Goto Fumio

Confessions of a lousy writer—and 6 tips for you

I was a lousy writer. It’s true. I wince when I read selections from my Ph.D. thesis, Bureaucracy and Politics in the 1930s: The Career of Goto Fumio.

Goto Fumio

Goto Fumio, the subject of my Ph.D. thesis

Wordy sentences and examples of the passive voice abound. However, over the many years since I earned my doctorate from Harvard, I’ve revamped my style, using techniques that you, too, can adopt.

1. Get someone to edit you

It’s hard for most people to identify their writing’s weaknesses. That’s why it’s so valuable to have someone edit you. My writing improved the most in the 1990s, when I was a staff reporter for Dalbar’s Mutual Fund Market News (now Money Management Executive). I had the luxury of being edited by professionals. If you work with a professional editor, look for patterns in the changes they make to your text. If certain corrections or changes occur repeatedly, you can create a checklist that you can apply yourself to future drafts. You’ll find a sample checklist, the “Blog Post Review Checklist” in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

If a professional editor isn’t in your budget, consider asking colleagues, family members, friends, or even clients for feedback. Members of your target audience can help you assess whether your content appeals to them.

2. Take writing classes

Take a writing class—any kind of writing class. I’ve never taken a journalism or financial writing class. However, I’ve taken many adult education classes on writing essays, memoir, and even poetry in the adult ed programs of Boston, Cambridge, and Newton, Mass. These classes helped me learn how to organize my writing, write more economically, and use words with greater power. You might wonder at my inclusion of poetry on my list, but those classes remind me of how important each word is in my writing.

You may be able to find business writing classes, especially if you look at a local college that offers business administration classes. On June 26, 2014, I’ll lead a webinar on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read,” shortly after presenting on that topic to the Boston Security Analysts Society on June 17. I have taught “How to Write Blog Posts People Will Read: Class for Financial Advisors” in addition to presentations on investment commentary, email, and other topics.

The rise of online instruction means that you should be able to find a class no matter where you live.

3. Write a lot

The more you write, the better you’ll become, especially if you get your writing critiqued. One benefit of blogging is that it gives you an incentive to write and publish frequently.

4. Read and analyze other people’s writing

When you read and enjoy other people’s work, take the time to figure out what you like about it. Is it their catchy titles and headings? The way they hit their readers’ hot spots? Their streamlined prose?

You can also learn from analyzing pieces that you dislike. These examples can yield a “don’t” list for you. Avoiding terrible mistakes is worthwhile.

Classes, which I mentioned above, are one way to get practice critiquing other people’s work constructively. Another way is to join a writing group, where members take turns giving and receiving feedback. My book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients  came from my creative writing group. I don’t know how I would have finished my book without group members’ encouragement and feedback. Plus, I found my book’s project manager in the group.

5. Read about writing

While learning by doing is most powerful, you can also learn by reading about writing techniques. I recommend books on this blog. I also blog about techniques. While my monthly newsletter usually includes a writing tip, you may also enjoy my “Weekly Tip,” which includes just one communications or marketing tip from my archives. You can subscribe or adjust your subscription settings. In addition, you will find step-by-step instructions for writing blog posts in my Financial Blogging book.

6. Experiment

Take risks. Experiment with writing using techniques and formats you’ve never used before. You’re bound to learn something from the results.

What else works?

If you can suggest additional techniques for improving people’s writing, I’d love to hear from you.