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The World's Shortest Writing Course

By Marty Nemko

In college and graduate school, they taught me how to write. It made me a worse writer.

By the time they finished with me, my writing was so complex, you needed a Ph.D. to understand it and caffeine to stay awake.

I’ve since replaced my college lessons with ones that have enabled me to get 400+ articles and four books published and to have helped many clients write successful cover letters, business proposals, and even love letters.

Here is my approach to writing:

Occasionally, I start by writing a very brief outline, but usually I jump right in by writing the first sentence. In the first draft, I have low standards: I write the first decent idea that pops into my head. It’s much easier to revise your way to excellence than to come up with perfection out of thin air. Often, having written that first sentence, I immediately see a way to improve it. If so, I make the change. If not, I move on to the next sentence.

I do not get out of my chair until the first draft is done. Because I’m not being perfectionistic, I usually finish a draft of a 700-word piece in just an hour or two, not counting any research I may need to do.

If your writing is difficult to understand, it’s usually because you haven’t taken the time to figure out how to make your points simply or because you tried to impress with big words or long sentences. If you find yourself having written a complicated sentence or paragraph, turn away from what you’ve written and say the thought in your own words. That will often be a clearer way to say what you’re trying to say.

Uncommunicative writing can also come from being too abstract. Whenever presenting an idea that is not crystal clear, provide an interesting example. For example, let’s say I wanted to write, “Some churches encourage anti-scientific thinking.” I would follow that abstract statement with, “For example, they insist that parishioners ignore top scientists’ explanations and instead accept on blind faith that God created the world in seven days with a wave of his mighty hand.”

Your writing will also be boring if you include non-essential details. In writing each sentence, ask yourself, “Is this detail important enough to risk boring the reader?” Every non-essential detail dilutes your paragraph.

If you feel the need to make your document longer, you may be tempted to pad: to include non-essential details and to use many words to express a simple idea. Don’t! Your document will be worse. The solution is to come up with more ideas. Don’t have any? Try the Internet, library, or ask someone you respect.

After finishing a first draft, I revise and revise until I’m pleased with it. I will typically reread a draft five to ten times. I only stop when a reread doesn’t improve it any more. I then put it aside for a day and review it with fresh eyes. Almost always, I find yet more ways to improve it.

Finally, I e-mail the resultant draft to someone I respect, immediately phone them, and, if they’re available, read it aloud as they follow along on their screen. I encourage the person to interrupt me with feedback. Reading it aloud usually helps me find ways to improve it, and their simultaneously reading and hearing it enables them to focus well. That approach also ensures I get the feedback immediately. If I had simply emailed it to them, it could take days to get a response.

The result is usually a work that got done quickly, that I feel good about, and that gets published.

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