I’d never expected my first day at a new job to be transformational. Who does? First days are about gaining an entrance pass, getting acquainted with the stationery cupboard and admiring the freshness of your empty inbox.
But a while back, on my first day in a large financial publishing house, I was asked to read the company style guide, which turned out to be an eclectic collection of writing advice. I particularly enjoyed its admonishments on poor word choices, like the sneering comment on using the term ‘exponentially’, and a tart suggestion to avoid the term ‘Far East’, because readers in Asia find it hilarious.
Yet something much more substantial was lurking within those pages, awaiting its turn. Though I didn’t quite gasp when I saw it, my eyes definitely bulged. In the decade since that day, it has served me like no other bit of writing advice.
Today – in festive spirit – I present it to you. To write well, the tip said, follow these three steps:
OK, don’t look at me like I’ve just handed you tissue-filled chocolate wrappers.
For anyone engaged in business writing and who struggles with it, this process neatly sidesteps the fundamental pitfalls in getting it right. Here’s how:
1. No one starts out sure of what they have to say
Writers sort of know what point they are trying to make, but it’s often a bit blurred. Since every journey has to start somewhere, we start by pouring our thoughts onto paper – in serious-sounding language – and figure out the message as we roll along. This article from Seeking Alpha (chosen at random) demonstrates this beautifully:
The entire opening paragraph is redundant, its sole purpose is getting to the question at the end. That’s when the author is thinking: Yes! That’s what I wanted to say!
So now, look back at my gift-tip’s first step. Ask yourself: What do I want to say?
By all means, noodle your thoughts through writing if it helps. Just make sure that, once you’ve figured out your point, the scaffolding’s removed.
2. Writers feel what they want to say sounds too simple
This is a big one in business writing: we all want to be perceived as smart, impressive professionals. So we worry that, when stated plainly, our thoughts sound too obvious, too dull. If you’ve ever felt this way, know you’re in good company. Here is AA Milne, channelling this observation through Winnie the Pooh:
To conceal this unease, writers – generally equipped with brains – use big words and long sentences. But as the business jargon creeps in, they stray further and further away from their message.
For example, check out this great headline: “Central banks have tricked investors and created a doomsday machine”. The story covered a Macquarie report that had attempted to voice this concern, but instead had ended up saying:
A great story is the cumulative outcome of a series of lucid statements, all logically tied together. So now look at the gift-tip’s second step: Say it.
Imagine there’s a person to whom you’re telling your story. Warren Buffet likes to imagine his sisters; Pulitzer-prize winner John McPhee usually thinks of his mum. Whoever you choose, imagine telling them: “I’m writing about this topic, here’s what I want to say”. Then write your points, just as you would have said them out loud.
Once written, all it takes is a slight tidying of the language. (Remember: jargon spoils the broth.) And it’s astonishing how often, looking at an argument laid out in the simplest of terms, one ends up thinking – actually, it’s not quite what I wanted to say.
For example, in late July, the US Food and Drug Administration announced its plans to force tobacco companies to substantially lower nicotine levels in cigarettes. This announcement surprised markets, and tobacco stocks fell sharply. The two sentences below differ only slightly in wording, but provide very different answers to why the market was so surprised.
The first sentence suggests investors were expecting an announcement of new measures, just not as severe. The second sentence suggests investors weren’t expecting new measures, due to the current administration’s pro-business stance.
3. Here is when good copy becomes great copy
That readers are bombarded with content, and therefore mostly skim articles, is no excuse for fluff. Hence the gift-tip’s third and final step: Say it shorter.
Once you think you’ve assembled all your messages into a reasonably well-written piece, take a very deep breath, and chop out at least 20%.
Mixing cement isn’t all that different to typing, in that the output quickly hardens. Too easily, writers cling to words that hadn’t even existed moments ago. To overcome this psychological barrier, I suggest placing a separating line at the bottom of your document. Rather than deleting text, paste the stuff you cut into this separate section. Comfortingly, it awaits the time you might need it again. Thankfully, that time is usually never.
Also, someone who is ‘very happy’ is delighted or overjoyed. ‘Every once in a while’ can be squeezed into occasionally. To be ‘aggressively chased’ by someone means you are hounded. Having to cut down the word count isn’t about adding fancy words to your vocabulary; it’s about making better use of the words you already know.
Until now I’ve been critical of others’ work, so it’s only fair I show you some of mine. Below, a paragraph out of an article I pitched to a mental health magazine, about managing stress when rushing. (Mind you, this was after significantly reducing the word count.)
Yet underneath it, the same paragraph, taken from the published piece, with 20% of its words gone.
Do you remember the time, before smartphones and iPods, when you would listen to music using a teeny audio player? I was once lucky enough to receive an excellent one as a gift. It survived more than a decade of intense use, and by the time it was worn out, I was mortified to discover they’d stopped making others like it.
The writing tip offered in this article is essentially the same; I use it nearly every day, but have never seen it outside that company manual.
So I thought it would make a nice gift.
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