If you work within a top-end professional service firm or successful company, you’ll know you have to write within a challenging environment. You are working for smart, busy people and writing for equally smart and busy clients and customers. You must also produce material quickly on complex topics and deliver high-quality prose that people like elite lawyers and CEOs won’t tear to bits.
The trick to meeting the needs of these demanding clients – inside and outside organisations – is to follow a sound process that will give you a sporting chance of not only succeeding but impressing. This process was the focus of a series of writing training events I just led for ICON.
ICON is the peak association for marketers and business development people working in professional service firms and B2B businesses. It was formerly known as the Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association (APSMA). This post is a summary of the points that I covered in the seminars for more than 150 ICON members in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
It also explains how a group of marketers from Hong Kong came to be shouting “keep fighting for the writing!”
1. Get a good brief
The first step is to get a good brief that clearly defines what you’re meant to do. What are you writing, for whom and why? What’s the commercial context? What would your organisation like readers to think, feel and do once they’ve finished reading the material you’re about to write? And does the organisation have a writing style guide or any notes to tell you how to write?
Good writing rests on the quality of the research it’s based on. If you haven’t found out anything new or interesting to write about, then it’s unlikely that your material will be compelling or useful.
So, interview experts and ask probing questions. Read as much background as you can. Read your competitors’ material. Even try to talk to some of the people you’re writing for – your clients or customers – to understand what they already know and what they’d like to know.
At some point you need to start actually writing. But before you dive in, create a plan. Map out your document and the argument in detail before you begin trying to write whole sentences and paragraphs. As you do, think about how long the whole piece should be, what the design will be like, what points you plan to make in each section and the overall logic of the piece.
If you’re writing something that is seeking to convey one or more key points, then argue the case for them, then it might be worth looking up Barbara Minto’s book The Pyramid Principle. That will explain how to structure your argument so that you have a key point (or several, if you’re doing something longer) backed by a few strong and distinct underlying arguments. As in the diagram.
Barbara Minto’s ‘Pyramid Principle’, as designed by SlideGenius.com
And as you put fingers to keyboard, try to keep your prose clear, concise and persuasive. Use simple words that will be widely understood. Keep your sentences short and only have one idea in each of them. Use lots of paragraph breaks and sub-headers, like this blog.
Once you’ve got a good base, add some flair. Consider how your copy sounds and flows – try reading it out – does it have a nice rhythm? Is it poetic? Could you compare your complex corporate topic, like tax reform, to something more palatable like cars, travel or shopping? Could you structure your points into list of three?
The list of ways to add flair is endless, and the benefits are enormous – especially for your readers.
4. Edit and revise
Writing a first draft is only the first step in your writing, of course. It will – or should – be followed by numerous rounds of editing and proofreading as you read back over your own work, and as you gain feedback and input from others. This is a tricky process in a large organisation and where many pieces of good writing become muddy mishmashes produced by too many cooks.
That brings us to the fighting bit. If you’re the original author, or even an editor helping to steward a piece of writing from origination to publication, then you need to keep working to ensure it remains a good piece of writing. That typically involves taking on board everyone’s requests and changes, then editing the full piece from beginning to end to ensure it still flows.
Even better, try to add back some of the flair you injected in earlier drafts and cull any dross or repetition that’s crept in. As the ICON group in Hong Kong said so well, “keep fighting for the writing”.
Mastering the craft of writing is a lifelong process so you can never read enough. Look up books, blogs and other advice about writing. Also, just read lots of great writing, from fine fiction to journalism, advertising and reference material. See what other authors have done and hopefully revel in the power of a great sentence – one that can bring an idea to life in your mind in the way that photos and videos still can’t do and perhaps never will. You can also check out our reading list below.
Finally, a big thank you to all the committees that helped organise the ICON writing training events. Thanks too to Ashurst, King & Wood Mallesons and MinterEllison for donating their superb facilities in each location (see pic of the view from Ashurst Singapore’s window, below).
Grant Butler is the founder and director of Editor Group and a former journalist with The Australian Financial Review.
Here are a few great and fairly timeless books about writing you might find valuable.
English language usage
American English: The Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago University Press, 2017
Australian English: Australian Government Style manual, John Wiley & Sons, 2002
British English: New Oxford Style Manual, Oxford University Press, 2016
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, Anniversary reprint edition, Harper Perennial, 2016
Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, 3rd edition, Pearson Education, 2009 (first published in the USA in 1987 by Minto International Inc.)
Thought leadership and speech writing
Philip Collins, The Art of Speeches and Presentations, Wiley, 2012
Peter Thompson, Persuading Aristotle, Allen & Unwin, 1998
Michèle Asprey, Plain Language for Lawyers, 3rd edition, The Federation Press, 2003 (first published 1991)
Harold Evans, Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers, Pimlico, 2000 (first published 1972)
George Orwell essays (1940s), Politics and the English Language and Why I Write
‘A Plain English Handbook – How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents’, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf, 1998
Government Digital Service Blog, Government of the United Kingdom, gds.blog.gov.uk
The writer’s process
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Hodder Paperback, 2012 (first published 2000)
Editor Group books