How to write

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How to write
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No writer should ever write about how to write. It is an invitation to ridicule as readers see the writer is breaking all his own rules. So feel free to chuck the rotten tomatoes and custard pies in my direction as I share what I have been taught about writing. As ever, theory is easier than practice.

Fortunately, we do not have to write like Shakespeare. But a following a few simple rules will make it easier for us to write persuasively. After years of being beaten up by one editor, I figured out he always caught me out with five rules. Here they are:

  • Write for the reader:

    Do not write what you want to write. Work out what your reader needs to hear and why they need to hear it. Then craft your message for that reader. You will find you can reduce your document dramatically this way. My editor was clear about this: “a document is not complete when you can write no more. It is complete when you can write no less”. Brevity is an art form.

  • Tell a story:

    Marshall your facts into a clear and consistent argument. It should have a beginning (this is where we are, the challenge we face) an end (this is where we are going to) and a middle (this is how we are going to get there).

  • Keep it simple:

    Simple means short words and short sentences. Short is easier to understand than long, and is more likely to be read.

  • Make it active:

    The passive tense is boring and pompous; the conditional sounds uncertain and weasel like. Use positive language, positive tense.

  • Support assertions with facts:

    The easiest way to kill your credibility is with a false fact or number: once the reader sees one mistake they will assume the worst. In the words of Warren Buffet “there’s never just one cockroach in the kitchen”.

Shakespeare probably ignored these rules. But he was a genius, he did not have to write business documents and he did not have Sid, my editor, beating him up.


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