Literary and business/media writing are different. Startups often need to write (and should write more) but don’t necessarily know where to start, or what makes good (business) writing.
I wrote several dozen articles for various media (most recently: Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, TechInAsia and HackerNoon) and helped edit quite a few more written by others.
As an non-native writer of English, it used to surprise me native speakers would ask me for edits or help, until I realized it wasn’t about ‘fluency’ (as in grammar or vocabulary) but about effective communication.
This quick guide will level up your writing faster than you could suppose:
First, Remember Your Goal
Your purpose is for your message to spread, not win a Nobel Prize in Literature (though your chances increase if you’re French).
Your have to find a ‘resonance frequency’ that will get your message not only read but amplified. Be impactful, concise and memorable. It’s not as easy as it sounds!
You’ve heard it before: brevity is the soul of wit. Here are some basic editing tips to have more impact:
- SIMPLE words. Long/complex/unfamiliar ones create unnecessary friction. You might sound smart but lose readers.
- ACTIVE form (rather than passive form)
- SHORT phrases. Longer ones lose the plot.
- 800 words. Media likes 800 words max. The risk of longer pieces is that (1) they might turn off many readers (2) you rely on the reader to decide what’s most important (3) it will take hours to research and fine-tune (10 hours or more?) and (4) many media won’t accept them.
Now here is an awkward memo trick:
Simple + Active + Short + 800 = SAS 800.
Imagine a Scandinavian Airlines Boeing 737-800. Scandinavian design is clean and minimal, and planes travel far!
Depending on the publication, a more conversational tone might fit better and be more friendly than a cold ‘business tone’. Sprinkle with humor when possible. You’re talking to new friends!
Note that long form can work if what you write is so interesting or exhaustive that it can’t be ignored (that’s what we try to do with our Techcrunch pieces).
But often, long writing is just lazy — you’re offloading the summarizing effort to the readers and wasting their time — or to quote Blaise Pascal “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Titles matter a lot!
Titles are teasers. This is how people decide to read or not.
Write a few different titles trying to imagine what you would be interested to click on. For instance:
- A fun or ‘rhyming’ title
- One that includes a reference to current affairs, famous firms or people
- One that describes a future where your product is mature and widespread
- A ‘human interest’ angle (real or hypothetical user story)
Some media will tweak or change it, but you’re often better off writing your own rather than relying on the inspiration of a random and hurried editor.
Speaking from personal experience, it’s like with life drawing: it’s not ‘talent’ but that nobody taught you right, and a few tips can help you improve dramatically.
The method developed by Betty Edwards is spectacularly effective at improving how we see, which is the real key to drawing (‘talent’ and ‘hand’ might come into play but much much later).
If drawing is seeing, writing is thinking. Clarify your thoughts, put yourself in your reader’s shoes, and your writing will improve.
I tried to draw below some parallels with Edwards’s method (no pun intended).
- Contours: list your core ideas in short bullet points. Neat contours with concise phrases fare better than wordy sentences.
- Negative space: that could be ‘what is the world around the topic’ = what most people already know (true or false), and the immediate associations they make (the elephant(s) in the room).
- Perspective and proportions: how do the ideas relate to each other? Are there emerging categories? Are there parallels with other topics? (like what I’m doing now between writing and drawing) Can the data be made more visual by comparing with things people know?
- Lights and shadows: let’s find the nuances. What is certain, what is less proven? What kind of proof / reason to believe do you have?
- The whole: can your now organize the piece with a flow easy to follow? what is the overall vibe?
If writing about writing was meta, I’m now going to write about how I wrote this article about writing — we’re going two Inception levels down, folks!
- I wanted to write about writing. I tried to remember my ‘process’, and also how I edit other people’s work. I jotted down some tips but it was starting to look like a list of bullet points, and not particularly memorable. At least it was simple and immediately usable. Just felt a bit lightweight.
- Then the idea of figuring out core elements reminded me of what I learned about drawing. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it was an interesting parallel, and a very visual and original way to talk about writing (note that the same concept could apply to many other skills, especially those considered ‘talents’).
- I went back to the initial list and called it ‘basic tips’ — I also realized titles were a bit in a category of their own and added a section on that.
- To make the initial list more memorable I tried to find an acronym of sorts, and saw SSA, so I shuffled it to have SAS, which is — fortuitously — also the name of a Nordic airline. The parallel with Nordic design was obvious.
- After writing the above sections, I realized this piece was lacking a case study. I just edited a colleague’s article (‘with a hammer’) a few days ago at SOSV, but it would be too long to include, so I thought ‘why not use the one right here as a case study’. And here we are!
I hope it all makes sense? Let me know in the comments!
One more thing: writing is not always for top publications. Writing helps clarify and organize your ideas, which often need some time to brew and be enriched over time. This article is fit for a blog, and is a first iteration. I might re-work it later with new ideas and comments received. Often, ‘done is better than perfect’ as (again) writing is thinking. The real test of your ideas is putting them in front of others. Pin up your work!