You don’t write because you want to say something: You write because you’ve got something to say.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you want to optimize your career, you’ve got to improve your core vocational skill. If you’re a trial attorney, for example, you’ve got to hone your courtroom skills. If you’re an engineer, you’ve got to stay in step with the technological developments of your specialization.
But there’s another thing you should do. You should become a good writer. By good, I don’t mean crafty or artful, but clear and persuasive.
Other than speaking well, no other skill will fuel your career more efficiently than writing. Having advanced technical skills and abilities will earn you a reputation as being a valuable employee. But being able to advance ideas that shape the world around you – that’s a skill that will take you to the top.
When it’s about your career, being a good writer means knowing how to (1) clearly express an important idea and (2) persuade the reader that your idea is a good one. To achieve either objective, you don’t need to have the literary sensitivity of a Cormac McCarthy. But you do need to do certain things.
The Three Biggest Secrets of Good Writing
I’ve mentored and/or edited dozens of writers – beginners, journeymen, and masters. When the writing is bad, 80% of the time it’s attributable to three mistakes: (1) writing about too many ideas, (2) writing fancily, and/or (3) writing vaguely.
When smart people write about complex ideas, they often get into trouble by trying to say too much. Telling the reader everything you know may persuade him that you are knowledgeable (and possibly pompous). But it won’t persuade him to take the action you want.
The easiest way to make your writing clear and persuasive is to limit your communication to a single good idea. In working with writers, I call this the rule of one. By sticking to one good idea, you increase immeasurably the likelihood that your reader will understand it. It also increases the likelihood that you will focus on a truly good idea.
The second most common mistake writers – beginners and masters alike – make is to use flowery language and complicating phrasing. The result is writing that is unnecessarily difficult to read.
There have been many books written on the subject of prose style, and the best among them provide guidelines for keeping your writing simple. You can achieve this simplicity by:
- Never using a fancy word when a simple one will do
- Avoiding clauses (complex and compound) and the passive voice
- Keeping your sentences short (usually less than 10 words)
The Flesch-Kinkaid (FK) online readability checker can help you with this. (You’ll find it on the Tools menu of your editing software.) Hone your sentences till you get the FK score to 7.5 or below and you’ll be fine.
The third most common mistake? Laziness. Trying to prove your point without specifics.
You may have a great idea. And you may be able to express it clearly. But if you can’t prove to your reader why it is true, you will persuade only those that don’t need persuading. To win over the doubters, you have to do some work – research – to compile plenty of convincing evidence.
If you can avoid these three mistakes, you’ll be a good – i.e., clear and persuasive – writer. But if you want to be better than good, follow this bonus advice:
- Keep your paragraphs shortish and varied. If persuasion is the goal, forget about page-long paragraphs. Half a dozen sentences, as a rule, should be the limit. But mix them with shorter paragraphs of three sentences or two or even the occasion single sentence.
- Occasionally begin or end a paragraph with an extra-short sentence. Or string two or three short sentences together to create cadence.
- Literature is invention. Fiction is faction. To carry a story line a true story is an insult to both art and truth.
- The third most common mistake? Laziness. Trying to prove your point without specifics.
- To give your sentences a quick stop-and-go, use the interruptive dash.
- New York is a city ripe with extremes – of wealth and poverty, of creative energy and rage.
- The second most common mistake writers – beginners and masters alike – make is to use flowery language and complicating phrasing.
- Use commands to grab attention.
- Trek to the tops of mountains, the sources of rivers, and the earth’s icebound poles.
- But if you want to be better than good, follow this bonus advice:
- Address your reader directly to make your message personal and compelling.
- As a parent, you want to do everything possible to keep your children from experimenting with drugs.
- The easiest way to make your writing clear and persuasive is to limit your communication to a single good idea. In working with writers, I call this the rule of one.
These guidelines are very simple. But they are also very effective. Put them to use the next time you write a memo or letter. The clarity and strength of your (one) idea should be immediately apparent. And once you get the swing of it, you will become a more powerful and persuasive person.