There was a time when my writing hurt. Even my close friends were not interested to read what I would write.
That made me afraid to write because I feared offending others. I was afraid of the backlash I thought I would receive from what I wrote. I was afraid of people judging me. I was afraid of what people would say when they read what I had to say.
This was sometime in 2003 when I was about to get into a career of, well, writing about stocks. However, things improved over years as I wrote a lot. Apart from that, I read a lot of books on good writing. That helped me move past the fear of judgment and into a place where I could be confident about what I wanted to write about.
Now, even after writing for a living for 15 years, I’m far from being a good writer. But the quest is on, and that is what keeps me happy when I am writing.
This post is my way of sharing the powerful secrets – eighty percent of what you must know about good writing – that have helped me become a better writer over the years. I will try to keep it brief and to the point, because that is what good writing is all about.
The first secret is to start with an attention grabbing but believable headline. “13 Secrets to…” is a great way to get attention. “How to…” is another example. For someone to read past your headline, make it unique, useful, urgent, and ultra-specific. People have short attention spans. Your headline must try to grab it.
Two, start writing with an engaging statement or story. See how I started my post.
Three, write short sentences and paragraphs. Brevity is powerful. Readers struggle when sentences exceed 15 words. This post’s average sentence length is 11 words.
But don’t shorten sentences for the sake of it. Because it doesn’t look good when you start a sentence with ‘because.’
Four, sometimes it’s fine to write longer sentences and paragraphs. But omit needless words. Like you won’t use unnecessary colors in a painting, you must not use unnecessary words in a sentence, and unnecessary sentences in a paragraph.
Five, use active voice. It is more direct and forceful than passive. ‘I love Vishal’s writing’ is better than ‘Vishal’s writing is loved by me.’
Six, use humour at times. That Vishal’s writing is lovable is humorous, isn’t it? Every letter that Warren Buffett writes, for example, brims with jokes. He’ll even shock you by bringing in humour where you’d least expect it. Like, here is how he once described an opportunity where his various companies were eyeing the same company to acquire – “Competition for the few opportunities that are available tends to become fierce. The seller has the upper hand, as a girl might if she were the only female at a party attended by many boys. That lopsided situation would be great for the girl, but terrible for the boys.”
Seven, use conversational voice. Write as if you are talking to a friend. Make it personal. Do not writeth like Shakespeare. That’s not how thee talk to friends.
Eight, keep it simple. Simple writing is persuasive. Write for a fifth or sixth grader. If you can’t write and explain stuff to a kid or say your grandmother, most likely you don’t understand it well yourself. But don’t force it. Just think about how to make it easy for your audience.
Nine, write in a way that comes naturally to you. Use words and phrases that comes readily to hand. Don’t sit with a Thesaurus. If every intelligent child is prodigious, and every mountain beauteous, your readers will have a bad time reading your labyrinthine stuff.
Ten, ensure your writing makes sense, but don’t obsess over perfect grammar. You are not thinking about grammatical correctness when talking to a friend. Just make him welcome and then tell a good story.
Eleven, the greatest secret to good writing is to write one word at a time. Whether you are writing a single page or an epic, it’s always accomplished one word at a time.
Twelve, read a lot. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot. This is one of the most valuable lessons of all – Read, read, read. Then, write, write, write.
The best books I’ve read on good writing are Stephen King’s On Writing, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Robert Cialdini’s Influence is a great book to learn how you may influence your readers positively. Now, don’t just read these books to learn to write well. Read any book that’s well written.
Thirteen, remember that writing is not as much about making money, getting famous, or making friends as it is about getting happy. Writing aids self-reflection, which is a great way to ease unhappiness out of our lives. Writing also helps us learn more, because we remember more when we write our thoughts and learnings.
Stephen King says, “Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
Write, and be happy.
P.S. Activate readability stats in Word. It will tell you how simple or difficult your writing is. Aim for a readability as low as possible. Stats for this post show a fifth grader can understand it.