Welcome to a series on how to write good and how to do other stuff good too.
I’ll be sharing insights into how we do what we do here, including on writing, social media, podcasts, research, and more.
For the first installment, let’s talk about ticklin’ the keys. Here we’ll offer just the basics, but we’ll be discussing more over time. If you have any questions or want more resources for certain styles of writing, ask your humble content team.
This takes practice. My three rules for writing are cut, color, and clarity.
- Cut: Say it with the fewest words possible.
- Color: Give it some personality, which requires detail, detail, and more detail.
- Clarity: Above all, be clear. Edit, edit, and edit some more to make sure what you’re saying is the clearest expression of that idea. Lots of practice required.
Books: The most important book for writing well is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Writers are even better readers, so you first have to learn how to read well. One of my favorite nonfiction pieces is “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schultz. Now that’s great writing.
- Of course, copywriting is a little different than fiction or editorial writing, and for that a great help has been The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly.
- Also consider Copyhackers, started by a long-time tech copywriter.
An essay that really changed me was George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” He has six rules for writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Other classic rules:
- Write what you know.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Try deleting “to be” verbs when possible (is, are, was, were, etc.). This will force you to hunt for more interesting sentences.
Grammar, punctuation, and style
People confuse these three subjects.
Grammar is syntax (word order) and the actual mechanics of language, like cases (objective, subjective, subjunctive) or parts of speech (subject, verb, object, adjective, preposition, etc.).
Punctuation is just the little marks on the screen, like a comma or period. Remember that these marks were invented—WRITINGUSEDTOLOOKLIKETHIS. We’re still sorting out what these marks mean and why, so don’t let others think they’re smarter than you are about them. Those people are snobs who refuse to acknowledge that it’s all a human invention.
Style (similar to what’s called usage) is arguments over whether titles should be capitalized or how you should abbreviate states, for example. There are many types of styles, but the two most popular are AP and Chicago. I prefer Chicago over AP, but marketers and journalists prefer AP for some reason. There are also many types of dictionaries that help with this, but the best are Merriam-Webster (the dictionary preferred by Chicago), The American Heritage Dictionary, and Wordnik. My favorite writer, Christopher Hitchens, called The Oxford English Dictionary the final court of appeal about words and their meanings.
Grammarly is a great first resource to get the hang of it.
Books: The two best books for getting started are The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (see its YouTube video) and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (see its YouTube video). You can get the gist of these books by watching YouTube.
After you get the mechanics down, writing well requires knowing what to say, so knowing our industry helps a lot. We’ll discuss sources for doing so next time.
But in the meantime, business comes down to generating profit. If you can learn about the basics of the economy [YouTube] and the three basic financial statements, you’ll get the hang of how to think like a Work Tech analyst in no time.