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Secret Sauce Of

Great Writing
Tips From A Top Newspaper Editor
Shani Raja

Never use a
long word when a short
one will do
- George Orwell

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Secret Sauce Of
Great Writing
How I Discovered The Secret Sauce
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Do you reckon youre a good writer? A great one? Perhaps you think
youre awesome?
I confess: I used to think I was awesome. At school and university, I got
excellent grades for most of my writing assignments. As a result, for
years I had an unshakable confidence that I was a brilliant writer.
Then I became a journalist. I worked for some of the worlds leading
newspapers and magazinesthe likes of the Economist, Financial
Times and The Wall Street Journal. Editors on those publications are
ruthless. They ripped apart my stories and stitched them back
together to create an impossibly powerful and beautiful narrative.
Thats how, as newbie reporter, I discovered the huge gap between
how great a writer I thought I was, and how good it was possible to be.
Those editors showed to me that writing was capable of being
developed and refined well beyond the level of the average university
graduate or professional.
As my understanding of the craft deepened, I realised that while most
people in the business world knew how to write, only an elite few
could do so brilliantly. And those that did know how to write

exceptionally had a distinct advantage over their peers and


competitors.
The tragedy was that those people who couldnt write brilliantly
mistakenly presumed that those who could must possess some raw
natural ability theyd always lack.
Its true some people have a natural flair for writing, as others do for
dancing. However, as I studied the techniques of those great editors I
came to realise they were simply applying principles anybody could
follow to enhance their writing ability.
In my 20-year career as a professional journalist, I must have written
and edited hundreds of thousands of articlesgiving me ample
opportunity to fine-tune my writing. Being in a high-pressure writing
environment has given me a unique chance to study the art and craft
of writing in meticulous detail.
Finally, I have codified my discoveries and am ready to reveal what Ive
identified as the secret sauce of great writing. This original framework
is so powerful it will cause a seismic shift in your own writing ability.
Professionals and businesses that understand the paradigm will
quickly begin to stand out in the corporate universe.
The secret sauce is made up of three vital ingredients that, when
included in your writing, will begin to make your paragraphs shimmer,
sentences shine and words sparkle. The sauce is so powerfully potent
that you should burn the following three words into your brain and
remind yourself of them whenever youre writing anything:
Simplicity
Clarity
Elegance

If writing seems hard,


its because it is hard.
Its one of the hardest
things people do
- William Zinsser

Slick Writing Sells

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But first... why should you bother to improve your writing?


The reason is simple. You may not have noticed it yet, but poor writing
is holding you back in your career and business.
Just consider:
How many job interviews have you lost because your cover letter
doesnt stand out from the crowd?
How many promotions have you missed because your memos
dont sparkle like those of your slicker-writing colleagues?
How many potential customers havent you converted on your
website because the writing there is impenetrable or simply
too dull?
How many of your sales emails are regularly tossed into your
prospects junk folder because they fail to move or captivate?
The plain fact is that slick writing sells. It wins you promotions at work.
It makes your business look better than others. Poor writing, on the
other hand, makes you look shabby.
Perhaps you consider yourself already to be a good enough writer.
Even so, imagine what difference it could make if you could go from
being an ordinary writer to becoming an extra-ordinary one?
Shortly, Im going to teach you how to do exactly that.
Im going to show you how to bring about a seismic shift in the quality
and effectiveness of your writing.

The Secret Sauce

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Now, have you ever read anything thats made you go, Wow, thats
just beautiful? If so, youve encountered somebody whos mastered
the art of writing with flair. Its a rare art.
Ask yourself: what made that piece of writing so entrancing?
Great writing has a few immediately recognizable characteristics you
should take notice of. For one thing, its instantly comprehensible.
Secondly, its captivating. And finally, it flows smoothly.
Did the piece of writing you remembered have those characteristics?
Ill bet it did.
Bad writing is the opposite. Its dull, confusing and jarring to read. Im
sure youve all had the experience of reading something that baffled
you, was clunky, or just so inspiring that you drifted away into sleep.
If you ponder the matter even more deeply, youll discover something
interesting. Whenever writing is effective, three qualities are always
present. Yesits those I mentioned, the secret sauce.
Good writing always has an abundance of simplicity, clarity and
elegance.

The Key To The Matrix

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Thats all very well, but how do you maximise the simplicity, clarity and
elegance of your writing?
Its easy: you apply certain rules and principles to enhance each
quality. There are principles for making your writing simpler, and there
are rules for making it clearer and more elegant.

I cant reveal every single principle in each category here. There are
too many, and the purpose of this book is really to introduce you to
this powerful framework, which alone will help superpower your
writing.
The worlds best editors on magazines like The Economist and
newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal instinctively know most of
the principles within each category, though many tend to apply them
unconsciously.
Let me assure you that youll be able to take the principles you find in
the next few pages and apply them successfully to your own writing.
Trust me when I say theyll give you a distinct advantage over your
peers and competitors. Some rules will make a difference immediately.
Now, you could take this simplicity-clarity-elegance framework and
possibly work out many of the rules yourselves. But it will take a lot of
time. In fact, it took me two decades to discover and map out the full
suite of principles that induce powerful and graceful writing.
Ive done the hard work for you by decoding the matrix. And now Im
about to hand you the master key that gets you entry. Make no
mistake: the framework Im giving you is a game-changer for aspiring
writers.
So, lets get to it and begin exploring the magic formula of simplicity,
clarity and elegance.

Never use jargon words like


reconceptualize, demassification,
attitudinally, judgmentally.
They are hallmarks of a
pretentious ass.
- David Ogilvy

Simplicity
At school, were often taught that to write well we need to start using
big, fancy words. The same is true of university, where were
additionally encouraged to create lengthy, complex sentences to show
our sophistication.
Because this advice mostly came from tutors we respected, weve
come to equate those recommendations with intelligence. So, if I
implore you now to stick with small words and straightforward
sentences, you may find yourself resisting my advice. You fear your
writing will begin to sound less sophisticated.
To become a better writer, you have to drop this beliefnow. You need
to understand that you display more sophistication when you choose
to express yourself in the simplest way possible.
Simple writing is also more pleasurable to read. When you appreciate
that the true purpose of writing is to convey ideas to other people, you
begin to realize that simplicity is one of the best tools around for
communicating them effectively.
As an editor for a number of top news organizations, I can tell you that
I spent most of my time substituting reporters unnecessarily long
words with shorter ones, while trying to turn complicated-sounding
sentences into simpler ones.
That is what a good editor always does, and you should start doing the
same with your own writing.
Here are three principles you can use immediately to enhance the
simplicity of your writing:

1. Stick to short, familiar words


Words with an official ringsuch as commence or exhibit
substantially weaken your writing. They are jargon. Simplify to say,
respectively, start and show, which are shorter and have more
impact.
Dont say, I will provide you with an update tomorrow, when you can
say. Ill update you tomorrow. Also, dont use longer words such as
investigate if all you mean is look, or utilise when you mean use.
Imagine a cover letter for a job application that ends: I shall be
pleased to make your acquaintance should you deem my background
and credentials to be worthwhile to your company and its long-term
ambitions.
Sounds pretentious, right? Be straightforward and honest: Id be
happy to meet you for an interview.
2. Strike out as many words as possible
Youd be surprised at how many words can be deleted from a
sentence without losing any of the intended meaning. So often we use
an array of words around an idea that we are simply used to seeing,
but which have no intrinsic value.
I am of the opinion that it is necessarily the case that my cat exhibits
adorable qualities, is a hideously pompous statement that also
obscures the writers real meaning, which is, My cat is really cute.
The journalist Harold Evans famously invited readers of one of his
works to consider which words appearing on an imaginary
marketplace signpost could be deleted without harming
comprehension. The words on the sign were: FRESH FISH SOLD HERE.
He showed that all of the words could be deleted because people
would expect the fish to be fresh and soldso it doesnt need
sayingwhile the person reading the sign knows they are here, and
the fish could probably be smelt anyway.

3. Un-complicate ideas to the furthest extent


Always try to boil down a sentence to its simplest form for maximum
comprehension. Keep going with it until youre satisfied an idea cant
possibly be made any simpler.
The notion that a competitive workplace environment is
commensurate with superior performance is, at best, dubious.
When you un-complicate that sentence, you get something that reads
much simpler and is easier to understand: A competitive workplace
doesnt necessarily lead to better performance.
Try making this sentence as simple as possible using the principles Ive
outlined:
It is advisable to purchase stocks when their prices are depressed and
to sell them at the top of the market
This is better: Buy stocks low, sell them high.
And this one:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the
conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no
tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a
considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken
into account
I still havent been able to figure that one out, but heres the best I
could do: People arent necessarily born successful.

If it is possible to cut a
word out, always cut it
out.
- George Orwell

Clarity
The second secret ingredient of great writing is clarity.
How many of you have read something that leaves you scratching your
head? I have. Too many times
Before I became a journalist I used to think I wasnt smart enough to
understand what the writer was saying. I blamed myself.
After I became an editor, I realised its never the readers fault for
failing to understand something. Its always the writers fault for failing
to express themselves clearly enough. I have turned around the most
seemingly complex sentences into something easily comprehensible
and yes, without dumbing down the ideas.
The truth is, almost anything can be expressed in a way other
reasonably intelligent people can understand. If it takes a long time to
grasp something youve just read, its usually because the writer hasnt
discovered, or taken the trouble to find, the best way of presenting it.
As aspiring elite writers, our aim is to make all our sentences
immediately comprehensible.
Here are three things that stand in the way of clarity: laziness,
ambiguity and poor punctuation
1. Sheer laziness
Often we are simply too lazy to try and explain ourselves clearly. We
leave quickly produced sentences as they are, even though they dont
express our thoughts that well. Worse, we sometimes havent taken the
trouble to decide clearly what we want to say.
We just put our writing out there hoping somebody more intelligent
than us will figure out, or infer, what we mean.

An elite writer finds such an attitude reprehensible. We are committed


to making our writingwhether its a cover letter, report or marketing
copyas accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
Try getting your head around this sentence:
While a 4-out-of-5 chance of avoiding recession doesn't sound
alarming, it is notable that this is the highest probability in the post-war
period that didn't result in a subsequent recession outside of the
global financial crisis
The idea is so curly that its almost impossible for a reader to get it first
time.
Even the very first few words of the sentence are tough to grasp:
While a 4-out-of-5 chance of avoiding recession...
You want to avoid this sort of complex sentence construction, and try
instead to untangle ideas so they read straightforwardly. Ask yourself:
what am I really trying to say? And then just say it plainly.
I still dont quite understand what the writer is getting at, but the best I
could do with the sentence was this:
Since the Second World War, Australia has always gone into recession
whenever the probability of doing so was greater than 20%except
during the global financial crisis.
You have a go.
2. Ambiguity
Ambiguity occurs when something you write could be read in more
than one way. Much corporate writing is littered with ambiguity. As an
elite writer, you must erase any trace of it from your writing.
Look at these two sentences:
Trico Inc. bought Starfish Ltd. in 2003. Ever since then, the company
has failed to report a profit.

Do you see the ambiguity? Which company has failed to report a


profit? The way its written, it could be either. Now, try to get rid of the
ambiguity.
Heres one way:
Trico Inc. bought Starfish Ltd. in 2003. Ever since then, the subsidiary
has failed to report a profit.
Now its clear that Starfish is the one that has failed to report a profit
since the takeover.
Have a go at clearing up the ambiguity belowand to make it more
difficult, do it without repeating either of the executives names:
The rivalry between John Smith and Peter Jones has intensified since
his promotion to CEO.
Heres mine: John Smiths promotion to CEO has intensified his rivalry
with Peter Jones.
3. Punctuation
Sometimes we lose clarity simply because we use punctuation poorly.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the title of a famous book about writing. It
draws attention to the dramatic difference to meaning that misplacing
a simple comma can make. Note the difference between these two
sentences:
The panda eats shoots and leaves, and, The panda eats, shoots and
leaves.
Or:
Did you drink, my friend? and, Did you drink my friend?

Prose is architecture,
not interior decoration
- Ernest Hemingway

Elegance
The most overlooked aspect of great writing is what I call elegance. In
case youve never seen this concept being applied to writing before,
let me explain.
Elegance is that quality in writing that makes it beautiful.
Here are two ways to make your writing more elegant:
1. Pace sentences
You should start to develop a feel for when a sentence seems too long
or short. Youll know because your writing feels clunky when you read
it back. Treat the whole piece of writing as a composition.
Look out for whether it sounds too staccato, if a sentence goes on for
too long because it contains too many ideasif so, split them into
different sentencesand whether you repeat the same structure too
often to the point of dullness.
It takes time to develop that kind of sensitivity, so I encourage you to
study writing that has this quality of elegance and just keep reading it
until you get the idea. Also, notice writing that lacks this quality.
Normally, it feels clunky.
Keep making adjustments to your own writing until you can read it all
in one go without it seeming ugly. This is one of those aspects of great
writing that you have to develop an instinct for. As long as youre
aware of it as a concept, you will continue to apply it more effectively.
Think of music, and notice how it doesnt usually jump from one
rhythm to another and that if it does, it does so elegantly. It keeps a
certain flow.

Heres part of Martin Luther Kings famous speech, a great example of


cool sentence rhythm:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of
former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit
down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day
even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of
injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom
and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a
nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by
the content of their character.
U.S. president Barack Obamas state-of-the-union address uses varying
rhythms to increase the poignancy of his message:
We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian
Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin,
and Brian was the first to arrive, he didnt consider his own safety. He
fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to
protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside even as he lay
bleeding from twelve bullet wounds. When asked how he did that,
Brian said, That's just the way we're made. That's just the way we're
made. We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and
hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we
all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't
just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're
made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that
this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one
another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in
the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it
remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the
authors of the next great chapter in our American story. Thank you,
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

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2. Create a narrative
Whether youre writing a sales email, marketing copy on a website, an
essay or a news article, an elite writer makes sure the ideas flow
forward gracefully. What that means is that rather than merely stating
one point after another, you take care to create a narrative.
This is what good writers mean when they talk about structure. Think
of any piece of writing as a building made up of ideas that need to be
structured elegantly.
The key to getting this right is to know the ideas you want to express,
and then decide the order in which they are best placed. Consider
which of those ideas belong most closely togetherfor example,
whether one point is an illustration of another, a development of a
previous point, or else a totally unrelated point.
Use the idea of elegance to guide this process until youre happy the
structure youve built is the most elegant one possible. If you do this
thoroughly, you will feel your writing taking on a gracefulness you may
never have realised was possible.
Lets say youre preparing a cover letter. We know a good one has to
include at least four thingsrelevant details about your background,
what you want from the company (presumably, an interview), what you
think you could offer, and a polite acknowledgment of the job offer.
It would be inelegant if you offered the information up in that jumpy
order. Instead, youd want to consider which blocks of ideas sit best
next to each other to create a flow.
An elegant cover letter would start with a polite acknowledgment of
the job offer, give some relevant details about your own background,
then go on to say what you could bring to the company, and round off
by asking politely for an interview.

The Best Writers Agree

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Dont just take my word for it. Although I think my writing system is
unique, and the best method Ive come across for superpowering your
prose quickly, some of the worlds greatest writers have already
emphasized some of the points Ive raised in their own way.
Listen to George Orwell:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you
can think of an everyday English equivalent.
And Mark Twain:
Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is
the way to write Englishit is the modern way and the best way. Stick
to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.

Become An Elite Writer

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So what should you do with all this information? I suggest you go away
and begin applying it straight away.
There are two ways you can do this. First, whenever youre reading
something ask yourself how well the writer has incorporated the
concepts of simplicity, clarity and elegance. Second, whenever you
write something, apply each of the concepts yourself.
Always ask: is this word, sentence or paragraph as simple, clear and
elegant as it could be? Do just that, and youll be well on your way to
becoming the elite writer you aspire to be.

Tip Of The Iceberg

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Ive just given you what I genuinely believe is the best framework
available anywhere for taking you up the learning curve of great
writingvery fast.
Its based on 20 years in the coalface of brilliant global news
organizations where I learned elite writing skills from some of the best
journalists alive.
Still, its important to remember that what you have here is only a
framework. There are many more delightful principles in each
categorysimplicity, clarity and elegancethat can keep taking the
quality of your writing higher.
Elsewhere, you will learn how to connect with an audience, how to
create a compelling tone, why you need to stay away from what top
journalists call word echoes, how to avoid reversing into sentences
and mixing tenses, and ultimately how to develop your own powerful
house style that will blow away the competition once and for all.
Youve taken the first step by reading this. I hope it has opened a door
to a new world of understanding. And I look forward to seeing you on
the other side, where I promise you many more wonders await.
Email me at shaniraja@yahoo.co.uk if you want to find out more about
books and courses that could help you on your journey into the world
of elite writing. And be sure to check out my courses on the onlinetraining website www.udemy.com.

About Me
Shani Raja

Shani Raja is an experienced editor and writing trainer who has written
for some of the world's biggest business newspapers. He has been a
journalist for the past 20 years writing for prestigious publications
ranging from The Economist to the Financial Times and The Wall Street
Journal.
Shani has also taught advanced writing skills to professionals and
businesses, and edited work for global companies from Microsoft and
IBM to Pricewaterhousecoopers.