How to Write Well

Last Updated on June 10, 2020 by Alex Birkett

As early as college, I knew I wanted to get world class awesome at three things (professionally):

  1. Building and growing startups
  2. Data analysis/data science
  3. Writing

I believe entrepreneurship is a human trait, but I made sure to join the earliest stage startup possible after college to learn the ropes. Data analysis isn’t intuitive, especially probability theory, but with enough effort anyone can learn it.

Writing, however, is tricky.

Some people seem to communicate verbally very effectively, but when they put pen to paper, everything changes.

For example, a few years ago my brother asked me to review his graduate school application, and it was a convoluted mess of words that no real person would say out loud in conversation. Passive voice, thesaurus words, complex run-on sentences – you’ve seen it before.

In fact, here’s something funny that happens: when I was editing guest posts at CXL, I’d notice that, more often than not, practitioners, despite not having flowery post, often handed in drafts that were much more readable than professional writers. Professional writers, especially those with less experience or confidence, would try to “put some english on it.” Non-writers were good writers because they just threw their knowledge down on paper and then let me pretty it up and add commas and whatnot.

It seems writing well is largely a process of *unlearning* the bad lessons formal education has taught, unfortunately.

I don’t have all the secrets to writing well. I’m still learning and improving every day.

But I thought it’d be helpful if I wrote down my favorite pieces of advice, tips, and lessons learned over the years. Not the small stylistic and grammar stuff, but the big lessons.

Have Something to Say

The prettiest prose is nothing without a substantive message. Even in fiction. Even in poetry.

I love the way F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, but the reason I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times is because it teaches me interesting things about the human condition.

This is obviously especially true with non-fiction, and it’s of pivotal importance with the types of instructional business writing most of us are writing. If there’s no important message, publishing it is a waste of everyone’s time.

Resource: So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1 by Ryan Holiday

Write Like You Talk

Most of us need to unlearn the lessons we were taught in college. When you wanted to reach N pages on your essay, what did you do? Fluff it up. Add words and paragraphs to fill space. And what did you do if you didn’t fully understand a topic? Use convoluted and vague phrasing to mask your lack of understanding.

Incentives matter!

In the real world, however, you’re not graded on how many pages you write, and your real job is to transmit a message with writing. The best way to do that is the simplest: write like you talk.

Unlearn the nonsense, read your writing out loud, and ask yourself, “would a normal human talk like this?”

It’s hard to strip away the frills and ornamentation, but it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned about writing.

Your job is not to impress with your writing skills, but to communicate a message. This has nothing to do with the tactical advice most give around avoiding long sentences and writing in the passive voice (in real life, you use long sentences and the passive voice is sometimes used as well). You don’t need to write like Hemingway. Just try to put the English you learned in high school and college to rest and write more normally.

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Resource: Write Like You Talk by Paul Graham

Study the Greats

It’s improbable you’ll be a great writer without reading a lot of great writing. So this is easy: read a lot.

Then, when you have a breadth of experience reading, think about which authors are your favorites. Deconstruct how they do the job.

I do this with copywriting all the time. Take an ad you like and ask, “why does this work?” Try to reconstruct it. Think about it from first principles.

Even better if your favorite author has published or talked about their writing process. Stephen King, for example, wrote On Writing. Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, did a MasterClass on his writing process. “On Writing Well” is another popular one, but don’t get caught in the trap of reading too many books about writing (instead, devour content on a specific niche like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or artificial intelligence and just start writing about it.)

Want a quick hack? Watch Gladwell’s MasterClass while reading his book “What the Dog Saw” (a series of his New Yorker essays). It’s worth more than any college writing or literature class I’ve ever taken.

I make it a priority to read all the time, at least 30 books per year, and when I was in college it was 50+ per year. I even wrote this article about reading 50 books a year way back in early college (that I still keep up because it was such an important and impactful decision in my life).

Resource: Kaleigh Moore’s newsletter.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great because they paint a lot.” – Macklemore

I like to hire former journalists (not the click bait BuzzFeed kind, but real ones) for two reasons:

  • They’re trained to think and write clearly and are especially good at communicating complex ideas.
  • They don’t face writer’s block. They face deadlines.

At CXL, I wrote two long form articles (minimum) every week, which resulted in hundreds of published content on CRO, a/b testing, analytics, and user experience. This helped me build an audience, but more importantly, it resulted in me getting used to shipping (fast).

You can spend all day consuming good writing, reading theory, and never making any progress. Point is, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

So practice a lot.

Befriend Honest People

Your best route to any sort of learning is rapid and accurate feedback. Quantitative and objective is better, but qualitative and constructive is good, too.

Working at CXL made me a better writer, and not just because of all the practice. Peep Laja taught me many things, but one of the most impactful lessons is that getting blunt, raw, honest feedback is one of the most valuable things in the world.

Most people are afraid to hurt feelings (or have their feelings hurt), but if you can get past that, you can actually improve.

I still remember the feedback on my first draft I submitted at CXL, covered in Google Docs edits and suggestions, and critical comments that drove straight to the point. I learned to chop wordy introductions. I learned to avoid bullshit research sources and quotes. I learned to be simultaneously concise and thorough.

Currently, I usually give my drafts to a motley crew of honest friends that tear apart my drafts. Thanks to Mark Lindquist, David Ly Khim, Ryan Farley, and Erik Johnson (among many others) for continuing the tradition of honest feedback, and thus, rapid learning.

Don’t Let Mediocre Editors Ruin Your Voice

That said, never let a grammar and style-obsessed editor ruin your writing. The best case scenario is you’ve got interesting things to say *and* I can hear your voice through the paper. I don’t want a sanitized, nerfed version of you. I want the stylistic quirks, even if they betray APA style guidelines.

It takes time to develop this voice, so you’ll have to use your judgement on what feedback to accept and what to ignore. Over time, you’ll be able to parse the difference. A good heuristic: ignore most stylistic and formatting feedback, and accept (or at least debate) most substantive and thematic feedback.

I’ll leave with a quote from the preface of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”:

“Almost all the book editors who read the draft recommended changes at the sentence level (to make my style ‘better’) and in the structure of the text (in the organization of chapters); I ignored almost all of them and found out that none of the readers thought them necessary — as a matter of fact, I find that injecting the personality of the author (imperfections included) enlivens the text. Does the book industry suffer from the classical ‘expert problem’ with the buildup of rules of thumb that do not have empirical validity? More than a hundred thousand readers later I am discovering that books are not written for book editors.”