacks were used in fabric stores to measure the exact yardage of fabrics sold to customers. Get down to brass tacks is an informal expression meaning “coming to really important facts.”

e.g. After a very brief introduction, the chairman came down to brass tacks and began outlining the future of the company.


Cheesy is an informal word alluding to the unpleasant smell of overripe cheese; hence, it means "tasteless" (figuratively), "cheap," or "shoddy." It can be applied to anything conveying that meaning.

e.g. Your so-called fashion statement is cheesy.      


Pandemonium, meaning “mass confusion and disorder” was used by the famous poet John Milton, who invented the word as the capital of Hell in his Paradise Lost.

e.g. The hotel lobby became a pandemonium when the terrorists came in with their guns and bombs.

Salad days

Salad days are the days of youth without too much life experience. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.

e.g. Going for a midnight swim in the nude is one of the things you might have done in your salad days.

Kangaroo court

Kangaroo court means “a mockery of justice.” It does not come from Australia, which is the only place where you will find kangaroos. The phase was used to show the absurdity or unnaturalness of legal justice in the American West in the nineteenth century.

e.g. The students in that high school thought that their principal was running a kangaroo court when it came to punishing students for their misbehavior.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth is an English proverb meaning “not to be too critical of a gift one has received.” It refers to the practice of assessing the condition of a horse prior to purchase by looking at its teeth for signs of age or disease.

e.g. Don’t be so critical; after all, it’s free. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!

Buy a pig in a poke

Buy a pig in a poke means “buying something without seeing it.” A poke is an archaic (old) word for “bag.”

e.g. Buying a book online is like buying a pig in a poke.

Take something with a grain of salt

Do not believe everything. At the dinner table, a dash of salt may make believe that the cooking is good, when in fact it is not.

e.g. He was telling a tall story, and everybody seemed to take it with a grain of salt.

Run amok

Run amok comes from the Malay word “amok” meaning “a state of frenzy or uncontrollable behavior.”

e.g. When the parents were not at home, the children often ran amok.

Come a cropper

Come a cropper comes from horse riding and horse hurdling (jumping over a hurdle) during which the rider falls from the horse. The phrase means “fail in an attempt” to do something.

e.g. With mounting debt and increasing liabilities, your attempt to save the company from bankruptcy may come a cropper.

Mad money

Mad money refers to money a woman used to carry with her in case her date did not escort her home. Nowadays, mad money refers to extra spending money or money to be spent on unexpected purchase.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Paragraph Development

Many people wish they could write well. To write well, you must practice writing. Writing a diary or a journal is good daily practice to improve your writing skills; at least, you will not be self-conscious that people are looking at what you have written. The more you write, the more you will master the skills of developing your paragraphs; that is, you will have more to say, instead of not knowing what to say.

Paragraphs are about ideas, facts, and beliefs. A good paragraph must be adequately developed. In other words, every aspect of that topic has to be fully covered. There are generally different methods of developing your paragraphs:


Definition is required of an abstraction, such as democracy.

You need to define or explain certain terms or ideas that you think. You can define it by using synonyms, that is, explaining something abstract in different words, usually simpler words.


If your topic sentence is a general statement, you need to support your generalization with some concrete examples. Illustration shows that you are not talking through your hat and that you know your subject.


If you think the idea is important, simply restate it. Repeating what you have just said in a slightly different way is an easy way of developing a paragraph. A word of caution: make sure your sentences are not in the same structure, and the expression of the same idea is slightly different:

You can say what is not the case, and then assert what is the case. For example, in the case of democracy, you can say what seems to be democracy, and then show what is real democracy.

You can also make your restatement from a general to a more specific one by giving more details.

Comparison and contrast

In comparison and contrast, you are dealing with at least two topics with similarities, or differences, or both.

e.g. In many ways London and New York are alike.

e.g. London is very different from New York in many respects.

e.g. Intelligence is not exactly the same as wisdom.

Use of analogy

Analogy is a special kind of comparison in which another topic is introduced to explain or justify the main subject.

You may use analogy to clarify an abstract or difficult statement previously made; you may also use analogy to persuade the readers.

Causes and effects

Paragraphs are about facts, ideas, and beliefs. Accordingly, you need to explain why something happened, or why it is true or false. Within this framework, you may have to give examples, compare and contrast, and restate your ideas.

Paragraph development is an important part of effective writing.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau