First published on Linkedin here
I reckon there are two types of people in the modern world of knowledge work. Those that tell stories and those that have not yet realised their job is to tell stories. I’ve been in the latter camp for most of my career. On most days, I probably still am.
The thing is, today we all have the potential communication power and reach that only a very small group of people held for most of human history. What will we chose to do with it? Writers can really change the world.
Our leverage matters in life, it shapes our place in the world. Modern forms of leverage such as media, code and networks are taking over from traditional forms of leverage such as capital and labour (thanks Naval Ravikant for this idea). Writers can make themselves matter, they can stand for something – they can speak to an audience before they even get in the room. They can command the attention of others – a scarce and valuable commodity especially in today’s distracted world. Writing online is networking.
Nothing clarifies your thinking better than writing it down and then putting it out there for public consumption. It forces you to question assumptions, find better references for data and check every step. Writers are better thinkers – when you write you don’t just share your idea, you actually discover your ideas. It’s like when you have guests over, you’ll make that extra effort to make sure everything at home is tidy and in order. By writing down your idea you are doing the world a favour as you are filtering your own thoughts to make them clearer. And once you have your idea down it crystallises. It exists tangibly, it can be shared so others benefit and can integrate into their thinking. Others can build on it. You can refer back to it. It becomes concrete.
There are many, many reasons to start putting your thoughts down in print and publish a blog, but you’re probably reading this because you already want to do that. So let’s turn to the question of how to do it. You might ask the question – does the world really need another blog post in 2020? The answer I believe is yes, IF it is differentiated from the mass of dull boring, anodyne corporate content out there. Don’t focus on being better, be different. The good news is you only need to apply a small amount of effort to lift your content, just slightly, up from the run of the mill. And if we could all do that we’d all do each other a massive favour.
The first and most important thing for you to know is that nobody wants to read your sh*t (thanks Steven Pressfield for this brilliant insight). But wait, that’s a good thing! It’s actually very liberating. And it means you’ve got to focus here. Be aware there’s a transaction going on. Simply because you have taken the time, written something and put it out there that does not mean readers will now “do their bit” and read. It doesn’t work that way. Your piece needs to be worth their while. It needs to offer them something. It needs to jump out and demand to be read. It needs to grab them by the eyeballs and …
School gets it wrong about writing unfortunately, or at least doesn’t tell the full story. It isn’t really about grammar and syntax (unless you are a true pedant, in which case, I can’t help you). It is about being informative and fun to read.
I’m far from a great writer myself, but I’ve read enough to have an idea of what good looks like, and learnt a few things along the way.
So you need to think very, very hard about the beginning of your piece. But don’t do that yet, first we just need an idea.
14 rules for writing your first blog
1. Before you type a word adopt the mindset that nobody wants to read your sh*t. Accept you will need to provide something useful to the reader. That you will need to make it very clear early on what value they will get from your piece.
2. Sketch your idea. For now just write. Get your thoughts down. Don’t wait for perfect, make a start. Everything is a draft. Your first draft might only be 40% there, but it’s a start. We can improve it later.
3. Be real. We all seem to put on this funny form of corporate-speak far too often in our working lives. What Winston Churchill described as “officialese jargon”. Corporate guff. You know what I mean. Just say things normally! Don’t start sentences with “whilst” or “however”. Leave out the caveats and qualifiers. Weed out waffle and padding. Scott Adams makes this point well (as well as having some other great tips on writing) here.
4. Keep. it. short. Blogs, and particularly your first blog should be short. Aim to fit it into a typical 6-minute attention span which means sub-1000 words. Seth Godin is one of the most famous marketing bloggers out there, look at how short many of his blogs are. Once you’ve got a first draft ruthlessly go through and trim words or sentences that don’t contribute much. You’ll be surprised at how much you can cut this way.
5. Split it into acts. A tried and tested structure. You need a setup, an exploration then a resolution. Just a couple of hundred words each ideally. Many blogs make the mistake of meandering randomly around a subject. Set out the question you plan to answer or key issue that you will explore. It should just be one. Another structure is the list … “5 things I’ve learnt, 4 rules for life … “ good examples here and here.
6. Find a story. Newsflash. People. Love. Stories. We are intrinsically drawn to them and they click into place and stick in our memory like little else. So this is where your writing gets interesting. Is there an analogy you can borrow? Is there a tension that you can resolve? Can you use contrast, between how things are and how they could be? Can you link to current topical events, or a big theme. Something from your own life or experience, especially a struggle or a change of mind. Even in the world of finance and investing there is a story to be found. There always is. Here are some more storytelling tips. We aren’t looking for you to re-tell the Star Wars trilogy here but something short, even one sentence that can link the idea back to a bigger theme, a recent event, or zooms in to draw out a particular example, even better if it has a human element.
7. Edit, edit and edit again. Come back to what you’ve written the next day. The next evening. Look at it on the train on the way to work. You’ll surprise yourself with how many new angles you find and ways to say things. Compress four roundabout sentences into one direct one. Use shorter words, weed out more waffle. Your subconscious will throw out ideas. Leave it to settle and edit for a few days, a week perhaps. Some more great tips for editing your own writing here.
8. Obsess over your start. This is the most important bit and it has to grab your reader and get them to want to carry on. We need something like an engaging story (“once upon a time there was a … and so it happened again and again until one day …”), an inspiring quote or fact, an Intriguing statistic, a bold statement a burst of insight that elevates the level, a question that provokes real curiosity (“have you ever … ?”), a cold open that creates a dissonance the reader needs to resolve, a dramatic scene set or ask the reader to imagine something.
9. Don’t bury the lead. This is classic journalistic advice and helps for blogs as well. Say the key thing first, literally in the first handful of words. Get straight to the point and resist the temptation to build up with too much context, background and force your readers to get a few paragaphs in before hitting the key point by which time attention may be wavering or skim reading might be starting. Its not always about stating all the facts, but jumping to the meaning behind the facts (Chip and Dan Heath illustrate this with a classic example in their book Made to Stick).
10. Work on the ending. Make it crisp, end it strong, clear. Don’t waffle or fade out. Leave the reader with something they will remember.
11. Work on the title. Questions can work, numbers/lists work, less is more.
12. Choose a decent cover image. This might sound superficial but if you want your idea to have reach and grow you need people to want to click on it. And people don’t want to click on yet another corporate stock image of blokes in suits or a poorly cropped bio photo. Get a subscription to a usable image repository like shutter stock, and/or push your design team to come up with better images. Here and here are some good examples of simple but different.
13. Use a reviewer. You know the funny thing about these rules? I can write them but half the time I can’t even follow them myself. This is where a peer reviewer can really be your friend to just tell you “no, too long” … “too boring” etc. It is not always practical and sometimes you’ll want to just get something up but I would encourage you particularly early on to make sure you bounce your draft blogs off someone who will give you genuine feedback to try and make them better and more readable. By all means get in touch with me, I can’t promise I’ll have capacity to help, but I’ll try my best.
14. Don’t wait for perfect. Look, you can always make something better by taking more time on it, but by far the bigger risk is never publishing something because you want it to be perfect. There’s a balance here. I’ve laid out 13 other rules and these will take time to work through and apply to your work. But get comfortable pushing the work out when you think most of the gains have been made. It’s like the 80/20 rule, 80% of the improvement comes in 20% of the time (you want to find and do this part) but the next 80% of the time could be spent only getting another 20% improvement (don’t do this bit). Yes, you’ll look back in a year or so and be a bit embarrassed by your early blogs, that’s inevitable and a great sign that you are learning and progressing. Just like a startup company you’ll get a better idea of your “target market” and “product market fit” through time, but the most important thing is to get your product out there
My final piece of advice if you want to make a commitment to writing better is to read more. There’s no question in my mind that if you expose yourself to good writers you’ll find that better ideas and structures will just come more easily. Follow Morgan Housel, Shane Parrish, Ben Carlson, Nick Magguili and David Perrell (who has also just launched an excellent podcast on the art of writing, from which some of the ideas here were taken). Read The Economist and Harvard Business Review.
And don’t worry – everyone suffers that final last minute panic as you are about to push publish. Will it be good enough? Will I look stupid? Have I totally missed something? These are usually vastly overblown fears. Press publish. Get your idea out there. You might be surprised where it takes you.