How I Write My Column
By Marty Nemko
I gave a workshop on how to write how-to. The attendees’ favorite part was when I drafted my column in front of them, thinking aloud as I was writing it.
So I thought I’d try to simulate that for you. Here is one of my San Francisco Chronicle columns. After each sentence, I’ll explain (in blue) why I wrote it as I did.
Bosses Don’t Have it Easy, Either
My goal is always to write dangerously, to write about things that are not conventional wisdom. Why? Because conventional wisdom has already been, by definition, widely disseminated. For example, although I am pro-choice, I'll never write a piece about it because it has been well covered. I want to write about what otherwise would not get written.
by Marty Nemko
I’ve seen so many books, TV segments, and articles on bad bosses—the ones that steal, abuse, micromanage, and/or get rich while their employees starve.
I make a point of using I/you rather than third person, let alone passive voice. It creates more of a connection with my reader. And I always use a simple conversational style—the voice I’d use with a friend. And this particular lead, in just one sentence epitomizes my goal in writing: to, in as few words as possible, engagingly state a clear truth that is not widely considered.
Of course, monster bosses exist, but having worked with hundreds of bosses and non-bosses, I gotta say that, on average, bosses get a bum rap.
That is the end of the introduction. I know my reader is busy. He only wants enough intro to know my thesis and become engaged in it. So, as soon as possible, I move into the meat.
Again, note my simple style. In graduate school, they taught me a style that required so many qualifiers per statement that the writing became impenetrable to all but the most dedicated scholars. After graduation, I decided I wanted to communicate to as many people as possible—the more people you communicate to, the more good you can do-- and that meant simple, but hopefully not simplistic writing.
Note how I attempt to create engagement. I don’t have a good memory for anecdotes nor like to tell jokes, but I can—without adding extra words—make the reading entertaining by my choice of words. In the above sentence, I chose “monster bosses” instead of, for example, “bad bosses,” Instead of saying “bosses are disparaged unfairly” I wrote, “Bosses get a bum rap.” A spoonful of sugar (humor or an anecdote) makes the medicine (the information) go down.
After all, they didn’t all get to be the boss because they schmoozed (or slept) their way to the top.
Again note how I manage to create humor/engagement with out adding many words.
Again note the writing style. This is my voice. It’s pretty much the way I speak. I believe an informal tone works well—for example, that you’d use when talking with a casual friend. If you’re even more informal, write as you would in speaking to a close friend. Either one ensures that you write in your voice.
Most of them got plucked for management because they did a better-than-average job in the trenches, earned college and graduate degrees, showed unusual initiative, demonstrated the ability to motivate people, and okay, maybe schmoozed their butts off.
And for all that ability and effort, bosses, really don’t have it that good.
This simple sentence accomplishes a lot. It clearly identifies the piece’s structure: 1. Bosses are an impressive group. 2. They are not rewarded for it. It also signals the reader that we’re about to move to that second issue—that bosses’ lives are less desirable than commonly thought.
Yes, they make more money, but often after taxes, unless you’re a big-time exec, the extra income doesn’t afford a much better lifestyle than the workers’. Let’s say a manager makes 70K while the worker bees earn 45. That 25K in extra income is taxed at the manager’s top tax rate which means he or she will get to keep maybe 13K a year extra. One of my core beliefs is that the middle class is overtaxed. In writing, I take every opportunity to write things than reflect my core beliefs.
That won’t allow him to buy a house when he was renting an apartment before. It won’t allow him to send his kids to private school, nor buy a Lexus to replace that ten-year old Corolla. It certainly won’t add much to his financial security.
I always try to make my examples as relevant and emotion-evoking to my reader as possible. As every advertiser knows, facts set up the reader to buy, but emotion moves the reader to action.
And what does the boss get for the small amount of additional income? Yes, a little prestige, but usually a lot of hassle.
I acknowledge, in a minimum of space, a major benefit of being a boss—prestige—preempting an objection from readers. As I write, I am constantly keeping my audience in mind. While being true to my values, I am writing to serve them. This mindset is very different from the standard advice given to writers, “Write for yourself.” I’ve read too many impenetrable novels, poems and even how-to material that feel like the author didn’t give a damn whether the reader understood him or not.
First, managers are “exempt” employees—which means they can work unlimited overtime yet won’t earn a dime of extra pay.
This is another example of a powerful yet not often-stated fact. I try to include as many such points as possible.
Then, there are the headaches. Note the word choice: “headaches” rather than, for example, “problems” let alone the cliché “challenges."
You’re no longer just responsible for your own work; you’re responsible for all your supervisees’ work. One of life’s major stresses is having problems that are out of your control to solve. That defines the managers’ job. So often, the manager is caught in a vise between upper management screaming for you to squeeze blood out of a stone and supervisees screaming they’re already squeezing as much as they can. Note that I wrote “screaming at you” rather than “screaming at the manager.” That personalizes the message. Note also the vivid language: vise, blood, screaming, squeezing.
Perhaps most stressful is when you have a problem employee. Often, it isn’t even your fault. You didn’t hire him; you inherited him. And despite what the how-to books tell you, it is damn hard to improve a bad worker. This again, is an example of a little-known truth—As I keep stressing, I try to fill my writing with these. So you try and try—a stressful process-- and too often, things don’t get sufficiently better.
So, at some point, you start thinking you’d like to fire the lump. “Lump” is another example of humor that doesn’t add length. In many work environments, it would be easier to build the Taj Mahal. Exaggeration is an easy way to add humor. And humor is an effective tool when making a controversial point—decrying how difficult it is to fire someone. To reduce risk of a lawsuit, most lawyers recommend an assiduous months- or even years-long effort to document the employee’s incompetence and inability to improve despite your carefully developing and supervising an improvement plan.
In the previous sentence, I deliberately make the sentence long and complicated to make the reader feel how complicated it is to fire someone.
Despite all that, if you let the employee go, you are at real risk of being sued for wrongful termination, especially if the employee is in a protected class: minority, women, person over 40, gay/lesbian, handicapped, or who practices a religion that is not the dominant one in that workplace. Now you’re talking maxi-stress. Few things are more stressful than an employee claiming you are racist, sexist, etc., and then having to endure interrogations by your HR manager, lawyers, and EEOC investigators.
Even if you’re proven beyond reproach, you will have suffered enormously while having no recourse and having spent tremendous amounts of time dealing with the lawsuit instead of doing the work likely to make you feel productive and set the stage for your future career advancement.
The previous three paragraphs discuss a little-spoken-of truth that I feel strongly about. Again, this is what I believe good writing is about: discussing unpopular things that are true, important, important to you, and yet little discussed.
So, next time you’re tempted to bash bosses or contemplate becoming one yourself, think twice. And do me a favor. If you have a good boss, thank him or her.
That last paragraph is the call to action. For me an article, is of little value if it doesn’t change the reader’s behavior .In that short paragraph, I suggest three behavior changes, and the I/you voice encourages the reader to personally consider those changes. For example, “If you have a good boss, thank him or her” is more likely to yield a behavior change than “Employees with good bosses should thank them.”
MY PRINCIPLES OF HOW-TO WRITING
Good how-to writing requires that you write about what is important yet little known, in a way that moves people to action.
I try to include as many fresh ideas per inch, presented as engagingly as possible. How do I keep coming up with fresh ideas? Part of it is simply keeping my antennae out for them: as I’m reading, talking to people, etc. Often, I’ll decide to write a column because I’ve come up with one or two clever tips on a topic but not enough to fill a column. I’ll find more using google, arrange the ideas in a logical structure, write a catchy intro, engagingly explicate each of the ideas, and end with a brief conclusion that moves the reader to action, all of course, in my voice.
I’m always keeping my audience in mind: what do they care about knowing? Will they understand what I’m saying? What would they object to in my argument? Should I preempt the objection? Will they find this sentence interesting? The paragraph? The whole article?
I use the voice I use with a friend. That’s the real me. It’s important to me that I write as honestly and as true to who I am as possible.
I always use “I and You” rather than third person or passive voice You’ll rarely see me write, “It is believed that…”
I never let myself struggle. In creating my first draft, I write whatever decent sentence comes to mind and go on until the draft is done. Then I go back and revise. It’s infinitely easier to revise my way into excellence than to come up with excellence out of thin air. If in writing that first draft, I notice something that can be fixed within a few seconds, fine. Other than that, I keep writing until that draft is completed.
I do not try to impress with long sentences, big words, etc. The purpose of writing is to communicate. The simpler (but not simplistic) I write, the more people I will successfully communicate with. It takes a lot of work to explain a complicated concept simply but I believe that’s what the good how-to writer must do.
When I have to explain a complicated concept, I often literally say to myself, “How can I say this simply?” and write something down. If that something still seems too complicated, I read it aloud and try to whittle away any words that aren’t essential. If it’s still too complicated, I turn from the computer and pretend I’m explaining the concept to a sixth grader. I then write that and compare it with what I previously wrote. I usually end up keeping the sixth grade version or a variant thereof.
I am a word cheapskate. Every unnecessary word dilutes my message—it’s like watering down wine. So, when reading a draft, I excise every nonessential word.
To keep myself grounded in my audience, when I complete a draft, I solicit feedback, usually not from an expert, but from people in my target audience. Because most people are reluctant to give negative feedback, I beg for it. I might say, “Of course, I welcome your telling me what you like, but please, when something is yucky or fuzzy, tell me.”
I typically email it to my feedback providers, then call them read it aloud while they’re following along and they give me feedback—not all of which, I accept, of course. I try to be open-minded but recognize that I’m the final arbiter. Reading it aloud usually helps me find ways to improve the piece, 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 gets done quickly, that I feel good about, and that gets published.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2013. Usage Rights