There are rules, follow them, but never be afraid to make an exception. Following the rules makes it easy and pleasant to read. Breaking them adds spice, accent, emphasis.
Pay attention to rhythm; the themes, words, sentences, the paragraphs should alternate in style, tone, length and complexity, never repeat a cadence, except when you do it unexpectedly to drive a point home. But don’t overdo it. Save your knuckleball for their best hitter, but don’t use it again.
Mix your tone, don’t be afraid to switch from vulgar to sublime, from humble to proud, from icy intellect to sensuous emotion. Keep the bastards guessing what you’re going to do next.
Avoid repetition, either verbal, logical or stylistic, but once again, don’t be afraid to use it sparingly to drive a point home. Its like dispatching a vampire, sometimes you need to pound the stake more than once.
Be particularly careful with your transitions. Your reader needs to know exactly when he’s gotten to one.
If you want a sample, here is the opening chapter to my memoirs.
It takes a certain amount of arrogance to start an autobiography. The writer must assume that there is something unusual about his life or that he has witnessed great events; that he or his associates were somehow extraordinary or influential, or at the very least, somehow representative of their times. I certainly cannot claim any of these as part of my motivation to begin this ordeal. Neither can I point to any psychological or spiritual needs which will be satisfied by putting these lines on paper. My life has been unique, but that is the definition of humanity; it is no more unique than that of any of my contemporaries. I recognize that as a native of the United States born just after the end of the Second World War, and because of certain key experiences shared with my own generational cohort, it could be argued that similarities exist between myself and many others; but it is the differences which make up the justification for this particular form of literary self-indulgence. I offer no apologies or explanations. I can always hide behind the excuse that this document is a training exercise for the career in letters I have often fantasized for myself and let it go at that. If you prefer, consider it a bit of correspondence from the last half of the twentieth century.
Before beginning it may be useful to lay down a few ground rules. There will be no effort here to be historically precise; I will do my best to be accurate, but I plan to work from memory. Do not expect precision in the matter of dates or names and forgive me if my recollections are distorted by time or prejudice. The reader may be comforted by the thought that errors of fact may be more illustrative of the writer than of the events described. I can promise a sincere effort to be objective but I cannot guarantee it is wholly successful. The plan is to proceed in chronological order, but I reserve the right to revise and edit my work, an advantage provided by modern word processing technology which I fully intend to exploit. I cannot rule out the possibility that some events or insights will be presented out of sequence if they are more appropriately discussed elsewhere. One more thing, this text is not meant to be complete, there will be omissions and gaps and there are many things which will be deliberately or accidentally left out. This is not a confession and I wish to protect my privacy in some matters, not to mention the privacy of others. I visualize these pages being read by someone in the future and in another place. They are not history or journalism and certainly not an attempt at self-analysis; think of it as a travel journal.
It is inevitable that the character of the writer will influence his work so have no illusions that mine is any different. It may be useful to consider how an author evaluates his own soul. I will be brief: I am intelligent but I’m lazy, I am honest but I’m vain, I am responsible but I’m a coward. I have a well developed sense of humor, defined as a recognition of the absurdity of existence; but there is a streak of pomposity in my makeup as well. I despise injustice but I am an unrepentant snob. I consider myself a basically compassionate and decent human being who is well aware of his faults but not too serious about correcting them. On the whole, I like myself. I value truth, love and beauty but have absolutely no religious convictions. I strongly suspect the Universe is entirely the result of impersonal physical forces: matter and energy interacting in time and space. I am convinced that the Secret of the Universe is that there is no secret.
The essentials of my life follow: Born in 1947 to the children of Cuban immigrants in Tampa, Florida; attended University, graduated with degrees in science and mathematics, and spent my working life as a professional geographer; married at 33, no children; enlisted and served in my country’s armed forces. I have spent most of my life in the United States. These lines were written in February 2001.
I consider myself a good essayist, but I found expanding my style to longer formats more difficult. And since I’m essentially lazy, I didn’t put in the work I needed to get better. Besides, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, not a writer. By the time I gave that up, it was too late to start over.