How long should it take to write 800 words?

MsCollinsIs there anything that business executives can learn from professional writers, people who write for their living?

I think there is.

Professional writers know that unless their writing is engaging, a lot of the people who read the first paragraph are not going to be reading the last paragraph.  They may not even be reading the third or fourth paragraph.

Professional writers also have a realistic view of how long it takes to write something that the reader will want to read, something that will make the reader stop and think – maybe even change their mind on an important matter.

Gail Collins is one of The New York Times’ senior columnists.  She writes a couple of columns a week.  Each column is about 800 words.  (There’s an old newspaper joke.  Question:  What is your column about?  Answer:  It’s about 800 words.  Boom, boom.)

Unless I totally misread a recent interview with Ms Collins, it seems that each 800-word column takes her the best part of a day to write.  I say ‘write’, but what I really mean is write, rewrite, rewrite again, polish, and polish again.

Contrast this with one of our favourite clients who thinks that half a day is almost too long to spend writing five or six thousand words.  He has a busy schedule.  I understand that.  But ensuring that his readers – his customers, his potential customers, his suppliers, his business partners – read all the way to the end of the final paragraph is at least as important to his cause as Ms Collins’ column is to The New York Times’ cause.

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Don’t over-think it. Just do it.

yacht2Like many sailors, I learned to sail in a small one-sailed dinghy.  I say that ‘I learned to sail’ rather than ‘I was taught to sail’ because the chap who I thought was going to teach me to sail simply sat me in the boat and said: ‘That’s the tiller.  That’s the mainsheet.  Don’t worry; you’ll soon work it out.’  And then he pushed me out into the estuary.

It turned out that he was right.  I did soon work it out.  Happily, I survived that first voyage without even getting too wet.  And, over the next few years, I graduated to bigger and bigger boats and made longer and longer voyages.

Perhaps because I was comparatively light and reasonably nimble, I spent my first couple of years on bigger boats as the forward hand – changing headsails, rigging spinnakers, and then packing them into their turtles for their next (hopefully error-free) hoist.

Then somehow (I don’t remember quite how) I developed a bit of a reputation as a headsail trimmer.  It was probably at this point that I decided that I should get a better understanding of the physics of sailing; which meant that I needed to understand something about hydrodynamics and aerodynamics and meteorology.

A lot of what I learned confirmed what every ‘old salt’ already knew.  But some of it totally contradicted what every old salt already knew.  My new-found knowledge certainly led to some interesting conversations with some of the ‘Captain Bligh’ skippers with whom I sailed.

All of this happened in the days before on-board computers and other high-tech aids.  The only on-board computer I had was the one between my ears.  But, most of the time, it worked pretty well.  I remember one particularly black night on which we reached a rock in the middle of nowhere – which was also the second mark on a 250 nautical mile ocean race course – within a minute of my prediction.  Even our Captain Bligh skipper was impressed!

And then one summer, I, along with three then-friends, set off on a reasonably ambitious cruise.  Somewhere not too far from our point of departure, it became apparent that two of my companions had the idea that I was the skipper for hire.  I was there to take them on a pleasure cruise for two.  My other companion, they seemed to have decided, was there to ply them with cold drinks and tasty snacks.

To be honest, I wasn’t too put out.  For the next three or four days, I sailed the boat pretty much single-handedly.  And then, on the fourth or fifth day, we arrived – at about five in the afternoon – outside the narrow entrance to the harbour at which we were intending to anchor for the night.  The entrance was a bit like the neck of a bottle: long, narrow, and with high rocky cliffs on either side.

My passenger-companions showed no sign of participating in the actual sailing, so I headed the boat into the wind and dropped the genoa.  (For those of you who don’t know, the genoa is the big sail at the front.)  And then, while my passenger-companions called for more cold lager, I turned the boat towards the entrance and tacked it, single-handedly, like a 45-foot dinghy, through the drainpipe entrance, making use of every last scrap of breeze bouncing off the cliffs.

Once we were safely inside the heads, with the anchor down, one of my passenger-companions turned to me and said: ‘Damn.  That was impressive.  How did you know what to do?  And when to do it?  You really must explain it to me.’

But I couldn’t.

I’m not saying that you don’t have to know what you are doing; but I think that it can be a serious handicap to think too much about what you are doing.  In my experience, once you know what to do, and you know that you know what to do, it’s usually best not to think about it too much.  Just do it.

And this applies to writing as much as it applies to sailing.

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Tell them a story

Once UponOur client was perplexed.  His organisation had pitched to seven prospects, and only one prospect had said yes.

The contracts for which our client had been pitching were not insignificant.  The smallest (by value) would have been worth well over a hundred thousand a year; the biggest just short of four million a year.

‘I think we need someone independent to go and talk to each of the prospects and see if they can find out what we did right and what we did wrong.  Is this something that you might do for us?’

It was.  And we did.

The first prospect with whom we spoke said that our client had understood their RFP perfectly and had put forward a credible and competent proposal.  But the company they had eventually gone with just had ‘a certain something extra’.  Exactly what that certain something was, our informant could not quite say.  It was just ‘something’.

The second executive we interviewed had a similar story.  ‘Your people were very good, very professional,’ she said.  ‘But the others had something extra.  I’m not sure what it was.  But we all agreed that they had it.’

The third former prospect knew exactly what it was.  ‘In terms of the actual proposals, there was really nothing in it.  But we felt that the other guys told a better story.  They told a story that we felt we could engage with.’

By the time we had conducted all seven interviews it was clear that our client had, in each case, lost out on just one thing.  They had ticked all the boxes bar one.  They had understood the RFPs perfectly.  They had analysed the situation.  They had offered insight.  And they had come up with impeccably logical solutions.  But they had failed to present their solutions as part of an engaging story.

As human beings, we have a natural penchant for stories and storytelling.  Stories are how we make sense of the world.  We find carefully thought-out logical arguments appealing, sometimes very appealing.  But we find logical arguments wrapped up in a well-told story, even more appealing.

The message is simple: if you want to win them over, tell them a story.  And tell it well.

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Time to leap?

ClausewitzI think it was the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who suggested that ‘nobody in his right mind tries to cross a broad ditch in two steps.’  If one is going to get from one side to the other, one must make a decisive leap.

For perhaps the first 60 years of my life, unique meant ‘of which there is only one; unequalled; having no like.’  There were no degrees of uniqueness.  To suggest that something was ‘a bit unique’ or ‘slightly unique’ was a sign of an uneducated or careless writer.  It was on a par with writing ‘the woman was slightly pregnant.’

But language changes.  And the English language changes faster than most.  Today, many writers use unique to mean ‘remarkable’ or ‘unusual’.  Just today, I read a sentence that began: ‘The approach is slightly unique in as much as ….’

I must confess that whenever I see this usage, my mind shouts ‘No, no, no!’  But I also know that I can’t wind back the clock.  I must – however reluctantly – get to the other side of the broad ditch which is the evolution of the language.  I must make the leap.

I’m probably going to have to ‘cross the ditch’ on a few other words too.  Anticipate has become a slightly more pompous version of expect, and utilise has become a more pompous version of use.  Back in the days when unique meant unique, anticipate and utilise also had their own specific and useful meanings.  Anticipate meant ‘to expect something to happen and to take steps to mitigate the consequences’.  Utilise meant ‘to put to good use something which might otherwise be wasted’.

I also read today that ‘when it comes to selection, there is only one criteria’.  Well, no, there are at least two criteria.  But there is only one criterion.  Criteria is the plural; criterion is the singular.  Or at least that’s the way it used to be.

Now, could someone please hold my hat?  It seems that I have a broad ditch to cross.

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‘That’s not a word!’

SOD‘That’s not a word!’

‘Well, actually it is.  The writer wrote it – and, as far as we can tell, a good portion of her readers understood what she meant in using it.  So, for all practical purposes, it’s a word.’

‘Yeah, but it’s not a real word.’

‘It’s as real as any other word.’

‘I bet you anything that you can’t find it in a dictionary.’

‘You may well be right – for the moment – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a real word.  Dictionaries don’t lead; they follow.  Dictionaries record the common spelling and meaning – or meanings – of words that people are already using.

‘New words are being coined every day.  Technically they are known as neologisms.  Many of them wither away within a matter of months.  But others stick around long enough to find their way into the next edition of The Oxford or Mirriam-Webster or one of the other authorities to whom we turn when we want to know the meaning or accepted spelling of a word with which we are unfamiliar.’

‘That’s just silly.  If that was the case, I could just make up a completely new word.’

‘You could.’

‘And if I could persuade a few people to use it, it could end up in a proper dictionary – even though I had just made it up.’

‘Not only could it, but it probably would.’

‘Hmm.’

And so ended the conversation.

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Learn from the best

Books1When I first started writing for a living, one of the senior sub-editors took me to one side and gave me his ‘new boy chat’.

‘Most people’s writing is heavily influenced by their reading,’ he said.  ‘So read widely, but read wisely.  Learn from the best and ignore the rest.’  Among the best, he counted Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, and Anthony Burgess.

One of my tasks this week was to tidy up a veritable bucket of gobbledygook.  The author was a man of science and a rising star in his organisation.

If his writing is influenced by his reading, I would guess that he has read a lot of rather opaque scientific papers.  He also seems to have absorbed more than his share of online ‘clickbait news’.  ‘Mineral supplements potentially as damaging as smoking a new study to be published in a prestigious journal later this week will suggest’ seems to be his idea of literature.

I sent him the edited prose and waited for his comments.

‘Spot on,’ he said.  ‘That was exactly what I was trying to say.  It’s just that your version is easier to read.  I wish that I could write like that.’

‘You can.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Just stop reading writing that isn’t easy to read.  Seek out writing that is clear and concise.  Seek out stories that say something to you.  And if you find yourself confronted with umpteen pages of opaque mumble, politely ask the author if you can have a brief summary in plain English.’

‘Thanks.  I’ll give it a go,’ he said.

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Write what you would want to read

WritingYoung writers, inexperienced writers, often ask: How can I know what my readers will want to read?

It’s a question I used to ask myself.  What will hook my readers?  What will keep them reading?  What will send them away happy?  Or mad?  Or thinking seriously about something that they hadn’t previously thought about?

When I was a young writer, I kept a scrapbook of other writers’ good openings and endings, and used them as models for my own writing.  After all, these openings and endings (and the bits in between) had worked for me.  They’d hooked me.  They’d kept me reading.  And they’d left me with a smile on my face or a buzz in my brain.

But then, as the years went by, I realised that I didn’t really need the scrapbook.  All I needed to do was to write an opening that captured my interest, a middle that held my interest, and a satisfactory ending.

I couldn’t know what my readers would want to read.  (Ninety-nine-point-something percent of my readers were people I’d never met and was never likely to meet.)  All I could know was what I would want to read myself.

So now when a young writer asks: How can I know what my readers will want to read?  I tell them: You can’t.  Just write what you would want to read.

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Decisions, decisions

DecisionsWriting well is all about making decisions.

In a sense, you begin by deciding on your first word.  Although, in practice, most writers begin by deciding on their first sentence.

Then you decide what follows those first few words.  And so it continues: one word at a time; one sentence at a time; one decision at a time.

At some stage – hopefully not too far into the process – you decide how much of your subject to include.  More importantly, you also decide how much to leave out.  And, while there is often an inclination to include everything, if you want your prose to be clear and concise, everything is probably going to be way, way too much.  Less is usually more.

But one of the most important decisions comes when you think that you have finished writing whatever it is that you are writing.  That is when you have to decide: Have I said what I intended to say?  And, in our experience, this is where a lot of writers come unstuck.

Just a few days ago, a client came to us with a nicely crafted piece of prose.  It was easy to read, and it had a satisfying ‘heft’ to it.  The only problem was that it didn’t actually say what the writer had intended to say.

‘It’s your decision,’ we told the client.  ‘But we think that you might want to decide to start again.’

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The Minister of Words

Shakespeare1An old friend died recently.  His death wasn’t unexpected; he was nudging 90 and he had been unwell for almost two years.

As a young man he had survived The Great Depression and The Second World War, and, despite coming from a relatively poor family, he had managed to acquire a good education.

By the time I got to know him, his general knowledge was truly impressive, and he had an enviable facility with numbers.  But what used to delight me most was his prose style.  It was spare, but not too spare.  And even when he engaged in fierce pen-and-paper combat, there was always an underlying tone of good humour.

Helping his daughter to tidy up his ‘stuff’, I came across a draft of a letter to his bank manager.  It was a masterpiece of grace and grumpiness.  The bank manager would have been in no doubt as to where his bank had gone wrong and what it needed to do to put matters right.  But I’m also sure that, on reading my friend’s letter, the bank manager would have smiled.

Another friend of mine, a man who spent most of his working life teaching English to high school students, once suggested that you can’t teach kids to write well.  Each good writer learns for themselves.  All of the exercises and tutorials are just opportunities to ‘develop the writing muscles that the natural writers have been given’.

Back in the early-to-mid-1980s, when PCs first started appearing on people’s desks, many arrived with bits of ‘boilerplate’, chunks of prose that could be inserted into documents of one sort or another in order to make life easier for the writers of letters and reports.  Unfortunately, the people who composed the boilerplate sections often knew what to say, but they seldom knew how to say it.  As a result, clunk reigned.  Unfortunately, there is still a good deal of this clunk about today.

Throughout many organisations, there is a tacit belief that everyone can write.  ‘Hey, if our people weren’t literate, we wouldn’t have hired them.’  But this is patently not true.  Some people can write clearly, concisely, and with graceful style.  Others can do little more than arrange words in some sort of order that, on a good day, hints at an attempt to communicate.

Just as every organisation needs a strategy expert and a finance expert and an IT expert, every organisation also needs a prose expert, someone who can help your organisation to communicate with your customers, your suppliers, and everyone else that you need to get onside.  Find that person in your organisation.  And, if you don’t have one, recruit one.  And then make them the Minister of Words.  You won’t regret it.

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Squandering our treasures

Bucket2In the English language, the meaning of words often changes with time.  It seems that it has always been thus.

When I was growing up utilise generally meant to make use of something which might otherwise have been lost or discarded.  For example, a builder might utilise bricks salvaged from an old building as part of a new building.

Today, utilise is often used simply as a posh word for use.  ‘I think we should utilise the green paint in the bedroom, Samantha.’

There has been a similar shift in the meaning of anticipate.  Once it meant to expect something to happen and to take steps to mitigate the effect of that something happening.  ‘General Smith anticipated an attack on the left flank and dispatched a squadron of light cavalry to repel it.’

Today, anticipate is more likely to be used to mean simply expect or await.  And so the announcement of every second concert, film, or TV show is the announcement of a ‘much anticipated’ event.  ‘Madonna’s much-anticipated world tour.’

I know several older wordsmiths who are greatly exercised by these developments.  And I’m sure that, for many, it’s tempting to see these people as just a bunch of pedantic old fuddy-duddies.

But here’s a question: if utilise now means use, what word do we have to express the idea that utilise used to express?  How about reculate?  No?  Well … it was just a suggestion.

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