Thursday, November 24, 2011

Writing Your Way to Success

It's a safe bet that consultants will have to do some writing. Much of the consulting work I’ve done has involved developing process-related materials for clients. I have created all manner of process descriptions, procedures, document templates, checklists, guidance documents, and other work aids. Other engagements have involved performing a process assessment that resulted in a written report of my observations, analysis, and recommendations. So the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and effectively through the written word is an essential skill for many consultants. In this and several future posts I’ll share some things I've learned about writing.

As you gain experience and wisdom in a particular domain, you might wish to share what you've learned with others. I've written more than 150 articles on numerous software development, quality, and management topics, as well as more than twenty articles on chemistry and military history, of all things. Most of these articles were published by traditional print magazines, although more and more have appeared in recent years on websites. Most magazines will pay for articles; many websites will not. But remember, everything is negotiable (see last week’s blog post). If you have a good enough story to tell and enough credibility in the industry, you might be able to negotiate some payment from anyone who publishes your work. In general, you might get between $200 and $1000 per article, although the latter figure seems to be on the high side these days.

Eventually you might decide to write a book. That's a whole different prospect from writing a bunch of articles. Telling a story in a few thousand words on a focused topic isn't too hard; writing 60,000 to 100,000 words in a typical book takes mucho planning, time, and effort. Then there's the whole matter of getting the book published, negotiating contracts, promoting it, and all the rest. It ain't trivial.

I'll talk more about writing articles and books in future posts, but for now here’s one tidbit of wisdom I've acquired after writing seven books: think about whose writing you find particularly appealing and learn from them. You might have favorite authors who you find to be especially helpful, interesting, and enjoyable to read. Take the time to examine their work and assess why you like their writing. Then you can try to emulate some of those desirable characteristics in your own work.

I did this quite a few years ago. I realized that Steve McConnell was one of my favorite software authors (he's also a good friend). Steve has written numerous top-selling software books and is very highly regarded in the industry. When I thought about it, I realized that Steve used fairly short sentences in much of his writing, and he writes in a direct, conversational style. I also favor that informal writing style, although I confess to being somewhat long-winded by nature. My sentences can get wordy. I also tend to overuse adverbs, and I say "tend to" a lot. We all have our shortcomings.

Once I recognized what I like about Steve's writing, I tried to steer my own writing style in that direction. I use the statistics from Word's grammar checker (part of the spell check feature) to provide guidance. I find the grammar checking feature in Word worse than useless overall—I think it was programmed on Opposite Day—but I do like these statistics. The statistics report the average number of sentences per paragraph in the document, words per sentence, and characters per word. The number of characters per word should be around five when writing in English. I aim to keep the average words per sentence no higher than twenty, and preferably fewer. Shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs enhance readability.

The statistics report also shows several readability measures. The higher the Flesch Reading Ease index, the easier the document is to read (duh). I aim for at least 40. The lower the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the easier the document is to read. I keep my technical writing at a grade level around twelve. For my nontechnical writing, I aim for a grade level between eight and nine. I also try to keep the number of passive sentences low. Sentences written in the active voice are more direct and easier to understand than passive-voice sentences.

If the statistics don't come out like I want after I've drafted an article or book chapter, I'll do some editing to simplify the material and increase the readability. By way of example, here are the statistics for this post:
  • 1188 words
  • Average of 6.6 sentences per paragraph (a little high)
  • Average of 15.5 words per sentence (fine)
  • Average of 4.8 characters per word (typical)
  • One percent passive sentences (fine)
  • Flesch Reading Ease of 57.9 (great)
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.8 (wonderful)
If these statistics are meaningful, you should find this post easy to read. I hope that's the case.

The whole point of writing is to communicate with your readers. Readers respond to writing that doesn't make them work hard to understand it. They love direct, simple tutorials that teach them techniques they can apply immediately. Readers appreciate clearly stated concepts, explanations, and opinions. Some authors write as though they want readers to know how smart they are. Nobody cares how smart you are. They just care if you're able to communicate useful information to them. Hence, my interest in using a simple and conversational writing style. When I was writing a series of tutorials on assembly language for an Atari computer magazine long ago, I met a man who said, "When I work through your articles, I feel like you are standing there explaining them to me." That was great to hear, because it was exactly what I was trying to accomplish.

As you develop your writing style, you might think about what kind of compliments from an admiring reader would mean the most to you. Then you can develop a style that elicits that sort of feedback. Just this week, a reader commented on one of my blog posts: “I always enjoy your articles as they provide so much insight and information in a simple and interesting way. I find that your books are also very user-friendly and practical.” This comment delighted me: “simple, interesting, user-friendly, and practical” was music to my ears. It's one thing to inspire people with ideas, but I'm most interested in giving busy practitioners both useful techniques and the motivation to apply them.

I was educated as a scientist. The first substantial document I wrote was a PhD thesis in physical organic chemistry titled "Kinetics and Mechanism of Lithium Aluminum Hydride Reductions of Ketones." (What could be more fascinating than that? Actually, it was pretty cool.) Scientists neither write nor speak like normal people. When I began writing on topics other than science, it took me quite a while to un-learn how scientists write, to revamp my writing style to be more accessible. I think I've largely succeeded. One of the best compliments I ever got on my writing was when someone said, "You don't write like you have a PhD." I was most pleased.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

1 comment: