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30 Days to Better Business Writing The Bad Language Handbook by Matthew Stibbe

30 Days to Business Better Writing by Matthew Stibbe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at


Preface Wouldn’t it be great if everything you wrote was more interesting, credible and effective? Imagine better website copy, brochures, emails, letters, proposals, blog posts, press releases... You are already a better writer than you think. This book builds on what you already know with some techniques used by professional writers and some guided practice. My name is Matthew Stibbe. I am Writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing, a marketing agency. I write for clients including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, eBay and HM Government. Before that, I was a business and technology journalist. Before that, in the dawn of the internet age, I ran my own software company. This book draws on that experience, my blog and the writing seminars I run for my clients, to try to give you a 30-day course that you can use to improve the way you write. This is not a book of grammar and I’m not going to make you go back to school. If you want guidance on basic written English, I highly recommend Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Economist Style Guide is also excellent. Instead, I want to help you take the basic building blocks and recombine them in a more interesting, compelling and readable way. Mainly, I’m writing for people in business. Perhaps you work in marketing or PR. Perhaps you work in sales and write proposals all day. Whatever you do, you probably write emails, reports and presentations. If you want to improve your writing, this book is for you. Matthew Stibbe Email me: Read my blog: Bad Language Hire me: Articulate Marketing


Table of contents Preface .................................................................................................................................................... 3 Table of contents .................................................................................................................................... 4 Introduction ............................................................................................................................................ 6 How to use this book .............................................................................................................................. 9 Day 1: Be a reporter .............................................................................................................................. 10 Day 2: Interview someone .................................................................................................................... 12 Day 3: Ask the right questions .............................................................................................................. 17 Day 4: Find the story ............................................................................................................................. 19 Day 5: Find the angle ............................................................................................................................ 20 Day 6: Pick the right structure .............................................................................................................. 21 Day 7: Analyse bad writing.................................................................................................................... 23 Day 8: Analyse good writing ................................................................................................................. 25 Day 9: Write like a human being ........................................................................................................... 26 Day 10: Write for readability ................................................................................................................ 28 Day 11: Learn to concentrate ............................................................................................................... 30 Day 12: Play buzzword bingo ................................................................................................................ 32 Day 13: Eliminate the passive ............................................................................................................... 34 Day 14: Use shorter words.................................................................................................................... 35 Day 15: Use fewer words ...................................................................................................................... 36 Day 16: Manage your writing................................................................................................................ 37 Day 17: Get the right tools .................................................................................................................... 39 Day 18: Write a proper brief ................................................................................................................. 41 Day 19: Give good feedback ................................................................................................................. 43 Day 20: Write a great case study .......................................................................................................... 45 Day 21: Write a great press release ...................................................................................................... 47 4

Day 22: Write a better email................................................................................................................. 52 Day 23: Write a blog post...................................................................................................................... 54 Day 24: Write readable web copy......................................................................................................... 58 Day 25: Invent great names .................................................................................................................. 60 Day 26: Write a great presentation ...................................................................................................... 64 Day 27: Find time for writing ................................................................................................................ 66 Day 28: Break writer’s block ................................................................................................................. 68 Day 29: How to work with professional writers ................................................................................... 69 Day 30: Final exercise............................................................................................................................ 71


Introduction "If we don't find something pleasant, at least we'll find something new" - Voltaire

Good writing is a competitive advantage The ability to communicate effectively is a competitive advantage. Yet, in business, good writing is surprisingly rare. We experience bad writing every day: 

Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

Jargon, waffle, hype, verbiage and conventionality get in the way of real meaning.

Emails don’t get to the point or make it too brusquely.

Websites waffle and waste your bandwidth and readers’ time.

In short, business suffers from bad writing. Consequently, deals fail, careers stumble and money is wasted.

The Bad Language manifesto This is my manifesto. I think these truths are self-evident, but the consequences are not. This is what compels me to write this book and what drives the requirement for better business writing. 

You have no right to your readers’ time. They are already as busy as you are. That’s not all. The market for information is becoming more and more competitive. There are more TV channels, more magazines, more newspapers, more emails, more newsfeeds and more websites than there were five or ten years ago. As a result, readers spend nearly all their time doing something other than reading your content. You have to earn their trust, interest and time.

Readability is everything. To earn your reader’s trust and get their attention, your writing needs to be clear, simple and direct. Good spelling, punctuation and grammar are a start. Saying what you mean in the fewest, shortest words possible helps. Using the right format, stories, examples, appropriate metaphors and the right document structure helps too.

See the world from your readers’ perspective. First, be relevant. Too much writing is about the writer, their company and their problems. For example, most marketing campaigns are about what the company wants to sell, not what the audience wants to buy. Second, unless you can see the world through your readers’ eyes, you aren’t going understand the problems they want to solve, the objections they might raise and the things that are going to excite them.

Rule of thumb As a journalist, I would plan to do one interview for each 250-500 words of copy.


Be a reporter. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist priest, but “in the expert’s mind there are few.” We are all experts in our own world and the only way to get past that is to become professional beginners. Editors talk about ‘self-sourcing’, which is where a journalist uses their own experience or ideas as the source for an article. Bad journalists self-source. Good journalists are good reporters. They talk to people. They ask questions. It’s the same for writers.

Writing happens. Those blank pages need to be filled. All those web pages need copy. Because most people can write, they think that writing is a commodity. Something that can be left until later. Something that is a low priority. By analogy, most people can kick a football, but not everyone is David Beckham. Any time you see “lorem ipsum” placeholder copy, it’s a sign that the person in charge doesn’t think writing is important enough. Yet somehow those pages get filled. Writing happens and you always pay for it whether you do it yourself or you get an agency to do it.

Good writing costs the same as bad writing. Substituting good writing for bad writing is free. You always pay for writing. Your time costs money even if you don’t get an agency bill for it. However, you can choose where and how you spend your money. You can get your agencies to write better copy. You can hire a professional writer (Yay! Me!). You can improve your own writing skills. You can change the way you manage writing.

Bad writing is expensive. On the other hand, making no choices is also a kind of choice. The default option in most cases is bad writing. This has a real business cost. Get it wrong and you confuse readers, bore them, lose their trust and waste the money you spent getting them to read your stuff in the first place.

The cost of bad writing Bad writing is expensive. It can have direct operational costs: in 1983, Coleco lost $35 million in just a few months when customers returned thousands of new Coleco Adam home computers because they couldn’t understand the manual. I’m sure you’ve gone to a website to sample a ‘free’ online trial only to be put off by a daunting click-through contract or weasly small print. When I was a journalist, I saw hundreds of press releases that took several hundred words just to clear their throat and get to the point. But, mostly, bad writing is a leaky bucket. Money just drips out in lost opportunities. I think people know this intuitively. When I talk to them, most people admit that they’re not happy with their website or that they’d like more compelling product literature or case studies. This is how I make a living at Articulate Marketing, so I know there is some demand out there! The cost of bad writing is two-fold. First, you lose the money you spent delivering the words to the reader. Expensive website? Waste of money. 50,000 brochures? Recycling fodder. Second, you lose the hoped-for result. Have you ever read a brochure that bored or confused you? Did you buy the product afterwards?


To understand the cost of bad writing, I think we have to go back to why we write anything in the first place. In business, we’re not really bothered about artistic expression or entertainment. What we want is to persuade and inform people. Writing fails if the reader doesn’t understand it, doesn’t believe it or doesn’t remember it or act on it. Consequently, comprehension, credibility and retention are the requirements of business writing. It is possible to track the impact of clear product descriptions on sales, well-written manuals on support calls and snappy website copy on traffic. On the other hand, it is very difficult to add up the costs that come from poor marketing collateral, obscure press releases or badly-worded letters. To help calculate the cost of bad writing, imagine you had a tool that could tell you how successful a piece of writing was at meeting these requirements. The opposite of a bullshit detector. (A good shit detector, perhaps?) It would tell you how readable it was. Think of readability as the ‘clickthrough’ rate for writing.


How to use this book “Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt There are three good ways to use this book: 

Take the 30-day course. The book was written as a step-by-step guide. Each chapter ends with an exercise for you to complete. New sections building on preceding ones. Allow 30-60 minutes per chapter, per day.

Read it like a regular book. Start at the beginning and read through to the end. This is probably the least useful but fastest way to get through the book.

Graze. Browse around, try things out, see how you go. Not efficient but fun.


Day 1: Be a reporter “A good reporter is forever astonished at the obvious.” – Donald Murray Key point: write with information Good writing is grounded in the real world. The reason that so much of it sounds bogus is because it’s like spun sugar. Sweet, tasty but insubstantial. When I wrote for Wired, my editor used to say, ‘report it out’ and what she meant was to go and talk to people and find things out. In other words, she wanted me to write with information, data, facts, observations and not just my own opinion and fancy words. So the first exercise in this book is about finding information and grounding your writing in the real world. What I’m trying to do is to get you to step back from your writing for a moment. Once you have done this a few times as an exercise, it’ll become more and more automatic. The result will be stronger writing. 1. Pick a topic that is important and current to you. For example, a problem you are trying to solve or a product you are trying to sell. 2. Apply your senses to the topic. What can you hear, smell, touch, feel, taste and see? Write down the words that come to mind. There are no right or wrong answers – it’s more a question of paying attention.

Rule of thumb This is the rule of ‘onehalf, one-third, onesixth’. Half my time is spent researching and interviewing. One-third is spent proofreading and editing. Only a sixth is spent actually writing. This is a guideline that I used when I wrote computer games (where the tasks were designing, testing and coding) but it works for writing too. The big difference between copy and code is that paragraphs don’t crash.

3. Use your emotions. How does the topic make you feel? What feelings does it evoke? Does it bring up any memories? Does it create any tension or conflict? 4. Think about the passage of time. What happened before? What will happen later? What preconditions apply to the topic you have chosen? What consequences flow from it? What weight or priority or likelihood do you give to the different consequences? What is the pace of change? 5. You, yourself. How do you stand in relation to your topic? How involved are you? What biases or attractions does it hold? How objective are you? 6. Objective evidence. We’ll come on to the feelings and opinions of others tomorrow when we cover interviews. But right now, can you find any data that applies to the topic? Are there dimensions such as size, weight or volume that apply? Price? Are there any competitors? Can you research the topic online? What hard facts are available?


Jot down your answers and thoughts. At this early stage, I like to use mind mapping techniques, either on paper or using software. Sometimes, I use a more structured outline, such as the outline mode in Microsoft Word. Mostly, though, I have a Word document open and I just type things into it as they occur to me. The important thing is not to lose the information that you gather.


Day 2: Interview someone “The way I work, the interview never becomes larger than the person being interviewed.” – Ken Burns Key point: understand the other person’s point of view The easiest and best way to become a better writer is to learn to see the world from your reader’s viewpoint. What matters to them? What are their problems? What excites them? What do they do when they aren’t reading what you write (which is almost all the time, even if we choose not to believe it)? Interviews matter. Interviews are the foundation of good reporting. This is just as true for business writing as it is in journalism. They are the best way of understanding a complicated situation and seeing it from someone else’s perspective. The word ‘interview’ has negative connotations in business. You go for a job interview or you face a press interview with equal anxiety. But it is nothing more than a focused, professional conversation. I quite like the journalistic connotation which is why I use the word, but if it makes you feel more comfortable, think of it as a chat, a meeting or a conference call. What I want you to do today is go and interview someone. Plan it, book it, do it, take notes, write up your observations and use it in something you write. Here are some examples of people you could interview: 

Someone in another department who will read a report you are writing.

A potential customer who might buy a product you want to sell.

An expert inside your company who has something to contribute to something you are writing. (If you work in a technology firm, when was the last time you actually talked to a programmer or engineer?)

Avoid spokesrobots. Skip the usual suspects – the VPs and the CEOs – and get quotes and input from the guy who designed the hinge and the woman who optimised the code. Go to the shop floor; find the story behind the story.

Preparing for an interview is critical. Here’s how: 1. Find the right interviewee. Long before I got married I asked my friend, who later became my best man, what the secret of a happy marriage was. He said, ‘Find a nice girl and pray she says yes.’ It’s the same with interviewees. (Alistair Cooke had a different recipe for marriage: “Frequent separation and increasing deafness.” This doesn’t work so well for interviews.) 2. Approach them nicely. People find it quite hard to say ‘no’ to requests for help but make sure you explain why you want to interview them and what you hope to get out of it. It can be helpful to say that the interview will be anonymous or that you will let them approve any quotations you write afterwards. 12

3. Choose the right format. Sometimes a face-to-face interview is good. More often, for me, a phone interview works best. It’s easier to schedule, less intrusive and more focused on speaking rather than appearances and body language. 4. Phone interviews. I love phone interviews. There’s something confessional about them and it’s easy to strike up a rapport with someone. I type quickly enough to take a more or less real-time transcript during a phone interview which makes this form of interview particularly efficient. Also, a phone interview cuts out travel time and waiting around for people to turn up. And, it makes interviews much easier to schedule as most people can find 20 or 30 minutes in their diary but a face-to-face interview seems to require an hour and a lot more commitment. 5. Avoid email interviews. I’ve done two or three email interviews in my time and they’ve all been unsatisfactory. The results have been stilted and unnatural. 6. Have a backup. For face-to-face interviews, I prefer to use two recorders or one recorder and hand-written notes. Nothing could be worse than getting back from an interview and finding that you didn’t have any record. Mind you, I ended up spending 15 minutes of an interview with Google’s Sergey Brin talking about digital Dictaphones instead of Google’s future. 7. Have enough time. I was promised an hour-long interview with an airline executive for a profile I was writing for a UK magazine. On the day, the PR involved said it would have to be a 15-minute phone interview. I talked to my editor and we agreed that I should do it, but the three-page feature would be cut to a half-page news item. Left to my own devices, I would have pulled out altogether. 8. Don’t go on too long. Don’t plan on a really long interview. Churchill said that the mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure and I find that telephone interviews pale after about 30-40, minutes so I try to keep them short. 9. Don’t give questions in advance. I don’t prepare questions in advance and I always say ‘no’ to people who ask me to send them a list of questions. Partly, this is because I don’t work that way and partly, because I don’t want people over-preparing. Also, my interviews tend to be quite free-ranging. 10. Avoid group interviews. An interview is essentially a one-to-one situation but many people like to have a colleague join them. Often they do this if they feel that their technical knowledge isn’t up to scratch or they want a PR minder. If I interview two people, it becomes harder to attribute quotes. Also, you miss out on potentially valuable contributions. Only one person can talk at a time. I would rather do two separate interviews. 11. Prepare and research in advance. I don’t usually prepare a list of questions, although I’ll sometimes have a list of topics to cover. However, I do like to Google the interviewee, look up their employer and review other related interviews for angles and questions. I have an interview template in Word and I usually set this up before the interview with all the contact information and some initial thoughts and topics for the interview. 13

12. Confirm the time and date in advance and send reminders. One in four interviewees don’t turn up or aren’t available when I call them. I’ve started sending Microsoft Outlook meeting invitations which form a sort of contract because they have to be accepted or rejected by the interviewee. It’s also helpful to send an email reminder the day before. If you’ve done your preparation well, there’s no need to feel nervous during the interview itself. In fact, it should be an enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation for both people. Your job is to steer the interview while not getting in the way of the flow of conversation or the interviewee’s thoughts. 1. Introduce yourself. I like to introduce myself at the start of every interview. I tell people who I am, my relationship to the publication I’m writing for and what the piece is about. I call it the government health warning. It’s a courtesy, but it’s also a kind of protection. Doing it consistently means that any interviewee knows exactly where they stand. 2. How to record interviews. I like to do interviews on Skype and use HotRecorder to record them to MP3. A headset is a must and I use a Plantronics USB CS60 handsfree headset for Skype calls. This leaves both hands free for typing notes. I also have a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard which is quieter than my old Dell keyboard so that the sound of typing doesn’t intrude on the interview. 3. Observe the legalities. In the UK, you have to tell people you’re recording a conversation because of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, as it is charmingly known. I tend to say, ‘I’m keeping a record of this conversation to make sure I don’t forget anything.’ Even if it weren’t a legal obligation, I think it is a courtesy to say so. I don’t record all my interviews. 4. Transcribe interviews, if you can. I transcribe all my interviews so that I have a Word document on file for future reference. I also find it’s much easier to write something if I have my document open in one window and interviewee comments open in another.

Rule of thumb A 30-minute interview equates to roughly 1,2001,500 words when transcribed.

5. Be yourself. My interview style is discursive, subjective and personal. My favourite interviews are the ones where I find common ground with the person I’m talking to and we have a fun, stimulating conversation. This means I have to come to the party dressed as myself. 6. Be enthusiastic. People like people who like them. They are also conditioned to think of an ‘interview’ as a potentially hostile situation and be on their guard. Consequently, you should be upbeat and positive. Do this genuinely if you can. Otherwise, engage your sincerity simulator. 7. Shut up. You should be talking about 10-20 percent of the time at most. (This is my biggest weakness – I often end up interviewing myself!)


8. Listen hard. Sometimes you can pick up a word or a phrase in an answer which you can play back to the interviewee and get something much more intimate, interesting or honest. Interviews aren’t scripted Q&As, they are intense professional conversations and you need to concentrate. 9. Capture the basic information. I use a template form for all my interviews that captures: name (get the spelling right), job title, contact details, time and date of interview and intended publication. 10. Job titles can be difficult. Sometimes people have very long-winded or obscure titles. These don’t work well on the printed page. If this is the case, I like to get a more informal job description agreed with the interviewee. Tech companies are notorious for acronym-laden job titles. The important thing is to get the interviewee’s agreement to whatever you use. I like to ask: ‘How would you like me to describe you in the article?’ 11. Get past the canned speech. If an interviewee has been media trained, my heart sinks. Usually, it means I have to listen to 10-20 minutes of self-important waffle prepared for them by their PR department. Sometimes you have to let people do their duty and then you can get to the interview. Sometimes asking the same question three times will elicit, on the third go, a more honest, human answer. Building a rapport with them on non-controversial subjects (like their job title or their recent career history) can put them at their ease. I’m not trying to trick people into saying something they don’t want to say. I’m trying to trick them into saying something in a natural, human way. A good interview sounds like an intelligent conversation over coffee not a stand-up PowerPoint presentation. 12. Don’t lose control. Sometimes, especially with self-important interviewees, you can get into a bit of a tug-of-war over who is in charge of the interview. Never forget that you are the CEO of the interview. You don’t have to be bossy but it’s important that you get what you need from the interview and you steer it in the direction you want to go. 13. Focus on what you need. Sometimes people get absorbed in details or get too waffly and abstract. Sometimes you need a specific quote or a good story. A timely intervention is sometimes required to redirect the interview. Phrases like ‘do you have any stories that illustrate that point?’ or ‘how does this relate to the bigger picture?’ can be very useful ways to do this. 14. Ask for collateral. It’s always worth asking if your interviewee has any written material that could add more colour, depth or detail. I find that many of my corporate interviewees – usually experts in their fields – have PowerPoint presentations, a blog or other material and they are usually happy to share it with me. Often this is as useful as the interview because it is the considered articulation of their ideas. 15. Ask if there’s anyone else you should talk to. They might have a colleague or know an independent expert in their field who could give you additional information or a contrary opinion. One introduction beats a hundred cold calls. 16. Be courteous. Say thank you. If you can provide a copy of the final article, do so. 15


Day 3: Ask the right questions I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who. – Rudyard Kipling Key point: what’s important to the reader? A good starting point for any writing is Kipling’s honest serving-men. If you start with what, why, when, how, where and who, you will automatically answer the reader’s most basic questions and ground your writing in truth. There are two parts to this exercise: 1. Take an existing piece of writing and circle the answers to these questions in the text. Something short like a press release or a newspaper article will work very well. PR Newswire is a perennial source of fresh press releases. For a newspaper article, just try Google News. Sometimes, as you move from the whole article to paragraphs and then individual sentences, you may spot gaps and non-answers. Pay special attention to gaps. See how many you can find. 2. Take something from your own recent experience and write a paragraph or two describing what happened. Make sure that you answer each question in what you write. As you complete these tasks, think about how these six questions affect the story: 

What? This question forces you to concentrate on what is important and get to the point. Answering this question with clarity will help you write headlines and opening sentences.

Why? This question forces you to examine motives. Not just of the people in your story or your copy, but also the intentions of your readers and – just as important – your own. Answering the question ‘why?’ is the main way you add value to plain facts. Understanding your reader’s ‘why?’ is the main way of finding what will persuade, entertain or inform them. Understanding your own ‘why?’ will help you focus what you are writing so that it achieves the goal.

When? It’s astonishing how many stories ignore this question. Often, companies deliberately omit it from a press release or a case study in case it makes them look out of date. However, my view is that including the dates helps readers understand the relevance of the case study. For example, even if technology has changed, the service or lessons learned may still be valid. Without a date, a reader may be tempted to dismiss an old story out of hand. Equally, what good is a task allocation email without a deadline?


How? This is where a writer can often supply the most useful insights. How did the project slip? How does the product save you money? How can we solve this problem?

Where? In novels and plays, writers work hard to convey a sense of place. “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows,” from Shakespeare or the “the wine dark seas,” from Homer, just to give two examples. I don’t see why business writing couldn’t be more specific about where things happen and, with telling details, allow the reader to be there too.

Who? Have a look at your website or any of your company’s literature and see how often the subject – the person who is actually doing something – gets left out of sentences and paragraphs. ‘It was agreed...’ is a classic evasion of the basic question ‘who did it?’ Answering this question will make your writing more forceful and easier to read.


Day 4: Find the story “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” – John B. Bogart (Incidentally, I always thought the perfect headline for Wired was “Geek bites robotic dog.”) Key point: humans need stories to understand complex ideas Ultimately, everything you write is a story. The human brain is wired to receive and process stories. The ability to ask ‘what happened next?’ separates us from other animals. Understanding the need for a story will help you communicate better. A good story is: 

Real. It features people, places, times, emotions, facts – all the material you have worked with on days one, two and three. Also – importantly – a story arranges these elements in time to control the effect on the reader. (We’ll talk about this a little more in a later chapter.)

Fresh. Why should people read this today? What’s new? Why is it important? Readers don’t like reading old news – try reading a year-old newspaper to see what I mean.

Relevant. It needs to speak to readers so it must have recognisable human elements. Examples are ‘Scientist makes breakthrough’ or ‘Manager turns round failing company.’ Readers like to identify with people in stories and to learn something from them.

Important. “Company makes new computer” isn’t really that important. “Company makes smallest/cheapest/fastest etc. computer” is. Obviously ‘important’ doesn’t mean earthshattering, but it does mean you have to identify what is special about what you are saying.

Entertaining. Find a way to make information accessible and attractive. Making predictions about the future is one way – “thanks to our new chip, some day, computers will be half the price they are now.” Another is to capture a moment. Think about the discovery of penicillin or Edison’s light bulb. It’s not the science you remember but the moment of discovery. Good analogies always help. “On the surface, this Aston Martin looks like Lord Greystoke but under the hood it’s all Tarzan.” (Jeremy Clarkson is very good at analogies.)

Try reading a newspaper or magazine and seeing how its stories meet these criteria. Try doing the same thing on your company’s last press release or website home page. Shipping News is not my favourite film, but there’s a nice bit in it where the hero has to learn to be a reporter and this is a good illustration of how a journalist identifies a story from a mass of raw data. Today’s exercise is to take what you observed, discovered and authenticated in the first three days of this process and turn it into a story. You can do this as if it were a piece of short fiction, as a newspaper article, or just a list of points in the order you want to make them. Don’t worry too much about the form or the language. Your challenge is to bring life to your data and convey a sense of why it is interesting. 19

Day 5: Find the angle “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Key point: you can’t say everything at once – you need an angle The way you start a piece of writing sets the direction for the whole thing. Consider the first sentence in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.’ Or Seth Godin’s introduction to Small is the new big: “You’re smarter than your boss or your friends or your organization believes.” Big, bold, beautiful sentences. The opening sentence is the reader’s invitation to the party. You have to get it right or else you’ll spend the evening staring at a big room eating hors d’oeuvres on your own. American journalists call them ‘ledes.’ Donald Murray, a Pulitzer winner, says that you should write 50 different ledes and then pick the best one. Today’s exercise is to come up with 50 different ledes (or opening sentences) for the story you worked on yesterday. Or, if you prefer, you can take a story from a newspaper or a piece of news from your own company and write alternate ledes for that. It’ll be a challenge, but the exercise will help you explore all the dimensions of the story. You may not need to write 50 every time, but learning to write different ledes will help all your writing in future.


Day 6: Pick the right structure “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh Key point: match the structure to your objectives Prioritisation is the most important thing that a writer does. We read words one at a time. Since it is not possible to read an entire text in one instant, the writer must control the release of information. There are three basic structures for non-fiction and the choice depends on your objective. 

Inform. When you write to inform the reader, you focus on the control of information. You build from concrete, familiar points to more abstract, novel concepts. The old BBC idea of ‘say what you’re going to say, say it and then say what you have said’ is probably a bit too formulaic, but for informative writing you need plenty of scaffolding to help the reader find their way. Things like prosaic headlines rather than descriptive ones, short declarative sentences and careful explanation of new information help. Examples of informative writing include news, website FAQs, product specifications, manuals and (I hope) this book. Typically, you use an inverted pyramid structure for this kind of writing. You give the highest levels of detail first – when and where the fire happened – and then add layers of detail and information as the text continues. Donald Murray’s book, Writing to Deadline, is the best introduction to this type of writing. I highly recommend it.

Persuade. Consultants need to persuade their clients that their proposals are worth implementing. Salespeople need to persuade customers to buy their wares. A lawyer needs to persuade a jury that that someone is guilty or innocent. With me so far? Getting the reader to agree with your premise – as I have tried to do in this paragraph – is the first step in persuasion. It is all about control of the argument. In many cases, persuasive documents begin with a problem statement. If they agree with that, they will be more receptive to your proposals and solutions. If the initial assertion or problem is complicated, breaking it down into a hierarchical pyramid of sub-problems and sub-solutions means that you quickly develop a pyramidal structure. This is a very brief introduction to the ideas in Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle. This is another book that should be on every writer’s bookshelf. For more on the psychology of persuasion, check out Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: They Psychology of Persuasion.

Engage. If you want to capture a reader’s attention and engage or entertain them, you may choose something other than a strictly linear or hierarchical style. Anyone who has given a speech or told a joke will be familiar with a narrative structure. The secret is the control of suspense. It’s not what you say but how and when you say it. Alistair Cooke was the master of this conversational style in his Letters from America. More recently, this discursive style is in vogue with presenters at the presentation-fest TED. In business writing, you can use this effect in conjunction with the other structures. For example, you can open a white paper with a story about a customer or you can begin a presentation with a poignant joke. As 21

business communication becomes more personal and more human, this style will become more common. Watch this space. Your mission today is to find an example of an inverted pyramid (easy, go and read a newspaper), a pyramid structure and a piece of controlled suspense. For extra credit, try writing the story you developed over the last few days using each of the different structures.


Day 7: Analyse bad writing “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.” – Colin Powell Key point: the first step to good writing is to avoid bad writing Everyone can write. But not everyone can write well. We all learn to write at school, but then society makes a distinction between ‘writers’ and ‘the rest of us.’ A writer sits in a garret and writes the great American novel. The rest of us write memos. It’s a false division. Because everyone can write, people underestimate the importance of writing and overestimate their own ability. It pays to learn from other people’s mistakes. What comes out of most companies is bad. In my experience, there are seven types of bad writing: 1. Thinks too much of itself. Private Eye runs a regular column lampooning the abuse of the word ‘solution.’ For example, Dow Corning’s “Innovative solutions for wound management,” which means “bandages.” This kind of word inflation devalues meaning and arouses the scepticism of readers. 2. Is too clever by half. For some reason, people are afraid to write how they speak. They want to sound big, grown-up and clever. So they use big words and long sentences. For example, I was presented with this beauty at a school board meeting once: “The Governing Body are agreeing this budget as the financial mechanism to support the education priorities of the school as identified in the School Development Plan and will adhere to the best value principles in spending its school funding allocation.” It meant, “We approve the budget.” 3. Gets hyped up. The latest thing is always ‘cutting-edge’, ‘high-performance’ and ‘advanced.’ The danger of hype is that readers over-discount it when they read it. Also, too many adjectives make sentences hard to read. Another manifestation of hype is the press release Frankenquote. These monsters are made-up quotations that bear no resemblance to normal speech. For example: “Nortel has established a legacy in innovation and will continue to push the envelope…” Try saying that in a pub to your friends. See if they still listen to you afterwards. Or trust you. 4. Tells lies. In the UK, journalists score low in public trust. Somewhere near politicians and spin doctors. However, good journalists are obsessive about research, accuracy, good reporting, details and, yes, truth. What works for newspaper stories also works for business communication. Level with your audience. Put your best argument but don’t pretend that there is no other point of view. 5. Ignores the reader. As a writer, the greatest skill is to think about what the reader needs to hear, not what you need to say. It takes an imaginative leap. For example, Google says “Please read this carefully, it’s not the usual yada, yada.” Microsoft says “This software is licensed under the agreement below.” Which one is more likely to be read? 23

6. Needs to go on a diet. Most writing can be improved by liposuction. Consider the Gettysburg Address – just 272 words. This is especially true when writing for the web, when you need to cut the word count by about 50 percent. 7. Has no direction. My favourite tutor at Oxford told me that I had to take my essays and drive them like Ayrton Senna (a famous racing driver). Good writing has a strong purpose. Bad writing has either no direction or has too many. Today’s mission is to try to find an example of each type of bad writing. You can use copy you have written yourself, copy from your own business or from a magazine or newspaper.


Day 8: Analyse good writing “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” – Confucius One way to improve your business writing is to read good non-fiction prose. It is a pleasure in itself. It also reveals how professional writers solve their writing problems: telling a story, choosing quotes, showing people and places etc. It doesn’t have to cost anything – most magazines publish free articles online. Here are some recommendations – you won’t read a badly written, badly edited article in any of them:    

The Atlantic The New Yorker The Economist Wired

The New Yorker is my favourite. At its best, the writing in it is dizzyingly good. A friend of mine works at Vanity Fair, a few floors above the New Yorker in their shared Times Square offices in New York. One time, when I visited him, I got out of the lift on the New Yorker floor and did homage at the door. It’s that good. When I started contributing to Wired, I used to take two or three articles from each issue and dissect them like a medical student. I used to paste the text into Word and then take it apart and make notes on what I liked, how the piece was structured, how the writer achieved his or her objectives, what techniques worked, what techniques didn’t etc. I’d like you to try the same thing yourself. Take some writing that you admire and break it down and see what lessons you can learn for your own work.


Day 9: Write like a human being “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.” – Ernest Hemingway Key point: for maximum impact, relax and write like a human “Bill Gates once asked me, ‘Could you make me more human?’ I said, ‘Being human is overrated.’” This quotation is doubly priceless because it comes from Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. However, when it comes to writing, being human is essential. Good writing is relaxed, direct and natural. Here are some tips for writing something that reads like a human being wrote it: 1. Write conversationally. You can recreate a conversation in prose by changing the way you write. Avoid the passive. Use occasional colloquialisms. Use everyday abbreviations, such as ‘don’t.’ But that’s only a start. You don’t need to write up every ‘umm’ and ‘ah’ but it’s okay to throw in the odd ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘but’ etc. 2. Picture a human reader. I have often interviewed people who can explain very complex ideas simply and directly, but when they start writing they turn into robots. When they talk to me, they know they’re talking to a human, but when they write, they picture a scary reader. A lawyer, an examiner or a sceptical customer. So, when you are writing, picture a friendly reader and talk to them. You can even invent a persona for your reader; imagine what they do, where they work, their hobbies etc. 3. Interview yourself. I have already talked about the value of interviewing people. Some of my best lines come from interviewees. But how about interviewing yourself? Try explaining what you are saying to someone else and write down what you say. 4. Short sentences. Conversation is rarely made up of paragraphs. It’s more like a David Mamet dialogue. Short and snappy. Well, dog my cats. 5. Short words. Unnecessarily long words make you look dumb and most people don’t use them in conversation. (Stephen Fry is a charming exception.) Use ‘get’ instead of ‘acquire,’ ‘choose’ rather than ‘select,’ ‘talk to’ in place of ‘engage’ etc. 6. Marketing speak. Words you would not use with your family or friends have no place in people-centred writing. Solution, market-leading, cutting-edge, award-winning, optional etc. etc. 7. Break the rules. Lynn Truss be damned. If it makes the writing better, you can start sentences with ‘but’, ‘so’, ‘because’ and ‘and.’ Finish sentences with a preposition and split infinitives. Why not?


8. Don’t be afraid of humour. I just finished Gore Vidal’s autobiography, Point to Point Navigation, and it has a great gag in it. At a wedding, someone said to him, ‘I’m always a bridesmaid but never a bride.” He replied, “Always a godfather, but never a god.” Humour and politics separate us from the animals. Use it. Just be funny. 9. Embrace the exclamation mark. Yes, I know the grammar Nazis will come and take away my keyboard. But if you want to sound like a real person, you could give it a try. Go for it! 10. Use everyday metaphors. Ground your writing in familiar things. ‘It’s like...’ or ‘as if...’ 11. A sense of person, place or time. Include something biographical or descriptive that shows that the author is a real person. “I’m writing this at the kitchen table…” or “When I was at university…” The master of this kind of writing was Alistair Cooke. Somehow he managed to make the serious sound informal. It’s worth looking at (and listening to) some of his Letters from America. The conversational style works in business too. There are plenty of examples, but Virgin and Apple are two companies that do it particularly well. Today’s homework is 1) to find examples on the internet of companies that use the conversational style and to read through some copy and analyse how they achieve the effect, and 2) to take something from your own company or your own writing and rewrite it so that it’s more conversational.


Day 10: Write for readability “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein Key point: increase readability to make text memorable and credible Readability measures how easy your text is to read. Not everyone reads at a university level. In fact, if you want your copy to be read and understood by the ‘general public’ you need to write for a reading age of 12 or 13. But even if you are writing technical articles for a PhD-level audience, you will increase the credibility and retention of your material if you increase the readability of your text. In my view, readability has two components. The first is the ‘hygiene’ factors that make a piece of writing hard to read. Examples include: 

Speed bumps. Punctuation marks and other symbols are speed bumps for the eyes. I recommend using ‘and’ instead of ‘&’ and ‘percent’ instead of ‘%.’ Avoid unnecessary commas and other punctuation marks.

Capital letters. Technology companies and lawyers are guilty of over-capitalising Important Nouns unnecessarily.

Unnecessary acronyms. Readers have to unpack abbreviations to understand a sentence. This is especially true if they are new terms. It’s much better to use everyday language. If you do use acronyms, unless they are very commonplace (for example, CD and PC), make sure that you explain them early and often.

The passive voice. The brain has to work harder to process a passive sentence.

Long sentences. Avoid subordinate clauses, sub-sentences in brackets, run-on sentences separated by colons or semi-colons. Just say it. And then move on.

Long paragraphs. Bullet lists, like this one, and short paragraphs help people to understand what information belongs together. Long, dense paragraphs, on the other hand, make the reader work harder.

Long words. Short words are much better. More memorable and easier to absorb. Long words make the reader think and potentially exclude readers with smaller vocabularies.

Mistakes. Spelling and grammatical mistakes. Typos. They trip the reader up and force them to substitute the correct words.

The second component of readability is more positive. It comprises the techniques used to make writing memorable, credible and compelling. They teach whole courses on this at journalism school, but among the things that work in business writing are: 

Avoiding anything that switches off readers: unsubstantiated claims, jargon, hype


Using strong verbs, good analogies, pithy quotations

Eliminating clichés and waffly throat-clearing

Credible data from the real world

Citing believable authorities

Well-written introductions, titles and subheads

Making the first and last sentence of each paragraph especially clear

The first step to changing something is to measure it. Readability statistics, such as the Flesch Grade Level etc. These tools give you objective feedback on how readable your text is by measuring word length, number of syllables, words per sentence and per paragraph. By comparing these measures against tested reference material, they give you a reading age or score for your text. They don’t ‘read’ the text, just analyse it using a set of rules. They are a useful benchmark and give helpful feedback, but don’t rely on them to the exclusion of good judgement. Microsoft Word has a tool that will give similar results. You can get a readability plug-in for WordPress (my blogging tool of choice). There is an online readability checker on my website. It checks web pages or pasted text. Today’s exercise is to take a piece of existing text, perhaps from your current work or from a business website, and edit it to improve readability. Use a readability checker on it before you start to get a baseline score and see if you can improve that score by a grade level.


Day 11: Learn to concentrate “Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put on an orgy in my office and I wouldn't look up. Well, maybe once.” – Isaac Asimov Key point: you can’t write well if you are distracted When I am up against a deadline and I absolutely, definitely have to get on with my work, I use a few tactics to force myself to concentrate: 1. Switch off email. I don’t start Outlook (or if I do, I disable all the notifications that tell me I have new mail). 2. Isolate myself. I use Bose noise-cancelling headphones but don’t plug them into anything. The silence really is golden. 3. Greed and guilt. I remind myself how much money I’m getting paid for a particular assignment and how ashamed I will be if I miss the deadline. This actually works sometimes. 4. Stop with the blog already. When I’m pressed for time, distractions like blogging and hoovering become very compelling. Knowing this makes it easier to resist. 5. Get up early. 6am is the most productive time of day for writing. No distractions. It also feels more virtuous than staying up late with work. 6. Little treats. I bribe myself: ‘Matthew, if you write another 500 words, you can have a cup of tea and a biscuit.’ 7. Chunking. Setting a timer or alarm clock for 15, 20, 30, 50 minutes and doing nothing but writing until it goes off and then taking a break seems like a good way to make progress. I have a free concentration and meditation timer on my website that will help you keep your focus on your work for a given period of time.

Rule of thumb

It takes about 15 minutes to really settle down and concentrate on my work. Psychologists talk about a ‘flow state’ where you commune with the work you are doing and sort of merge with it to the exclusion of the outside world. This is why concentration is so important and why interruptions are so deadly to productivity. This means that every interruption wastes at least 15 minutes. Source: the wonderful, wonderful book Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister.

8. Go full screen. Switching Word into full screen mode (from the view menu) eliminates all distractions but the piece I’m working on. You can also use a distraction-free editor to focus completely on the words on your screen. There is a list of editors on my blog. 9. Shitty first draft. Splitting the work into distinct writing and editing phases breaks the job down nicely and it takes off some of the pressure to ‘get it right first time.’ 10. Change location. Sometimes, if I’m really struggling to get started, taking a laptop or my notebook to a cafe and scribbling out something there – a fresh new location – is a good way to jolt-start an assignment. 30

11. Switch off the phone and shut the door. The book Peopleware describes experiments using programmers – another job that requires concentration – that test productivity. People who were able to shut out noise, interruptions and unwanted phone calls were significantly more productive than people who couldn’t. In fact, of six environmental factors that affected productivity, five related to interruptions. 12. Meditate or take a nap. Churchill was a great advocate of midday naps. A 15-20 minute power nap can leave you more focused and attentive. Meditation can also help calm the mind and, over time, it can increase your powers of concentration. Some writers, including Stephen King, take a walk and clear their mind that way. 13. Schedule time to write. Setting a regular time to write will help. Philip Glass, the composer, writes music at the same time every day and he says that this helps summon the muse. 14. Avoid multitasking. Technology has made us all task-switchers. Twitter, email, phones, text messages etc. etc. But, in an Atlantic article, The Autumn of the Multitaskers, the author argues multitasking messes with the brain. “At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires – the constant switching and pivoting – energises regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.” It also increases stress, confusion and fatigue. Learning to do one thing at a time will make us more productive. Today’s activity is simply to think about your working environment and the times when you are actually writing. Try these techniques and see which ones work for you. Take the time to stand back from the hustle of your life and see if you can improve it a little.


Day 12: Play buzzword bingo “I think my whole generation's mission is to kill the cliché.” – Beck Key point: buzzwords and business clichés are the opposite of effective writing I heard a great joke the other day: “If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one of them would write Hey Hey We’re the Monkees!” It came back to me this morning as I was thinking about buzzwords. I mean, how do people come up with the jargon that gets stuffed into business writing? Here is a list of some of the worst offenders (hat tip: BBC):                          

Going forward Bandwidth Cascading Granularity Drill down Anything 2.0 Stakeholders 110% Touch base Offline Incentivise Pre-plan Action (as a verb) From the get go Visibility (on some issue) Deliverables Low-hanging fruit Holistic End-to-end In this space Bandwidth (as applied to anything outside telecoms or computers) Traction Proactive Outreach Solutions Ecosystem (as applied to anything outside biology)

I don’t know where it comes from but Buzzword Hell is good place to send it. It’s the Room 101 for words you hate. You can nominate words you don’t like (today it’s “paradigm shift” and “blogosphere”) and people can vote for them. Buzzword bingo is a favourite game and there’s even a website that generates new playing cards on a random basis. There are also a couple of buzzword dictionaries. The first is BuzzWhack. There are some nice ones here. Finally, there is the fabulous and still-poignant The Devil’s Dictionary. Bullfighter is a free add-on for Microsoft Word that will scan your prose for clichés.


Today’s objective is to see if you can find any of these phrases in your writing, on your company’s website and/or in any of the emails you sent or received in the last week. Email me with the best examples.


Day 13: Eliminate the passive “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” – Strunk and White Key point: avoid the passive if possible The passive voice makes reading more difficult. Either it reverses the natural order of a sentence (‘the mat was sat on by the cat’), it hides the subject altogether (‘the mat was sat on’) or it makes a sentence flabby (‘there was a cat on the mat’). In any case, it makes the reader’s job harder. You can check for the passive voice using the grammar checker in Microsoft Word. I have two exercises today: 1) take a few hundred words from a newspaper article and rewrite it in the passive voice. See if it reads any better. 2) take a typical piece of business prose, ideally from your own company’s website or a press release from PR Newswire, count the number of passive sentences and see if you can rewrite them in the active voice.


Day 14: Use shorter words “I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same money for city. I never write policeman, because I can get the same money for cop.” – Mark Twain Key point: short words are more effective than long ones Short words are best. Now we have proof. The March 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly cited a piece of research that shows that, besides clouding the meaning, the use of long words actually makes the reader think the author is stupid. I love it when scientists have a sense of humour. The title of the research illustrates the problem eloquently: ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.’ The author, Daniel Oppenheimer, got 71 Stanford undergraduates to evaluate different writing samples. He created a ‘highly complex’ version of each original text by replacing each noun, verb and adjective in it with the longest synonym. This is the kind of writing by thesaurus that many business people and techies employ when they want to sound knowledgeable and important, or because they think writing like they speak will make them sound lightweight. Thanks to Oppenheimer, we know that the opposite is, in fact, true. He says “One thing is certain, write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.” Here are some examples of common long words and shorter, better equivalents: • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Additional (extra) Advise (tell) Commence (start) Consequently (so) Forward (send) In accordance with (under, keeping to) In excess of (more than) In respect of (for) In the event of (if) Particulars (details) Purchase (buy) Regarding (about) Terminate (end)

This list comes from the Plain English Campaign’s guide: How to write plain English. The exercise today involves finding a typical piece of writing from your business and replacing as many three- and four-syllables words as possible with shorter ones. The objective is to train you to automatically substitute shorter words wherever possible.


Day 15: Use fewer words “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery Key point: you don’t need as many words as you think Your readers spend more time reading other people’s work rather than yours. If you can get to the point and be brief about it, you’ll earn their thanks and their attention. Most business writing has too many words. Press releases typically run to 500 words or more when 200-300 would do fine. Clients often ask me to write 1000-word case studies when half that is more readable and more engaging. Why is this? Partly, it’s the way it’s always been done. Sometimes, document templates and web designs force people to write more words to fill an arbitrary space created by a graphic designer. More often, it’s because people lack the will to do enough editing. Was it Mark Twain who wrote: “I’m sorry to write you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”? Today’s exercise is simple. Find a piece of writing that runs to about 1,000 words. Two pages of A4 or a long online article will do. Then edit it in Word so that it is 500 words long. Then take that version and cut it down to 100 words, then 50, then 25. See what is left of the story at each stage. The purpose of this work is to practice editing for length and also to see how much of an article remains even after you cut the number of words dramatically. Here’s a tip: it’s often easier to paraphrase or remove paragraphs or sentences than it is to try to achieve a big cut by snipping a word here or there. The end result still has to be readable and natural when you’ve finished it. Microsoft’s word count feature will help. Also, if you can find it, Word has an autosummarise tool. Just search for ‘summarise’ in Help.


Day 16: Manage your writing "T'ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)" – Melvin "Sy" Oliver and James "Trummy" Young Key point: avoid the circumstances that turn good writing bad So far, we have been looking at the mechanics of writing – where ideas come from and how to bring them to life on the page or screen. Now it’s time to stand back from the keyboard and spend some time thinking about the external factors that affect writing. Today, you need a framework that allows good writing to happen. In other words, it’s all about managing your writing. First, let’s look at some of the things that can contribute to bad writing in a company: 1. Dirty briefs. Luckily, I’ve only had a few pieces go off the rails. In each case, I can trace the problem back to an unclear, or non-existent, brief. Remedy: mutual understanding between client and writer is essential and a brief is how you get it. We’ll look at the art of writing a good brief in a few days. Another step that can reduce hostile feedback is the use of detailed outlines or skeletons. If you have to write a 2,000-word brochure, write a 200-word outline of the contents and get your colleagues to give feedback on that before you start on the main event. 1. Group-think. Lawyers, academics and technology firms are notorious for writing things “because this is the way we’ve always done it.” Often my role in life is just to be the person who hasn’t been house-trained. Remedy: read and write outside your field or company. Challenge convention to ensure that it serves the needs of readers. 2. Brand Nazis. Some people in big companies use brand bibles and conventions to turn good prose into ugly corporate speak; typically with too many capital letters (speed bumps for the eyes), impenetrable product names and trademark symbols everywhere. Remedy: learn the rules and find out what you can get away with. Use before and after examples to show why you recommend a different approach. Like health and safety regulations, brand guidelines are often used as an excuse for stupid decisions and conventionality. It’s less risky to write like a corporate robot but it is also less effective. If you know the guidelines better than everyone else, you will know when people are using them for cover. Even better, try writing your own (if you don’t have any) or contributing to rewriting your existing guidelines (if you do). 3. Editing by committee. This is best illustrated by a video nasty: If Microsoft designed the iPod packaging. I try to get my clients to nominate one person to act as an editor and be the focal point for all internal feedback so that I get a single set of comments. Working within an organisation, it’s important to agree who gets to sign off the document and who gets to give feedback. Agree an editorial structure with your colleagues. The people with sign-off have a power of veto and you want to keep that number to a minimum. You also need to make sure that you are clear with everyone that you want feedback not rewrites. Get them to tell you 37

what they want to change and why but not how they would rewrite it. Like broth, too many cooks can spoil a document. 4. Death by redlining. I love getting feedback face to face or on the phone. I hate redlined documents. It’s like a theatre director giving line readings to an actor rather than helping them explore the character and give a stronger performance. (Line readings = “when you say this line, raise your right eyebrow.” Yuck!) Remedy: try to get feedback in person or ask them to give feedback by email or in comments rather than change the text itself. I sometimes send people documents in PDF format so that they can’t edit the actual text. 5. Bad environment. Writers, like programmers, need a good working environment that is free from distractions and designed for the purpose. I recommend Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Even though it is about software development, almost everything in it applies equally to writers. 6. Death march to publication. It’s easy to let standards slip and lose concentration when you’re faced with a tight deadline and lots of interruptions. Try to agree sensible deadlines and manage your workload. When I was at university, I always seemed to write my essays the night before they were due. Now I earn a living as a writer, I tend to get things done a few days early. This is a good habit to get into. 7. No process. When I’m working on a case study or a press release, I like to agree a workflow with my clients before I start. I recommend you do the same, either as part of the briefing process or as part of your planning. 8. Today’s homework is to review the writing you do regularly and see if these (or any other) management problems occur. See if any of the proposed remedies, such as agreeing an editorial structure or workflow, might work. Instigate one change today and the rest to your to do list.


Day 17: Get the right tools “Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” – George Herbert Key point: good tools will help you write better A good workman needs good tools. Here are some that have helped me. Your homework today is fun and easy: just try them out, look them up and see what might work for you. 

Inspiration. Try the Oblique Marketing Strategies that I wrote to help me brainstorm marketing problems.

Silence. I often use Bose noise-cancelling headphones when I’m writing to shut out extraneous noise, but other people prefer earplugs. I use them on planes and I prefer the smooth ones to the foam type.

Distraction-free word processors. These are simple editors that cut out all the distractions on your computer screen, leaving you free to concentrate on the words. Mac users: try WriteRoom, Windows users try Q10. You can also tweak Word to make it a bit less distracting. See Amit Agarwal’s tips. There are more options and reviews on my blog.

A nice cup of tea. Caffeine can serve as a thoughtful break, stimulant and a reward. Samuel Johnson, the ‘harmless drudge’ who produced the first English dictionary, drank a lot of tea. I’ve seen his teapot in my old college in Oxford – it’s huge! Johnson once said ‘no man but a blockhead writes, except for money.’ My hero. George Orwell drank a lot of tea too. In fact he wrote an article about brewing and pouring the perfect cup, although some of his findings are still passionately disputed. I use disposable Teeli filter bags to make single cups of tea with real tea leaves. Making a whole pot and then pouring it through a strainer is just too much business for one cup of tea.

Time-tracking software. Try Harvest, SlimTimer or just an Excel spreadsheet to track how you spend your time. This is useful for me as a way of costing my work. For employees, it can give you feedback on your productivity and also justify how much time you spend writing to your bosses and colleagues.

Mindmapping. This is a great way of getting your thoughts from your brain to the page. Of course, a blank sheet of paper and a pen will do fine but I sometimes prefer using software such as ConceptDraw Mindmap or MindJet MindManager.

Forming habits. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” I like Joe’s Goals, a free website that helps your encourage good habits.


Definitions on Google. If you type ‘define:lugubrious’ (or whatever word you want) into Google, you’ll get a selection of definitions. This is useful to check if a word means what you think it means.

Visual thesaurus. I like Visual Thesaurus. It’s especially helpful when hunting for a good product name. There is a completely free alternative called Visuwords.

Website mockup tools. Web designers seem to have a monopoly on the look and feel of websites, but writing is important too. Rapid prototyping tools such as Balsamiq Mockups can help you see how text looks on a web page without spending a small fortune on graphic design first.

Notebook. I use a Filofax slimline organiser, not to manage my diary, but as a simple reporter’s notebook. I scribble away and then I can shuffle the pages, throw away the rubbish and file the notes once the story is completed. Many people love Moleskine notebooks. Partly because of their retro bohemian credibility and partly because they are well made of good materials and paper and feel satisfying to use. I use one as a journal to scribble my thoughts in every day. My wife uses a foolscap one for her ‘morning pages’ (after Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way).

Get a style guide. You can check Economist Style Guide online but it’s better to buy a paper copy for your reference shelf. The Plain English Campaign’s guide: How to write in plain English is shorter and it could be a useful starting point for an in-house or personal style guide.

Writer’s reference sites. There are many, many useful reference sites. Here are a few: • • • • • • • • • • •

The Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices Data Visualization: Modern Approaches MBA in a Page (hat tip to Guy Kawasaki) Top 1,000 Web 2.0 sites (probably most useful for geeks like me) Purdue’s Online Writing Lab – grammar and writing guidelines Economist Style Guide online Wikipedia. A good starting place for research but not a primary source for journalism Online Etymology Dictionary offers a brief history of words Plain English Campaign’s A to Z of Alternative Words


Day 18: Write a proper brief “Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing... layout, processes, and procedures.” – Tom Peters

Key point: good writing starts with a good brief Great buildings start with an architect’s drawings. Even Ikea shelves come with assembly instructions. To write well, you need a clear brief. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate formal document. It doesn’t have to be a document at all if you can answer all the basic questions in your head or by reference to something you have done before. But you do need it. Here is the outline of the briefing document I use with my clients. 

Title. The name of the piece or project.

Client. The contact details of the individual who commissioned the piece and (if different) my day-to-day contact and the person who will sign it off as complete.

Objectives. What does the client want to happen because this piece has been written? (Are these goals self-consistent and realistic?)

Length. How many words? (Or page-equivalents?) It’s astonishing how many clients don’t even consider this, but for a writer it’s fundamentally important. Words are our trade and word count is how we measure it.

Target audience. Who is the project aimed at? The more detail I have about this, the better job I can do. Ideally, aim for thumbnail sketches of typical readers. What else do they read? What are the concerns and priorities?

Controlled vocabulary. Are there words or phrases that we can assume the audience knows? For example, writing for an audience of programmers requires a different vocabulary than writing for doctors. Are there words we absolutely have to use AND explain? A particular concern here is words and phrases that mean a lot to the client and nothing to a reader.

Style. English or American English? Case studies, press releases and, especially, white papers all have different meanings to different people so spell out EXACTLY what is required. Reference other media where appropriate. For example: ‘This piece should read like an article in the Economist or FT.’ Are there any special client requirements such as tone of voice, trademark or style guides? If so, have they been provided and is there a contact to review and assist with getting them right?

Synopsis. A paragraph long or bulleted summary of the piece setting out the main points and the running order. 41

Delivery format. Microsoft Word? HTML? Are pictures required? Footnotes and sourcing? Documents intended for use online must be written differently from print documents, so this distinction is especially important to get clear.

Third parties. Are there any other parties who need to be involved, either by providing content or approval? Typically, this can include PR or marcomms agencies.

Client resources. What will the client provide to make the piece happen: interview contracts, access to spokespeople, samples, reports, data etc. etc? Ideally, this lists everything so that the client has a clear understanding of what their tasks are.

Fees, rights, schedule. What media and territories are involved? Whose name will be on the piece? Is copyright assigned or licensed? What about moral rights? What is the schedule and final deadline? What is the fee and when is it due? What is the approval process? What rights are reserved, for example the right to use the piece for my marketing?

Your project today is to create a brief for some writing that you have planned.


Day 19: Give good feedback “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” – Ken Blanchard Key point: good feedback is the way to get better writing from other people If you want to get good writing out of other people – colleagues, employees, agencies – then you need to master the art of feedback. It’s the old Barbara Woodhouse method: train the owner, not the dog. You can give feedback on a specific piece of writing or, with a bit more work, you can give feedback that helps the writer do a better job in future. Here are some tips: 

Read it all before commenting once. Often people give me feedback and there are many comments on page one, a few on page two and none on page three. Why? Because most of the comments are about things they felt were missing but which were, in fact, dealt with later in the article. Give feedback on the whole text with a special focus on the first paragraph and the last one.

Proofread (at least) three times. First from start to finish for sense. Then from back to front for typos, grammar and passive-elimination. Then word by word, very slowly and read out loud, to tidy up. Also, use a spelling and grammar checker.

Be specific. If something doesn’t work for you, explain why. If something is missing, tell the author. If there are factual errors, give them the sources so that they can find out the right answers themselves. Use comments in Word rather than making changes to the text, so that you explain your thinking. Editing is a conversation not a dictatorship.

Check sources. If there are facts and figures, always query the source. A good writer should have a list of sources for their work. I usually put sources in footnotes as a reminder. If the writer isn’t in the habit of noting down sources, your checks will ensure that they do in future.

Positive feedback helps. My grandmother said: ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ It’s not quite the same with feedback. If you can’t say anything constructively negative, say something positive. If you say what works and what you like, writers will do more of it in future.

Readability stats. You can use readability stats to give some objective feedback. (There is a readability calculator on my company website.) Don’t rely on them exclusively but, if a piece of writing seems very hard to read, they’ll give you a yardstick to measure the difficulty.

Use a proofreader. I am a professional writer and I use a proofreader for my client work. Every magazine and newspaper has desks full of subeditors and fact checkers. Why? Checking your own work is very difficult – you get word-blind. You can use a professional 43

proofreader or you can find a detail-obsessed colleague to do it. This is not about editing for style. It’s punctuation, spelling, grammar and so on. 

Resist committee writing. Assess your own writing skills and those of your team and allocate jobs and roles accordingly. Everyone can write but not everyone is a writer. Separate the roles of editing, proofreading, subediting and writing.

Check the final draft. Editing introduces errors. Especially when it is done by redlining in Word. Check the final draft to make sure you haven’t added any errors during the review process.

Your task today is to take a piece of writing and give feedback on it. If you can’t find anything from your own business, you can give me feedback on this book. (Be gentle!)


Day 20: Write a great case study “The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein Key point: good writing makes case studies much more effective Case studies help companies win business. We’re in a demand-generation, deal-closing economy and good customer evidence is the laser-guided bomb of marketing. By showing how real customers used your product or service, you can convince other people to buy it. Here are ten tips that will help you write and use great case studies. 1. Go for the story, not the name. Most marketing people lust after the hero case study with big brand recognition. The reality is that these guys rarely want to give case studies and, if they do, they rewrite everything and take a long time to approve it. Better to find the willing customer with a good story. When it comes to PR, the most successful case studies I’ve written have been about unknown, niche companies with a great spokesperson and a neat angle. 2. Find a champion and build rapport. Case studies can’t be written by committee. You need to find a champion for your case study inside the target company. Ideally, they have the authority to approve it too. I prefer to make first contact with this person, interview them, get their feedback and their sign-off so that every contact builds a friendly, one-to-one relationship between me, the writer, and them, representing the company. Too many cooks etc. 3. Real interviews with real people. The foundation of a good case study is a good interview. I like to interview my client’s account manager and the most senior guy at the target company who is willing to become a case study champion. Sometimes, because I work in tech, I need a techie interview as well to get the facts right. 4. Use case studies to support sales. If a case study has a good story – “our client cut costs by 25%” – use it to show potential customers how they can do the same. Arrange case studies on your website by benefit or topic rather than company name so that sales people can find the right story when they need it. 5. Keep them short. Nobody has time to read a four-page, 1,000 word case study. I recommend 500 word case studies and, ideally, you want a 50-100 microcontent version to go on the website and to use as a verbal summary in a sales pitch. A PowerPoint ‘wincard’ version is also helpful for sales. Each version needs to be written for its medium – web copy is not the same as printed copy or PowerPoint text. 6. Make them interesting. A case study is an article. It has to earn the reader’s interest and attention. Write good headlines and strong ledes. Use good, powerful quotations (not frankenquotes). Avoid hype, clichés, jargon and corporate bullshit. Think very hard about


what a potential customer wants to know about a case study. Use the conventions of a newspaper article, not a corporate press release. 7. Be specific. Details matter. Not only do they make the case study more credible, they answer the reader’s questions. Apply your experience from the first few days of this course. 8. Set them free. Most of my big clients have central case study databases. They have strict formats and guidelines for case studies and big agencies to enforce them. This is fine and I can work with it, but it often seems that these controls limit the impact and spread of case studies. Good case studies should ripple quickly through company websites, social networking, intranets and into the hands of sales peoples and customers by as many routes as possible. If no knows about the case study or it tries to be all things to all people, it will likely fail. 9. Use short legal agreements. One or two pages at most and they should include a clear mechanism that allows the target company to stop being a case study on request (they never do) and to reassure them that they will get to approve the case study text before it is used. A case study release should reassure a candidate, not frighten them off. 10. Speed is everything. Case studies have a short half-life. Technology moves on. Companies change. Ideally, a good case study should take a week from first contact to approval. If it takes longer, it increases the risk that the case study champion will lose interest. It should be a crescendo not an endless low humming. Today’s exercise is to write (or rewrite) a case study for a product or service from your company using what you have learned so far.


Day 21: Write a great press release “Hype is the awkward and desperate attempt to convince journalists that what you've made is worth the misery of having to review it.” – Federico Fellini Key point: well-written press releases are more likely to get you favourable coverage in the media Forgive me if I go on at some length about this but I have strong feelings about press releases. They could be much, much better. In my former life as full-time journalist, I received (and ignored) thousands of press releases. I’ve seen editors scan through a hundred email press releases in five minutes and delete the lot. Before that, as a CEO, I paid tens of thousands of pounds for shiny press releases that got us no coverage whatsoever. Why are they so dreadful? Press releases suffer from committee writing that turns steak into baby food. Not only that, but marketing people compensate for lack of bite by adding hype words, jargon and self-important throat clearing. The worst sin is ‘Frankenquoting.’ Here’s an example: “Nortel has established a legacy in innovation and will continue to push the envelope in delivering faster and more efficient wireless capabilities with industry leaders like QUALCOMM,” said Jean-Luc Jezouin, vice-president, GSM/UMTS product line management, Nortel.

Nobody talks to their friends like this but PR people think that they can excuse purple prose by pretending that someone with a big title said it. How to make them better? Here’s my recipe for better press releases. I’d like to think that any company that adopts this approach will stand out from the pack so much that they will be overwhelmed with gratitude and coverage. 1. Write descriptive headlines that explain why the story is interesting. If you can’t, it isn’t. So don’t put out a press release. 2. Keep them short and factual. 250 words should be the upper limit. By all means link to a website that contains more detailed information. 3. Make the first sentence and the first paragraph work for their living. 4. Always include contact details. Many don’t. What’s the point of that? 5. If you quote anyone, do a real interview and pick a good quote. Customers and independent experts are more interesting that company notables. 47

6. One writer, one subeditor, one proofreader, one lawyer. Everyone else has an opinion but not a veto. 7. Try writing a letter to your grandmother explaining why the news in the press release is important. Bingo, there’s your opening paragraph. 8. Alternatively try telling a story. What, who, where, when, how and why. 9. Make sure you redact any version control history from Word documents. There’s usually a better story for journalists in the stuff you removed at the last minute than in what you actually wrote. 10. Try a new medium such as podcasts or blogs. If nothing else, it will force you to abandon the tired old press release template. There are many voices calling for the death of the press release. What is needed is not execution but reform. Here are my tips and suggestions for doing it: Preparation 1. Have something interesting to say. A press release implies something newsworthy. A press release that isn’t is another form of spam. Don’t cry wolf when there isn’t one. 2. Remember your audience, forget your client. A press release that your client loves is not as useful as a press release a journalist (and her editor) loves. Make sure your press release will help sell the story and get you coverage. 3. Yes, journalists are cynical and lazy. Deal with it. Be uncynical. Work harder. Don’t assume an adversarial position. Don’t stoop to their level. (See The top ten lies of PR companies.) Trust me; you’ll get back what you put in. 4. Look at bad pitches. Studying bad pitches is a great way to learn about what mistakes to avoid. Sign up for some press release services such as PR Newswire. Also check out the Bad Pitch Blog. 5. Read the blogs and magazines of the people you are trying to reach. This is the best way to understand what they are looking for in a story. 6. Use surveys sparingly. Surveys are the traditional standby for a PR company in want of news. They can be effective, but I think the public and journalists are getting increasingly sceptical. See my blog post: Surveys: uses and abuses for writers and PRs. Write it well We have covered many of these lessons earlier in this course: 1. Be brief. Most press releases would be more readable, more credible and more memorable if they were about 25-30 percent shorter.


2. Get to the point. Most press releases start with a paragraph of pious throat-clearing about how great the company is. You need to open strong and get straight to the point. 3. Killer lede. As with any article, the first sentence is the most important. You should aim to put as much work into the first sentence as into the whole of the rest of the press release. It needs to convince a busy, cynical journalist to read on. 4. Eliminate words. You can cut out about a third of the copy in a typical press release and it will read better and more convincingly. 5. Be scannable. Press releases are very temporary documents. Readers don’t give them a lot of time because they are not, usually, a high priority. This is a lot like websites and one of the key lessons of writing for the web is to be scannable. That means using bullet points, sidebars, pull quotes, bold, underlining, lines and other page structures to make it easy to scan the page rather than read it from start to finish. 6. Tell a story. Human beings tell stories. They don’t go to the coffee house and share press releases or soundbites. 7. Construct an argument. As an alternative to the story-telling approach, construct a compelling argument using The Pyramid Principle: state a problem then explain how your product or service solves it. 8. Create a sense of place. Was the product invented somewhere? Did you make an important announcement in an interesting building? Try, somehow, to anchor the press release in a real place. It will ground it and add credibility because most press releases seem to take place in the corporate ether. 9. Reveal personality. Again, it will enhance your credibility and make the press release more authentic if you can capture a sense of real people. What are they like? How do they talk? Do they have any experience, hobbies, interests etc. that relate to the subject of the press release? Details matter. Three or four words that give life to a name will animate a whole press release. 10. Echo your company’s tone of voice. If it doesn’t have one, help it find one. 11. Relax. Relax! For heaven’s sake won’t you people RELAX! Press releases don’t have to sound like a lawyer’s letter or the small print of an insurance contract. Imagine explaining the subject to an intelligent friend. 12. Use everyday words and phrases. This is important. Somehow, people think that corporations have a dull, wordy, formal voice. Why? Their employees don’t. Use the language of everyday speech. So, do, get, make, build rather than develop, obtain, maximise, construct. 13. Understate rather than hype. This needs a touch of humour and good writing but it can be very effective. I loved that Virgin ad that said, “British Airways don’t give a shiatsu.” As well as being a cheeky attack on a rival, it was a cunning way to mention the free massages in 49

Upper Class without actually mentioning them. Another good example is Ronseal, the varnish company that advertises its products by saying, “It does exactly what it says on the tin.” 14. Pick short, apposite quotes. The tendency in press releases is to quote whole paragraphs (usually made up) from VPs. Much better, I think to quote three or four words but pick really good ones. Look for quotes that include metaphors, comparison, individuality, character and which get to the heart of the matter. If you, as a writer, can say something better than the quote you are using, don’t use a quote. 15. Eliminate hype. For an example of how hype words (e.g. prestigious, leading) don’t work, read the worst press release ever. Readers don’t just discount hype words when they read them, they assume the opposite of what you said. Hype words are road blocks on the journey to credibility. 16. Eliminate jargon. Jargon is a vocabulary used within a specific company or industry. It is often meaningless to outsiders, including journalists. If your gadget can do 48 circumfludels a second, you had better explain what this means in English and why it matters. Don’t assume anything about what the reader understands. The same applies to little-known product names. Even Google, with its massive brand awareness, had to change Froogle to Products because people didn’t understand what it did. 17. Eliminate acronyms. Acronyms and abbreviations are another kind of jargon. They assume that the reader knows something. People often use jargon and acronyms to sound big and clever, without realising that it actually has the opposite effect on most readers. 18. Avoid buzzwords. These are phrases that mean more to you than they do to the reader. 19. Throw in the occasional firework. A one-sentence paragraph. A killer quote. A spectacular analogy. A powerful statistic. An appropriate use of an everyday expression. Always try to add a little fizz and ginger to everything you write. 20. Close with a kicker. Go out with a bang. The last sentence needs to be thought-provoking and memorable. It needs about half the work of the opening sentence. A typical magazine way to end a piece is with a memorable quote from an objective source, some kind of paradox or a tiny detail that illuminates the whole story. A short, pithy summary of the whole thing would do as well. 21. Be human. Used sparingly and in the right context, the pronoun ‘we’ can be very powerful and authentic, as well as helping you avoid the passive. 22. Box out the key points. Have a sidebar titled ‘If you read nothing else, read this’ and summarise the story in three very short bullet points. Yes, you’d like people to read the whole case study, but only 10 percent will do that. Wouldn’t be great if another 30 percent at least knew something about the contents.


23. Write a Google-friendly headline. Write a headline that summarises the story (not what the PR wants you to think about it). This will help with search engine optimisation. 24. Include contact details. Don’t leave this information out. It’s astonishing how many press releases stored on company websites have no contact details at all. 25. Write a factual, one-paragraph summary for email. Most press releases go out by email as Word or PDF documents. Most journalists delete them without reading them. A oneparagraph email summary (like this one) means you have more chance of converting recipients into readers. Check then double-check 1. Don’t beat about the bush. Don’t hedge your bets by overqualifying sentences (e.g. ‘Many companies find they have different kinds of problems with certain email viruses”). Be more assertive: “Email viruses hit companies hard.” 2. Use a spell checker. D’oh! But it happens. I sometimes see final draft press releases for my clients that have two or three typos. 3. Use readability stats. Aim to score under 50 in the Flesch Reading Ease, under 8 for the grade level and no passive sentences. Journalists in a hurry have a reading age of a 12-yearold. 4. Check facts. Especially names and titles. Most magazines are obsessive about this and you should do the same for a press release. It’s worth keeping a separate document tracking all the sources for the different information in the copy so that you can go back and check who said what. 5. Redact hidden content. Word hides a lot of version control changes, including copy you would prefer journalists not to see. You can eliminate it easily by following this advice from the US National Security Agency (PDF). Read my blog post, Unintended press release disclosures, for an example of what happens when you don’t. Today’s homework? Guess what: it’s to write a 250-500 word press release that will grab an editor by the greasy lapels of his worn-out jacket and get him to pay attention to your company.


Day 22: Write a better email “I don't believe in email. I'm an old-fashioned girl. I prefer calling and hanging up.” – Sarah Jessica Parker Key point: email is the most common form of business writing and the one in most need of improvement A survey by Information Mapping Inc. found that 34 percent of respondents wasted between 30 and 60 minutes a day reading badly written emails. Typical failings included: 

Recipient is not clear as to what should be done or how to act on the information.

Content is disorganised.

Critical information is missing or hard to find.

Content is too long, wordy and difficult to read.

So here are my recommendations for writing better email: 

A clear, strong subject line helps people prioritise their inboxes.

Don’t automatically use the important flag. I have one client who flags all her messages as important. She obviously hasn’t read the story of the boy who cried wolf.

If the subject of an email dialogue has changed, select a new subject line but put the old one in brackets after the new subject for continuity.

Emails are more like telexes than letters. Imagine you are paying by the word. Don’t give the background, history, your life story. Stick to relevant facts and requests.

Write well: strong, active verbs; avoid jargon and abbreviations; use fewer words.

Punctuation exists to make it easier for people to make sense of what they’re reading. Emails that look like an EE Cummings poem with no punctuation, bad spelling and inappropriate capitalisation slow down people’s brains when they read, and make it harder for them to understand what you are saying.

Short paragraphs. One or two sentences per paragraph. This isn’t a college essay. Be succinct. People will skip the middle of a long paragraph. Using bullets to separate out lists is also helpful.

Deal with separate subjects in separate emails. People have bad email reading habits so a long email with ten things in it will get the same amount of attention as a short one with one topic. Therefore it is better to send several short emails. People can deal with some of them immediately and you don’t have to wait until they have an answer for everything before 52

they reply. This technique also allows people with iPhones and Blackberries to read your emails more easily. 

For long emails, use subtitles to break the email into sections like a magazine article.

End strongly. Tell people exactly what you expect them to do as a result of the email. You can even highlight action items with colour or with capitalisation.

Wait a minute. Don’t send an email off the moment you’ve finished writing it. In fact, I generally don’t write the names of the recipients until I’ve finished the email to stop myself accidentally sending it.

Edit. Re-read it. Out loud. Delete any unnecessary words. Think about whether you can express any point more clearly and succinctly. Check in with yourself to make sure you’re not going to piss anyone off by sending the email (it’s easy to write something snide in haste and regret it later).

Avoid email regret by setting a rule in Outlook to delay outgoing mail by ten minutes. Go to Rules and Alerts, create a new rule, start with a blank rule, check messages after sending, press next and select ‘defer delivery by a number of minutes.’ The messages stick in your outbox for a few minutes so you can cool down and think twice. You can also switch off automatic email transmission in Outlook so that it only sends mail when you actively tell it to.

Check recipient names. Use people’s surnames or full names for addresses. You may know lots of Steves but they probably have different surnames. This will stop you accidentally sending the email to the wrong person. Alternatively, if you have two very similar names, alter the contact data to avoid sending an email to the wrong person.

Don’t be afraid of punctuation and emoticons. Email is an impersonal medium. Expressing your state of mind can help people understand your words. A New Yorker article, the Elements of E-Style, supports this view. Based on research into the way people read emails, the authors come out in favour of exclamation points (‘Thanks!!!!’ is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’), abbreviations (‘Is LOL . . . really inherently more opaque than FYI?’), and emoticons (those smiley faces and the like may ‘bug many people but they make us smile’).

Today’s exercise is to take an email you wrote last month (look in your sent mail folder) and improve it. Send me an email to let me know how you got on.


Day 23: Write a blog post “I used to have a blog but I went back to pointless, incessant barking.” – Dogs talking in a New Yorker cartoon Key point: writing a blog is a good way to develop your writing skills. Here are some tips to help you become a better blogger: 1. Get started. It’s easy to set up a blog using It’s free. The great thing about a blog is that you can use it to explore different writing styles and techniques. It’s public writing but, because it is personal, you can write without restrictions. 2. Write often. I try to write every week day. It doesn’t always happen because of work pressure but it is easier to maintain the discipline if it is regular. Traffic seems to drop off dramatically at weekends so I don’t post then, although I sometimes run a ‘links list’ style post on Saturdays – mainly things I’ve collected during the week. 3. Keep a scratchpad. I use the notes field in an Outlook task item for each of the blogs I write to capture links, ideas, to do items and so on. When I actually sit down to write, I’ve usually got two or three ideas to hand and a bunch of links to explore. It’s useful to have a few stub posts ready to expand or edit in case you don’t have time to write a long piece. 4. Have a time to write. I tend to blog first thing in the morning, usually around 6am. That’s just me. I know other people who write after work or in their lunch break. The important thing is to work to a regular schedule. 5. Variety is the spice of life. I prefer to do posts of different lengths and styles. The ‘how to’ list is popular but I like to run longer, more formal articles and interviews as well as more personal observations. One of the pleasures of the blog is that I don’t have an editor who tells me what to write or how to write it. To this extent, it is a playground for me. 6. Contribute to the conversation. There are an awful lot of sheep on the internet. With nearly 60 million blogs in existence, you really want to try to be a sheepdog rather than a sheep. In my opinion, it’s important to say something new and something interesting to contribute to the conversation. 7. Be yourself. Ideally, you want to say something interesting. Just be yourself. Some of the best blogs are the ones that are unique, idiosyncratic, and highly personal. The extraordinary thing about the blogosphere is that whatever you write about, there is an audience for it. 8. Show your face. I think it’s good to put a picture of yourself, your email address, and a little bit of autobiographical information on your blog. Sometimes a nom de plume is necessary, but turn your blogging alter ego into a ‘real’ person too.


9. Get the technology right. If you’re serious about blogging, you need to have a proper website address and not one from a free blogging company. I use WordPress software. A Google search will list all kinds of companies that specialise in blog hosting. Once you get your site set up, you need things like spam filtering (I have had 15,000 comment spams since starting this site) and other add-ons. A good site design will help but there are lots of open source designs to get you started. Finally, I recommend using dedicated software to write posts rather than the blogging software’s built-in editor. In my case, I use Microsoft Live Writer. 10. Plug into the blogosphere. The easiest way to build traffic is to comment appropriately on other people’s sites. The blogosphere is a reciprocal sort of place. Link their blogs and they might read and link to yours. Critical to all this is a good newsreader and a good selection of sites. I use NewsGator because I can access my feed list on any web browser, on my PDA and on my main work computer and they are always synchronised. Make sure your site is registered with Technorati. 11. Linking and loving. I’ve always been impressed by people who email me nicely when I comment on their blogs. I wish I could find the time to do it – I try. Surprisingly, the blogs that I am ‘closest’ to in terms of mutual sympathy and mutual linking are also the ones who are, on the face of it, my ‘competitors.’ They write about the same stuff I write about. Actually though, there’s no real competition and finding your online community is a good way to start building a reader base. 12. Traffic is important but regular readers rule. Occasionally, you’ll produce a post that goes ballistic. I’ve had 20,000 visitors a day on occasion. Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Slashdot, and all the others pick it up and you’re away. Only a fraction of those people stay and subscribe. It’s very exciting when it happens but what matters is the number of people who keep coming back, who comment, who link to your site and who enjoy what you write. Write for yourself first, then write for them. The harder I try to get a traffic monster, the more elusive they become. It’s best to concentrate on writing regularly and well and let your readers decide what’s worth recommending. 13. Don’t forget search. Google is my number one source of incoming visitors. Remember to register your site with all the usual search engines. I use Google Analytics and Google Sitemaps to monitor what visitors search for, and tweak headlines and content a little to make sure I’m delivering content that searchers want. Advice on interviews is very popular. 14. Use pictures. Pictures, cartoons and illustrations are essential. Just imagine reading your favourite magazine if there were no pictures. Yuck! A good picture illustrates the point you are making and draws in readers. I like iStockphoto which is a cheap source of good quality images, but they can be a bit corporate. 15. Write for the screen. People read blogs on computer screens not on paper. So you need to write for the medium. We’ll cover this in the next chapter.


16. Give people different ways to read. Make the online visit easy to read – don’t go for crazy colours or unreadable fonts. Many bloggers overlook email but FeedBlitz and Google FeedBurner make it easy for non-RSS subscribers to get Bad Language in their inbox. Make sure you have a visible, easy to spot RSS subscription button. However, I would avoid the icon clutter that some blogs display when they try to accommodate every single blog reader and every single news aggregator. It’s your site, not a billboard for other people’s. 17. Schedule blog upgrade days. Maintaining a blog is not just about writing content. I try to dedicate a day every two to three months to upgrading the site itself. This means recategorising posts, checking for broken links, implementing new features and other engineering stuff. I know just about enough HTML and coding to tinker with a site’s template but not enough to build a new template. However, there are plenty of people who can help with this stuff, and one way to stand out from the crowd is to have a unique site design as well as unique content. 18. Monitor your stats. Anyone who is a true blogger will be addicted to their stats. But what is interesting is how I have changed the way I use them over time. Initially, I was obsessed by the raw visitor numbers. While these are still important, I am much more interested now in what brings people to the site, what posts they liked, whether they revisit and how often, what they search for and so on. I’m trying to use the stats to help me build a better site for my readers, not to gratify my own ego (well, a little bit of that too!) 19. Market your blog. Occasionally people ask me to contribute to their sites, perhaps with bylined articles or interviews. For example, I write a regular column on Visual Thesaurus. This brings in a nice stream of new visitors who are interested in writing. I also make an effort to comment on sites and posts that are relevant to my readers and my areas of interest. This is probably the main form of blog marketing. It takes time, but it pays longterm dividends. I still get new visitors from comments I wrote six months ago. However, the comments have to be appropriate, useful and link to a relevant page on my site. Comment spamming is naughty. Then there is the old fashioned kind of marketing. I link to my blog from my personal site, from my email sig, from presentation decks; in fact I mention it pretty much any time I can. If you want to blog for your company, things get a bit more complicated. I help a number of organisations with corporate blogs and I have run several seminars and workshops for marketing and PR folk about blogging. This experience has made me realise that blogging is high on their agenda but often misunderstood. 

It’s an education sale. Even when people have heard about the concept of blogging, they are often unclear about what it actually involves, what works and what doesn’t. The most common misconception is that only one person can write a blog. Another is that it will involve unbridled reader criticism in comments. There are some good examples of corporate team blogs and corporate marketing sites that work well: Southwest Airlines and the Boeing marketing blog.


You have to allay their fears before you can appeal to their ambition. People in big companies rely on agencies like PR and marcomms agencies (and, yes, copywriters like me). Writing makes them nervous. Similarly, they don’t have much free time. (Who does?) Also, they are very nervous about going public with something new that might get them fired. Addressing these concerns is critical. Running the blog like a magazine with contributions and interviews, and proper editing with tone of voice guidelines, helps because it is familiar territory to most marketing departments.

Marketing matters. In big companies, marketing departments care a lot about whether the blog will conform to company design and style guides. Prototypes are helpful in addressing their concerns.

Oh no! It’s the IT department. Sometimes you have to use a blogging platform that is safe but not as feature-rich as, say, WordPress. Big company IT departments are often, understandably, reluctant to let you deviate from company standards.

It takes longer. With my own blog, I decided to do it on a Monday and I had built it by the Wednesday. All the corporate blogs I have been involved with took months to get started.

More people are involved. Getting things done is a meeting-heavy and consensus-driven process that, as an entrepreneur and also as a blogger, I find alien. However, it’s how big companies work.

Your mission for today is to set up a blog and create your first blog post.


Day 24: Write readable web copy “Users will read about 20% of the text on the average [web] page.” – Jakob Nielsen Key point: writing for the internet is not the same as writing for the printed page How people read online People don’t read web pages in the same way as they read printed material. Research by Jakob Nielsen shows that: 

People don’t read everything they see. On an average web page, users read at most 28 percent of the words.

They scan for what’s important to them. Only 16 percent of readers actually read pages word by word. Eyetracking research shows that the majority hunt and scan around the page.

Websites are optional. People are busy and they don’t always have time to read your site.

Remember these differences when reading the guidance in this section. They underpin all the recommendations. How to write for online reading Be clear. Give the reader a clue. Give them a clear picture of what your page is about so that they can make a quick decision about whether it is useful or interesting. To do this: 

Write descriptive headlines that explain what the item is about.

Start with a brief summary at the top of the page.

Consider using an appropriate image to anchor the text and draw the reader’s eye.

Use a journalist’s inverted pyramid structure, starting with the conclusion.

Be concise. Respect the reader’s time. Get to the point and stay there. Compared to printed text, halving the word count makes online copy 58 percent more usable (in terms of reading time, reader recall and subjective satisfaction). There are several ways to make your writing more concise: 

Eliminate unnecessary words.

Short words are best. Replace long words where possible.

Short sentences are good too.

Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score over 60. You can evaluate web pages using my readability analysis tool.

Split long content into separate pages, posts or entries. 58

Wait an hour then re-read and edit what you’ve written.

Be scannable. This will ensure that readers who don’t read word by word will still get the gist of what you say. A layout that makes it easy to scan text increases usability by 47 percent. Here’s how: 

Highlight key words in bold or by using links to other pages.

Use meaningful sub-headings to break up the text. They are landmarks for the reader.

Use bulleted lists.

Stick to one idea per paragraph with a clear introductory sentence.

Be consistent. Use website conventions to help readers navigate and understand your text. 

Don’t say “click here.” Instead, use the title of the page or a description as the hyperlink.

People use the search engine to find things. Think about the kinds of words they will search for and include them in what you write.

Link to existing content rather than duplicating it.

Create a conversation with the reader. Online communications are uniquely interactive. Your writing style should reflect this. The aim is to recreate the kind of professional, but human, conversation you might have with a colleague. 

Try to anticipate what the reader wants to know.

Use their language, not yours.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions (even if rhetorical).

It’s okay to say ‘I’ or ‘we.’

Be relaxed but think carefully about humour, especially if there is a risk that it might be misinterpreted.

Show respect. Observe the standards of conduct and decency when referring to other people.

Read what you have written aloud. Is that how you might speak to a colleague or your boss? If so, fine.

Today’s exercise is to take some copy from your website or another business website and edit it to make easier to read online.


Day 25: Invent great names “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” – Proverbs 22:1 Key point: good names are the result of hard work Richard Branson said that a “good name alone can practically guarantee hit records.” It’s the same with product, service and company names. There are plenty of bad ones and it’s easy to pick a bad name without putting in enough work to find a better one. Today, the availability of internet domain names is another constraint on the choice of names. Too often people pick the first name that has an available, matching domain name. The result is names that are prosaic, obscure or difficult to spell (“Qinetiq” anyone?). It doesn’t have to be like this. Compared with the tidal wave of copy that appears after you choose a name, taking an extra few hours or days to pick a good name up front seems like a good investment. That is what this chapter is about. 1. Identify your strengths. The starting point of a good name is the product or service itself. What is unique, important, memorable, exciting, desirable or special about it? Spend time really understanding this – writing lots of notes as you go – and the rest of the naming process will be much easier. It can also be very helpful when coming up with a tagline or subtitle for your name. 2. Understand your competition. Once you have identified the brand promise of your product or service, you can begin to differentiate it from its competitors. There is a positive and negative aspect to this. You should look for names that differentiate you from your competitors and at the same time avoid names that sound similar. It can also be helpful to look at the language competitors use to describe themselves because that partly describes the linguistic landscape you compete in. 3. Brainstorm. This is the fun bit and also the most work. You need to come up with hundreds of words that could be potential names or which are the stems or themes for potential names. The more ideas you come up with, the better chance you’ll have of finding a good name. Give yourself time to do this properly – not only time to concentrate on the work but also calendar time so that you have several days to let naming ideas percolate in your mind. The Name Inspector has an excellent list of name types. Smashing Magazine also has some helpful guidance. You can work with repetition (BoingBoing), inversion (Xobni), substitution (uSwitch), alliteration (Pepe Le Pew), foreign words and translation (Wagamama) and numbers (37signals), places (Westwood), colours (Matt Black), journeys (BaseCamp), weather (MetalStorm), religion (Zen Habits) the media (WordPress) etc. etc. This is one of several sheets of names I worked through to come up with Upstage, a business that creates websites for actors. 60

4. More brainstorming. “A good metaphor for the naming process is evolution through variation and natural selection,” says The Name Inspector. Periodically, pick the best stems and ideas and start a new set of ideas. I tend to use sheets of A4 paper but you can also use mindmapping software or a word processor. Engage with other people to get their input. It’s too easy to miss rich seams of name ideas because, well, you only know what you know. But try to encourage constructive, incremental brainstorming. Save criticism and analysis for later. 5. Yet more brainstorming. Between these two brainstorming stages you should try to come up with 200-500 name ideas. It’s hard graft but one main difference between an amateur photographer and a professional is that a professional simply takes more pictures. There are some excellent websites that can help you expand and develop your ideas. They include: a. Interactive thesauruses. Visual Thesaurus and Visuwords. b. Visual dictionary. Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary. c. Lovely words. Try Wordie, Word Spy, Getty Vocabularies, Urban Dictionary, Rap Dictionary. d. Reverse dictionary. Enter the concept and get the word using OneLook. e. Six degrees of separation. Lexical Freenet is useful for finding links between words, synonyms and things like that. 6. Make a short list. There is no magic formula that says: “this name is best.” There are some guidelines (but like all such recommendations, they are for the guidance of the wise but the devotion of fools): a. Names near the start of the alphabet. This can be helpful in alphabetical listings, such as blogrolls and telephone directories (but who uses them any more?).


b. Names that have emotional resonance. In most cases, names that trigger some kind of emotion are more memorable and human than functional, descriptive or technical names. c. Short rather than long. Syllables count but there are some excellent, memorable long names too. d. Meaningful. Neologisms and made-up words have less impact and require more marketing to inflate than words that are familiar and pregnant with meaning. e. Easy to say. Imagine using the name to answer the phone. “Hello, Nonsense Names here.” This is a good practical test of the mouth sound of a name. f.

Easy to spell. People should be able to spell a name when they hear it.

7. Analyse the names. San Francisco naming company Igor has a free guide to naming. It classifies names into functional/descriptive, invented, experiential and evocative. These are useful labels for sorting your names. It also has a chart that evaluates names on eight dimensions, such as appearance, energy and sound. I recommend using it. 8. Check domain names and/or trademarks. Once you have your short list and preferences, it’s a question of seeing whether you can register them as domain names or as trademarks (if required). There are some useful online tools that will help you find a domain name even if your first choice isn’t available. Try, and Bust A Name. Also, Domize is a very efficient way to check several domain names at the same time. There are plenty of prefixes and suffixes that can transform an already-registered name into an available name. For example: -ly, -start, -HQ, -base, -factory, -well, -now, -it, -live, be-, get-, do-, my-, your-, i-, our-, the- etc. etc. 9. Response research. I suggest that you avoid asking lots of people to comment on names until you have your short list. Why? Because people find it very easy to give negative feedback and latch onto negative meanings. 10. Repeat 3-8 until you have your final name. 11. Don’t worry too much. Good names often have negative connotations. As the naming gurus at Igor point out: Virgin implies inexperience yet we happily fly Virgin Atlantic and caterpillars are feeble, slow insects but Caterpillar make big earth moving equipment. When it comes to names, the poetic usually beats the prosaic (Apple vs. Microsoft, Virgin vs. British Airways etc.) Also, it is important to spend time picking a good name, but there is a danger of spending too much time. The wider the circle and the longer the discussion, the greater is the risk of compromise, averaging and risky shift. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good enough. W.C. Fields put it very well when he said, “If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again. Then give up. There's no use being a damn fool about it.” Your homework for today? Simple. Come up with a really good name for a new product or service. Or a better name for an existing one. 62


Day 26: Write a great presentation “Mastering presentation skills is a life’s work – with a stupendous payoff.” – Tom Peters Key point: fewer words = more impact “Respect your audience,” says Edward Tufte in his Wired article, PowerPoint is evil. I agree. The problem is that most presentations are stressful for the speaker and tedious for the audience. Typical problems include:         

Too formal Too long Talking but not listening Humourless Overly corporate and robotic Focused on the script, not the audience’s reaction Too little preparation Inappropriate content and images Jargon and clichés

In fact, presentations share many of the problems with other corporate communication. So many of the lessons in this book will work for presentations too. In addition, there are some specific changes that can improve a PowerPoint presentation: 

The presentation works for you. You don’t work for the presentation. Use it to support, illustrate and underline what you are saying but don’t read out the words on the slides. People came to hear you speak, didn’t they?

The 10-20-30 rule. Guy Kawasaki’s advice is that a presentation should have ten slides, last no more than 20 minutes and contain no font smaller than 30 points. I have seen corporate presentations with more than 170 slides, each full of text and diagrams. Kawasaki’s advice isn’t right for every circumstance but it’s definitely in the right direction.

Fewer words. Treating a slide like a Word document is the most common mistake in presentation design. The fewer the words, the greater the impact.

More images. Cartoonbank, Shutterstock, iStockphoto, Open Stock Photography, are all good sources of pictures for presentations. A well-chosen image with a few words can have more impact than a page full of bullet points.

Quotations. A good quotation can be as powerful as a good picture. Garr Reynolds has published a list of online sources for quotations.

Watch other presentations. You can learn a lot from watching great presentations by other people. and TED both have great examples.


Create a presentation that follows the 10-20-30 rule and which uses strong images on every page. Use it in place of your normal presentation and see whether people pay more attention.


Day 27: Find time for writing “A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” – Samuel Johnson Key point: better writing takes time If you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to find time to do it. With practice, your productivity will increase without affecting quality. But you’ll still need to take the time to do your research properly and to edit and rewrite your copy. I believe that if you can find the time – every day – to focus on writing, you will quickly become a better and more productive writer. By separating writing tasks from other work-a-day activities, you will improve your concentration and productivity. It helps to write something every day. Think of it as going to the gym for your writing muscles. A regular schedule or habit helps. I wrote this book and the blog that preceded it by getting up earlier. That extra hour or two a day was enough for me to write 500+ articles on my blog and this book. Zen Habits has many useful tips for increasing your productivity in general and here are my top tips for getting up earlier: I am not what you would call a morning person. I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake! But recently, when I’ve had a lot of work stacking up and I’ve added a blog into my daily routine, it felt as if there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. So I decided to make a habit of getting up earlier. This is how I did it: 1. Decided what time I wanted to get up. In my case, 6am, so that I could do a couple of hours, write my blog and catch up my email before everyone else started work (and started sending me emails and phoning me). The point is to set a time and stick to it.

Rule of thumb 1,000 words a day. Factoring in time for research, writing and editing, I reckon on producing an average of 1,000 publishable words per working day – although the work is usually done in stages over a longer calendar period. (There’s a story about James Joyce who had written seven words in one day – a highly productive day for him – “but I don’t know what order they go in.”) Stephen King writes 2,000+ words a day. Because writing is a subjective, intimate business it is hard to treat it like a company might treat a factory, but measuring productivity is vital if you write for a living.

2. Set myself a goal. Initially, I aimed to get up early every weekday for a month. I read somewhere that if you can make a new routine stick for a month, it becomes a self-sustaining habit. It proved true in this case. 3. Promised myself a reward. I always wanted to learn clay pigeon shooting so I promised myself I would book a day’s shooting if I got up early for a month.


4. Tracked my progress using Joe’s Goals. The more I use this website, the more I like it. I used to track these kinds of routine, habitual things using recurring tasks in Outlook but it was a bit fiddly and, addicted as I am, I didn’t have Outlook open all the time. I also used a little Post-it note on my monitor and ticked off the days, convict-style. 5. Get clothes, computer and breakfast ready the night before. Don’t want to trip over everything trying to do basic tasks when I’m half asleep. 6. Alarms. I set my bedside alarm for 0600 – and this is the clever psychology – I also set my telephone to ring at 0605 but I put the phone on the other side of the room so that I have to get out of bed to stop it ringing. In the UK, you dial *55*0605# to do this. What happens is this: either I wake up and cancel the alarm or I get up and answer the call to stop it ringing. First, we’re strongly programmed to answer the phone. Second, I’m very strongly programmed not to wake my wife up! A ringing phone will do this so I have powerful motivators at work: guilt and fear. This technique works every time but I had previously reserved it for early morning trips to the airport and things like that. 7. Naps. Sleep is like money in the bank. If you overdraw by getting up early, you have to pay in some other time. Initially, I did this by having short naps after lunch. I suspect that over time the body adjusts to less sleep – most army people get by on less sleep than the rest of us, for example – but this seems to happen over a longer period than a month. 8. Earlier nights. In the long run, going to bed an hour or so earlier and having lie-ins on weekends meant that I was getting the right amount of sleep. Like jet lag, the adjustment is a little painful but it only took a week or two to get used to the new routine. 9. Boast widely about your new early-birdiness. It makes me feel good to tell people ‘Oh, I get up at 6am’. Also, my friend Stuart says, ‘We are the stories we tell about ourselves’. If I describe myself as a punctual, early-rising, efficiency robot then maybe that’s what I’ll become (when I’m not a bohemain, enterpreneurial writer genius). Your job for today is to figure out when you can carve 30-60 minutes out of your schedule every day so that you can focus on writing.


Day 28: Break writer’s block “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” – Raymond Chandler Key point: if you can’t write, do something else until you can We have all stared at a blank screen – the unwritten report, the empty email, the blank form – and despaired. There’s a nice post on that lists 49 jump starts if you’re staring at a blank screen trying to think of a blog post. Some of his suggestions have worked for me: reviewing a book, for example. I’d add the following: 1. Your obvious is your talent. Find something that you do every day that may not be obvious to other people and write about that. 2. Seek inspiration. I created a list of Oblique Marketing Strategies which I find helpful when I’m stuck. You can see them on my Articulate Marketing website. 3. Report it out. See Day 1: Be a reporter for more tips. 4. Lists provoke thoughts. For me, at least, taking a topic and then writing a list seems to generate new ideas that hadn’t occurred to me before. 5. Ask why. Pick a topic and speculate on why it happens. 6. Ask how. Ditto but how! 7. Interview someone. 8. Start a campaign. Find something objectionable (in my case, lazy writing) and keep citing examples of it until change occurs. 9. Find a role model. Who writes well? Who do you admire? Praise them. The media is full of negative stories but it’s your blog, so write a positive one. 10. Expand on someone else’s idea. The blogosphere is a conversation. Take something (with attribution) and add your own original thoughts. Like this article. 11. Cartoons. Sketches, diagrams. Anything that makes your point without words. Sometimes browsing through the image search on Google or photo libraries like iStockPhoto can bring inspiration. 12. Build on a phrase. Sometimes a small phrase pops into my head and it inspires a whole article. Listen to your inner voice.


Day 29: How to work with professional writers “Do not be bullied out of your common sense by the specialist; two to one, he is a pedant.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Key point: effective management is the way to get good work from professional writers All my clients use at least one professional writer – me – and most call on dozens at a time. Many of these scribblers are hidden inside design, marketing or PR agencies. The advice below is based on my own experience. Selection 

Look for writers with a track record of work in a similar format or subject, but don't get hung up if they haven't done exactly the same thing elsewhere. A good writer should be able to research new topics effectively.

Meet the writer (not just the account manager) and make sure there's a good ‘chemistry.’ Do they talk your language? Understand your requirements? Give constructive input about ways they might carry out your brief?

Look for a chameleon-like ability to write in different styles. A good writer should be able to follow a corporate style guide and adapt their work to the audience and client.

Ask for references.

Check that your writer has professional indemnity insurance.

Briefing 

A briefing document should explain who the work is for (the target audience), what its objectives are (why is it being written), what style guidelines and language will be used (for instance, American English or British English), the length in words, what the deadline is, a high-level outline of the contents and any supplementary contact information or additional resources the writer may need.

You can reasonably expect a good writer to help with this process, even draft a briefing document for you based on your instructions.

Management 

Like most people, writers like to get positive feedback. If they've done a good job, tell them.

When it comes to fact-checking, you should expect a writer to keep meticulous notes and voice recordings of any interviews they carry out. 69

Similarly, they should be able to provide independent sources for any facts and statistics that they use in their work.

Like anyone in business, writers will try to schedule their work. Last minute requests and short deadlines are okay (sometimes) but you are more likely to get a good job if you allow a reasonable deadline.

Writers tend to think in terms of deadlines, drafts and word counts and chunk up their time in units of interviews, research, writing and editing. Understanding a little about how they work will help you understand what progress they are making.

Editing and rewriting 

You may find writers reluctant to release work until it has reached a final draft form. At Articulate, work goes through a fact-checking and proofreading stage before being released to clients.

You should expect to receive work that is spelled correctly, is grammatical and that makes sense. It should, naturally, meet the brief.

It’s normal for the client to review the work from their company’s perspective to check, for example, that trademarks are properly written out or that job titles are correct. Minor tweaks like this are fine, especially when you start working with a new writer.

In my experience, most major rework arises from a faulty brief or one that changes during the assignment.

That said, you shouldn’t have to deal with a writer’s ego. If the work doesn’t do what you expected, explain why not and request changes. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to get a satisfactory result.

In my view, unpardonable sins include: missing a deadline, starting work without an agreed brief, clichés and making the same mistake twice.

If you work with agencies, contractors or directly with writers, review the way you select, brief and manage them and see if there are any ways you can do it better.


Day 30: Final exercise “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett No advice today. Just three challenges: 1. Write one awesome thing today. 2. Make a writing plan for the next 31 days. 3. Send me an email to tell me how you got on, what you liked, what you didn’t.


30 Days to Better Business Writing