Are there rules for great writing when it comes to business?
I am often asked where I find the time to write. I am often asked about why I write and publish so much content. I am often asked where I find the inspiration for the content that I create. I am often asked how I decide which ideas are turned into books or blog posts or articles. The answer is simple: I don’t just love to write, I am dedicated to writing because I am a writer. As much as I love marketing and helping brands connect better to their consumers, it all starts with words on a page (for me). I have been writing non-fiction since the late eighties. I have written hundreds (probably thousands) of articles for newspapers and magazines over the years. I have written two business book (Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete). I have contributed chapters and content to several other business books. I have published well over 5000 blog post entries since 2002. I write. I write… and I keep on writing. Today, every brand is trying to create more content. They are realizing the value in issuing more than a press release or advertorial. This shift in content is, at its core, forcing brands to become better (and more creative) writers. Consumers no longer have patience for jargon and industry blather. They want to read something that resonates with them. Are there rules? Are there tricks? Are there shortcuts?
When it comes to writing for business, this I believe…
1. Read. Read. Read. If you don’t read a ton, you will never be a great (or relevant) writer. Reading brings perspective. Reading illuminates ideas. Reading will force you to ask yourself some tough questions. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read industry related magazines, websites and blogs. Subscribe to e-newsletters. Follow interesting people on Twitter and Facebook. Read magazines and subjects that you have no immediate interest in. Read different perspectives (even people you do not agree with). To be inspired, you have to get inspired. Reading creates a perpetual wealth of inspiration. Even poorly written and boring books can inspire you as well (just drop them if it’s truly dreadful).
2. There is no such thing as writer’s block. What do you do if the words are not flowing… if you are blocked. In truth, you aren’t blocked. Trust me. Seth Godin said it best: you don’t have thinker’s block and you don’t have talker’s block, so you can’t have writer’s block. There is simply no such thing. If you have trouble believing me, there are two books that you should read and the words will always flow after that. Check out Steven Pressfield‘s The War Of Art (or Do The Work) and Mark Levy‘s The Accidental Genius. Start with Mark’s book and focus, almost exclusively, on his exercises for free writing. Trust me, if you’re thinking and you’re talking, you can be writing.
3. Write for yourself. Too many people sit down, stare at the blank screen and wonder to themselves, "what do people want to read?" Huge mistake. You sat down because something inspired you. It may have been something you saw or something you read. Write those words down without judgment. Don’t worry about what people will think. Write for yourself. Dig deep. Pull out everything. Every emotion. Ultimately, people connect with content that is real. That reads like it was written by a real human being. They want the words to bleed. If you need inspiration, check out Charles Bukowski for the rawest of raw. If you want something closer to the business world, people like James Altucher and Bob Lefsetz write with their hearts on their sleeves. It oozes out of them. They’re writing for themselves, and in doing so are finding and connecting with others who want more content that is real.
4. Write fast. This doesn’t mean to publish fast. It means to write fast. Too many people start writing and harp on each and every word, the grammar and more. You will get to that. The act of real business writing should start with a simpler action: write. Write it all down. Write it down as fast at it comes. You must always set aside some time later to tweak, edit, chop, improve and fix the nuances. If you bring to your writing a sense of urgency, you will have fewer issues getting stuck or – even worse – not being able to begin. Even if you’re heading down the wrong path, please keep writing fast and let the words flow, you may well be surprised at how quickly your fingers and brain will course-correct.
5. Write quiet. You need to be alone with your thoughts. This doesn’t mean that you should need full silence to work (check out the next point), it just means that you need to focus on the words. So, if you’re able to not be around the TV or music with lyrics, do that (external conversations could influence your content – whether you’re aware of it or not). This isn’t about distraction in as much as it’s about allowing the words from your brain to find your fingers in the most direct path as possible. Personally, I find that writing with music that has no lyrics (preferably mellow jazz or classical music) can sometimes help and sometimes hinder the flow of words. Lately, I have been enjoying the act of writing while the Coffitivity app is working in the background. It’s like white noise, but with the sounds of a coffee shop. So, sounds are fine, but you want your mind to be quiet to the words.
6, Write anywhere. If you love to write and you have something to say, you can write anywhere. I know far too many people who approach writing with their snoots in the air. They need a specific location, they need their rituals, they need specific pens and papers or software or whatever. Forget all that. Suck it up and write. When I used to be deeply involved in coaching close-quarters combatives, we would often work/train with military personnel. We would often be told stories of how they would be in the back of a truck, heading towards a hostile zone for combat, and their leaders would tell them to grab a nap. Within minutes everyone would be sleeping. How is that possible? I’d be too nervous to sleep, the bouncing of the truck would keep me awake and so much more. These soldiers were told to sleep (without knowing when they might get another chance to rest), so they went to sleep. When it’s time to write, I think about these soldiers. If they can sleep in those conditions, I can write anywhere. This includes an airport gate, a doctor’s waiting room or whatever. I also love this quote from Henry Rollins: "If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you.” When I want to be a better writer, I think of this quote.
7. Create a schedule. Stick to it. The problem that blogging brought to writing is the ability for anyone to write and publish whenever they wanted. Yes, that’s a problem. To really become a great business writer, you need a schedule and you need to stick to it. When people love and want content, they don’t want it sporadically. They want to feel comfortable with it. They want to know when it’s coming and how frequently they can get it. For this, you need to build a plan and get your readers on a schedule. The best part about this? The schedule also forces you to get much more consistent with your writing.
8. Don’t worry about your voice. I’ve heard many writers tell me that they are still trying to find their voice. Over the years, I have come to believe that every writer does have a voice, but very few will ever know what it truly is or when they found it. Instead of waiting to find your voice, aim for consistency. Consistently force yourself to write and to get better. Work on it. Write. Write some more. What you will find is this: the more you write, the more consistent the quality of your writing becomes, the more it improves overall, and then a voice will emerge. Whether you know it and plan for it or not.
9. Stay healthy. Smoking. Drinking. Fast food. Ah, the life of a writer! It’s going to kill you. It’s going to kill you even faster if you spend the bulk of your waking hours hunched over a MacBook Air. Great words come when your entire body is in good physical and mental shape. This means your mind, body and spirit. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all New Age-y on you, but don’t think for a second that taking the time to have a clean/healthy diet, coupled with a regular exercise regime and some mindfulness exercises won’t improve your output exponentially. It will. I read a great book called, Daily Rituals, that tells the story of the world’s greatest writers and their daily practices. I was, somewhat, shocked (but not all that surprised) at how many of the world’s most loved authors take plenty of time in their day to do some form of brisk exercise along with mental breaks. Just don’t mistaken these activities for procrastination. So, if you’re writing regularly, move regularly and eat wholesome foods.
10. Create an outline. If it’s a short piece of content, just spend a couple of minutes writing out – in bullet-point form – everything that you would like to cover. If it’s for a longer piece or book, prepare a proper outline. My personal preference is to write out a paragraph about what I’m looking to cover (my thesis) and then chapter (or major paragraph) summaries. This works like magic, because if you start writing off-topic, you can keep on going and simply copy/paste that content where it belongs, because you have an outline. Here’s a black belt tip for this: if you’re going to write anything of any significant length, use the software Scrivener. It’s amazing and it enables you to see your outline as you write.
11. Copy your heroes. This may seem contentious, but it’s not. If you read something that is truly compelling, it is because it fits with your style. What are the things that move you? Can you replicate it? What’s your spin on it? I laughed the other week when Chris Brogan published a blog post titled, Seth Godin Said It Already. When you admire someone, their ideas (and the people who inspired them) are bound to leak into your work. Embrace it, study it and put your own reflection on it. If you need more source material for this, check out Austin Kleon‘s clever book, Steal Like An Artist.
12. Always ask questions. Writers think that they have all of the answers. They don’t. The best writers ask great questions, they then use writing as a mechanism to find the answers. Malcolm Gladwell wanted to know how many hours it takes to become an expert, or why we think that Goliath had an unfair advantage over David? If I am ever stumped for something to write about, I choose an article that moved me and simply ask myself, "why?" Why do you agree or disagree with something? Why is your industry the way that it is? What would happen if you could kill your dogma? See. Questions. The more your ask, the more content you will have. Promise.
13. Share your work. Another hat tip to Austin Kleon for this one. He just published his latest book and it’s called (wait for it), Show Your Work! Too many people try to protect, hide and do their writing in secret. The genie is out of the bottle. We all know that great writing is a process. Share the process. We have so many amazing online resources now to connect, share and communicate with one another. You don’t need the permission of an editor to publish your content, and you don’t even need a book publisher to get your book out into the world. In a world where everyone is creating content, why not be someone who shares your work?
14. Be real. Be human. This is, without a doubt, the biggest problem with business writing today. We either have a scenario where the company wants every single syllable to be as boring as their human resources handbook, or we have individuals with a title who feel like everything that they say needs to be at a level where no other human being can understand it. Both of these groups fall into the "we want to appear smart," category of writing. It sucks. It doesn’t work, unless it true, real and authentic. There are smart writers out there (Clay Shirky, Nilofer Merchant and Douglas Rushkoff come to mind), who have big brains, but everything that they write is still very real and real human. This is the ultimate question that people creating business content must ask themselves when they think that they are done creating: is this content real? Is this content human? Will it touch and inspire someone’s heart? If it reads like a press release or corporate drivel, please do yourself (and everyone else) a favor: start over.
15. Ask for input. Don’t be afraid. At every moment that you need it. It could be to validate the core thesis, it could be a final proofing before you hit the publish button. If you’re not confident in your thinking or your words, ask for input. Too many writers in our world believe that the work is a solo venture. Nobody can get the ideas from between your earholes on to the screen (this is true), but there is always someone who may be willing to lend their ears, eyes, hands and brain to help you formulate the piece to make it better. This is why the best writers use editors. Find your editors. Lean on them. Listen to them. Learn from them.
Those are my rules for business writers… what are yours?
I understand the many benefits of #7. Writing is a craft, so it has to be done regularly and consistently. But I wonder if, in the age of RSS and Twitter feeds, if meeting readers’ expectations for regularity is important? It’s been years since I had blogs bookmarked and would go over and visit them and refresh the page to see if something new had been posted. Now whenever something new appears, it comes to me.
Excellent advise! I would add only one thing: Roget’s Thesaurus, the writing companion that keeps me from sounding stale and repetitive… I think?
Great points, Mitch. I’d add one . Think of telling a story, with a beginning and an end, and with characters. In business writing, we often don’t get a chance to do this, but it’s important to look for opportunities. The business writing I’m proudest of are the pieces that also appeal to non business readers, and they do that by telling stories.
Great article with many points to ponder. I have just started to use Scrivener as I’ve had a book sitting on my laptop for….3 years…but got to a point where I wanted to move the chapters around but it was all in one document which made it a challenge. Scrivener has made that much easier. I also use Evernote to do outlines so whenever I have an idea for a post that may come from #1 Read, I can clip the original article (idea) and add to it over time.
Did you say, “It’s OK to not be perfect?”…I think that’s important too.
A reaaaaaallly great list and some great and personal advice. Thank you, Mitch.
So much great advice, Mitch. Thank you.
Great advice for student writers and all writers (not just business writers). For long reports and pieces with a lot of data, I recommend mindjet as an alternative to scrivener. Mindjet allows you to attach your notes to each mindmapped point. Then when you download the mindmap to word, it comes out as an outlined document with all the notes in place. It’s quite easy to write final text from those notes.
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