Easy reading is hard writing
I learned to write in high school. Now, in my early 40s and having spent the last two decades of my life either reading someone else’s writing or trying to express myself on paper, I think writing prose was the most useful skill that I could have been taught. Sure, I wrote and read a lot of poetry and code, put together countless slide decks, and have stood in front of audiences giving speeches and presentations. But, at the core of all communication, were basic rules that I learned in my three years as a high school journalist and newspaper editor. And, I wish more people in the technology, venture, and business communities would have gone through the same basic training as I read their business plans, looked at investment memos, and skimmed articles and press releases.
English was my second language. Having had some knowledge of the basics when I came to the U.S. from Russia at age 12, I struggled with English grammar (word order was significant and things didn’t decline or conjugate), but, once control of the basic rules was had, I started to focus on structure. I went to Narbonne High School — a basic public school in the southern part of Los Angeles. People there weren’t being prepped for Harvard or Yale, and most of my classmates’ parents were engineers in the aerospace industry that dominated the local economy. No lawyers, no doctors, no professors. Yet, I was fortunate enough to get noticed and recruited into the journalism program by a fantastic English teacher, Alison Rittger, who not only taught English but was also the new advisor to my high school’s newspaper – The Green & Gold. I started writing editorials, started going to journalism competitions, and finally became editor of the paper in my senior year.
What has amazed me for the last quarter century, ever since I left high school for MIT, then Stanford, was the fundamental applicability of basic principles of good writing that were instilled in me during those early years. And, more importantly, how the ability to write is one of the most important weapons you will have in your arsenal.
Now, as I read marketing materials, press releases, business plans, white papers, articles, and blog posts, I secretly wish I could send some of the writers to a good journalism program where they would pick up the tools they need to make their writing do justice to the ideas they try to express. The ideas are often great, but they lose so much because of the authors inability to express them to an audience of time-strapped, disinterested readers.
Here are some basic rules of journalism that apply:
- Your story can get cut at any point after the lead paragraph. Newspaper editors were often constrained by space as much as by desire for editorial content. Before the “Read More” link existed, if you didn’t say ALL that you wanted to say in paragraph one, you risked not getting your point across at all. Who, what, where, when, why, and how? It all needs to be there whether it’s a business plan or an investor introduction.
- Your reader can stop reading after the first paragraph. This further accentuates the importance of rule #1. If the opening paragraph of your introductory email or the first slide of your presentation does not explain the basics well enough to keep the audience interested, chances are high that you will lose some if not all of them.
- A journalist never concludes, he just stops writing. Saving your final, most important point for last is not a good strategy. The reader may never get there. The listener may have already checked out. And your hope that the conclusion can neatly tie all the arguments you presented during your idea’s exposition is often naïve because you assume that people have kept all the argumentative, idea-tying material in their mind while reaching your concluding statement (if they have read that far).
- Use dashes sparingly. Remember, a dash is meant to be a “pregnant pause” in a sentence, usually awaiting a definition or clarification of what you previously stated –- an explanation, a “drill down” on the subject. I have to admit, I always loved dashes –- I used them too frequently and not always appropriately. Asking your reader to pause in suspense often destroys the flow of the argument and makes your writing read like expressionistic Russian propaganda poetry (which you have to be Russian to appreciate). Use them, I still do, often too much, but be aware of the effect dashes have on the flow of your writing.
- Use parenthesis sparingly. A clarification in parenthesis is a poor man’s version of a hyperlink. And it breaks the cadence of the sentence making your argument weaker. I am also guilty of that and try to watch it (sometimes with mixed results).
- Use words “in quotations” sparingly. I am also guilty of not watching that enough. A phrase in quotes is really a reference to what someone else has said. It is not a re-phrasing of the concept. You should be ready to give the quote proper attribution even if it’s a colloquialism.
- Don’t use ellipsis… unless you’re a poet. It is another pregnant pause that is supposed to make you think about what the author just said. I remember receiving emails from one of my investors that had every single sentence end with an ellipsis. I feel he was thinking as he wrote and liked the period key. It did not make me think, just annoyed me. Remember, even Robert Frost, in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” ends with “And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” – a comma and a period, not an ellipsis. And the repetition of the line makes us think, not its punctuation.
- “Partner” is NOT a verb. I know that dictionary.com thinks otherwise, but I’ve always been taught that “partner” is a noun. The word seems to have become the catchall verb in marketing press releases about any activities of two or more parties. I guess it’s correct. I just don’t like it.
- “Success” is a meaningless word. Another annoyance of mine. Success is hard to define, subjective, and, when talking about business outcomes fairly meaningless. Explain what actually happened – increased sales, new product launch, a key hire. Specific is better than meaningless.
- Avoid sports metaphors. Especially sales guys. Not everyone likes sports or admires sports stars. I guess there are three ESPN channels on the plane, but, remember, it’s not for everyone.
- Words matter. Mark Twain once wrote: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” It is better to be concise and precise than wordy and vague.
Those are the basics. I am not a purist and often violate these rules myself. I have violated many of them (even in this post) sometimes on purpose – to make a point. The rest is up to you… keep writing — keep driving the ball to the hoop of precision.