Till the age of 32, I did not know what good writing meant. Nobody taught me or demanded it from me.
Throughout my schooling (in Kendriya Vidyalaya) and college, ‘quality writing’ was not even a thing. I doubt if even any of my English teachers knew how to write well. Essays were just meant to fill the pages with words (e.g., write a 1000 word essay on blah…).
Working in the IPS further wrecked my writing skills.
Here is a typical Sarkari communication – “Your kind attention is drawn to the reference cited. Your good self may kindly be pleased to take appropriate action. I will be highly obliged if the undersigned could be informed about the outcome.”
Full of passive voice, verbosity… you name it.
For my MBA applications, for the first time, I had to tell a story. Since I was competing with a global pool of applicants, I was forced to up my game. That was my first attempt at good writing.
At McKinsey, I could further sharpen my skills since I spent as much time on writing as on problem-solving.
I still have a long way to go, but here are a few lessons. I am assuming that the reader already has the basic grammar and composition sorted.
Let us start with a few hygiene factors:
1) Omit needless words
I picked this from Strunk and White’s classic on writing. Unnecessary words are like dust on a glass window – they muddy up the beauty of your writing.
A few examples:
- Instead of ‘In order to achieve our goals’, just say ‘To achieve our goals.’
- Don’t write ‘In my opinion, we should do blah…’ Just say ‘We should do blah…’ Your writing is your opinion, anyway.
2) Use active voice
Instead of, ‘The project was done by two interns,’ make it, ‘Two interns did the project.’
3) Cut down the use of adjectives/adverbs
Don’t say, ‘The exam was very hard.’ Just say, ‘The exam was hard.’
4) Show, don’t tell.
“The journey to the peak was an arduous climb” – this ‘tells’ the reader, who has to recreate the feeling in his head.
“Halfway up the journey, my calf muscles were on fire” – This is better as the reader can feel that it was arduous. We don’t have to tell.
5) Stick to the rules, but not all the time
When you break the rules, it should be intentional, and it should hit the reader.
The above will make your writing clean and easy to read. But to make people cry or laugh or angry, you need to give it some punch.
Here are a few suggestions:
Edit mercilessly. The punch comes from editing, not from the first draft.
Ask yourself, ‘What is the key point.’ Delete all the other words. Then add back words only if they really change the meaning. See example below:
A bad, verbose example: “Based on the facts and our past experience, we have a few corrective actions to recommend. We suggest that the client at least starts with the following three initiatives – A, B, and C.”.
Better, tighter writing: “To conclude, we recommend three initiatives – A, B, and C.”
After a round of editing, take a break and come back after a few hours, or a day. You will be surprised at the number of mistakes you will catch.
If you are just starting, try cutting down the word count of the first draft by 50%. Trust me – it will become better.
Some people say ‘Write only when you are angry.’ Don’t wait for the right mood, but feel the rage, the excitement, or the fear if you want to move the reader.
Specifics over generality: Instead of saying, ‘The affluence level in country A has gone up a lot in the last 50 years’
Try saying something like, ‘Today, every family in country A has two cars on average. Fifty years back, only the king had one.’
Don’t be afraid to offend. Don’t please everyone. Hit hard.
Storify it. Facts and data don’t move people. One thousand people dead or 100,000 people dead – it is just a few more zeros. But stories evoke emotion.
E.g., the Syrian civil war killed lakhs, but it did not move anyone. But the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a toddler who died when his family was immigrating, changed the sentiments of Europe towards Syrian immigrants. Before that, tens of thousands of kids were killed, but nobody cared. Why? Because we can relate to stories but not statistics.
Before I finish, here is an important disclaimer:
I am not a professional writer. My training is in Finance and Engineering. Hence please treat the above as learnings of an amateur, and not an authoritative set of rules.
In summary: Write a lot. Edit brutally. Cut out the junk. Feel the rage. Tell the story. Don’t dilute. Write fearlessly.