A word on writing

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.
-- Francis Bacon

I am by no means an authority on writing or even close. But, I like to learn and have improved over time. Credit goes to giants like William Zinsser (On Writing Well), my high school English teacher Gushminder Singh and good people at copyblogger.com.

What you are going to read are the notes which I compiled for myself after reading and listening from various sources. I treat these notes as a checklist, and this has helped me immensely. I am confident they will help you too.

Who is it for?

I have written this for myself, for blogging. So the following material is ideal for bloggers. It's also great for someone who writes engaging emails and wants to interact in a clear, understandable way with the audience. Following the advice below may not get you an A. So if you are a student, pick and choose the advice carefully.

Write to write better

This is the top recommendation from all people who write well. It's a simple fact that you become better at things you repeatedly do. Writing is no different. If you can't write anything, write what makes you angry, what makes you happy, write anything. Once the process gains momentum, good stuff will come out of your pen (or keyboard).

Don't write for everybody - Zoom in on your audience

When you write for everybody, you write for no one. It's very difficult to convince/change even a single person, it's almost impossible to change everybody. Good writing will be for a particular type of audience. Better writing is for an audience of one. The very best writing happens when you just write for yourself.

  1. Determine your audience
  2. Determine what topic are they interested in
    • Ask them what they are interested in.
    • Ask, "What is your biggest challenge right now?"
    • Ask, "If there is one thing that you would like to change related to (your interest), what would it be?"
    • Use answer the public to find out what questions people are asking on the web.
  3. Once you have determined the topic they are interested in, ask yourself and your audience why they are interested in it?
    • Keep drilling down further with why, how, who
    • After two or three iterations of "why?" you would be able to find the real reasons for their interest.
    • Once you know your customers' deepest fears, desires, and motivations, you can write for them, and they will feel as if you read their minds.

Know your goal

Do you want your audience to feel something, or know something, or do something? If you determine your goal, it becomes easier to write. Because you know which way you need to go. Words just follow.

Be human

It doesn't matter if you are writing as an individual or a big company, it's always refreshing to give things a personal touch. Google is a great example of an organization that has funny personal messages for things as bland as a 'page not found' error.


Keep it simple

Writing which is easy to understand is very hard to write. People who use big words tend to have a small reach. Difficult writing puts a cognitive load on the mind. Exposure to such writing causes mental fatigue, and people generally leave it before reaching that stage. This could not be truer for creative writing. Besides, what good is it if nobody understands it?

Write like you speak - like a friend

Writing like your fifth-grade teacher taught you to write would be a disaster. The way you were taught to write in school doesn't usually work.
Use one-word sentences like - So.. What? How? Because that's how you speak, and brain understands it more.
You must have heard that "a speaker was horrible. It appeared as if he was reading from paper."
What you want is to turn it around and write as you speak in real life. Your writing would appear more lifelike.

Write awesome headings

Given that most people just read headings and read further if the heading grips them, it makes sense to spend some time writing a gripping title.

Here are some tips for writing a great title:

  • Make a Big Promise or a quick solution. Examples would be:
    • 17 insanely actionable tricks.
    • Learn how to quickly do…
  • Put a number to it. eg:
    • 6 ways to become wealthy in 4 months
  • Use odd numbers where you can. Research says that they work better in getting attention than even numbers.
  • Use square brackets [] in the heading to give a sneak preview or added benefit. Example:
    • Reduce 5 kg weight in a month [and eat whatever you want]
  • Create an information gap (read information gap examples)– in the heading. ex:
    • How to run faster than you ever thought possible.
  • Put benefit in the headline. A headline should tell in simple words what you want to say. 10-12 words headline works best usually
  • Use modifiers to improve searchability
    • 2015, “How to…”, Review, Best, Fast, Checklist, Guide, Tips, Easy, Simple
  • Use loss aversion. eg.
    • Don’t lose marks you deserve
  • Negative hook – framing. (using loss aversion)
    • What’s the perfect time for a client call (positive hook)
    • What’s the worst time for the client call? (negative hook gets 35% more clicks)

Use sub-headings

Using sub-headings has the following advantages:

  1. It makes your content scannable.
  2. It shows your clarity of thought and expression.
  3. It also forces you to think clearly and objectively.
  4. It gives the reader a break while reading.
  5. Readers also get a feeling of accomplishment every time they finish reading content in a sub-heading.

All the tips for headings also apply to sub-headings as well.

Grab attention early

The very first thing that you must have is attention. Otherwise, nothing else will matter.

If the reader thinks they already know what you are going to say, they will not read.

Hopefully, you would have already accomplished a big part of it by writing awesome headlines. You need to continue it by writing at least couple of gripping paragraphs to lure the reader in.

Start with a story

Humans are a sucker for stories. We will spend time on stories even if they are not relevant to us. Stories can be in any form: children's stories, fiction, gossip,  success stories, etc.

So, it just makes sense that if you have something worth telling, you hook the readers with the story first. Personal stories work the best.

Keep the paragraphs short

Unless you are writing in a formal setting, it's better to write in short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs are more readable, easy to keep track of, and provide a lot of short wins.

Short paragraphs also lead to more white space on the page, which is visually pleasing.

I know I overdid this trick in the last couple of lines but, hey, I had to walk the talk.

Leverage the power of transformation [before and after states]

Have you ever seen weight loss commercials? You see the before picture and after picture. That's what the before / after state is about.

Before and after states are not only useful in weight-loss ads, they are useful in almost everything you write, fiction being the exception.

So if you focus and tell your audience what they will have/feel/look like/do/status in the before state and compare that with the after state, you would have hooked them.

So the example questions that you may ask yourself are:

How does the reader "Feel" in the “Before” state? How does the reader "Feel" in the “After” state?

Raise objections before the critics

When Malcolm Gladwell writes any book for an idea, he thinks about what someone with an opposing viewpoint would say. Once he has established all the opposite views, he would write chapters specifically to address those objections.

If you do address objections yourself, you are basically using the fire of others to fuel your content. Since this approach covers all the bases, it also makes a convincing argument.

Writing checklist

The following points are as important, if not more, than what's mentioned above.

  1. Is your message clear?
  2. Are your arguments presented clearly?
  3. Do your arguments support your premise/ proposal/request?
  4. Is your tone positive?
  5. Review for spelling
  6. Review for punctuation
  7. Review for verb tense sentence consistency.
  8. Review for capitalization
  9. Mention who the product will work for
  10. Mention who the product will not work for as well. That builds credibility
  11. Universal appeals. Use these in your posts.
    • “it’s not your fault.”
    • Tell your audience “you are right. Here’s why”
    • “They say you are wrong – look….”
    • “I am surprised by....”
    • “This new”...
    • “Use this one tip and you will...”
  12. Make actionable
    • Tell them to do something
    • Make them feel something
  13. Use “I feel” for emotional people and women. “I think” is more convincing to men.
  14. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, and tell what you just told them.
  15. Use scannable text – short paras, subheadings, bullet list.
  16. Write for customers, not competition.

If you are selling or writing marketing material

  1. Use the Golden Circle principle
    1. Wrong marketing Strategy=> What, How, Why?
    2. Right marketing strategy=> Why, how, what?
  2. Hot Button Marketing: Push the Emotional Buttons That Get People to Buy
    • The desire for control, I'm better than you
    • The excitement of discovery,
    • Family values
    • Desire to belong
    • Fun is its own reward
    • Poverty of time
    • Desire to get the best
    • Self-achievement
    • Sex/love/romance
    • Nurturing response
    • Reinventing oneself
    • Make me smarter, power/dominance/influence
    • Wish fulfillment
  3. Your message must communicate meaningful benefits that are also tangible. This is the second important aspect of an authentic premise because it’s so critical to understanding.
  4. Make message tangible: Silverman wanted to educate the public about the fact that a typical bag of movie popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fat, while the USDA recommends you have no more than 20 grams in an entire day. Instead of simply citing that surprising, if dry, statistic, Silverman made the message more tangible. He said: A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!
  5. Tell people the pain in creating and managing the product/software as Audi does.
  6. Clear and specific language
  7. Highlighting benefits over features
  8. It’s important you can explain your product in less than 25 words along with the key benefit.
    • “I’m Derek, and I show people how to triple their conversion rates on their blog.” from Derek Halpern.
  9. Product position: what kind of product is it? online tutoring - Indian tutoring - like dove smooth skin or hands clean (clarity)
  10. The more focused and niche, the better.
    • Health guru -> weight loss Guru -> Fat loss guru -> Belly fat loss guru
  11. We buy products because of what they make us feel about others and ourselves.
  12. Deliver one promise in the ad - one big promise and deliver it well.
  13. Large Promise: Benefit to customer: good if its unique and competitive: if no benefit is present - doom to failure
  14. Logic marketing is OK. Emotional marketing is great.
    • If you’re writing to persuade, you must hit the gut before getting anywhere near the brain. The part that decides “I want that” is emotional and often subconscious. If your premise doesn’t work emotionally, logic will never get a chance to weigh in.
  15. Factual is usually better than emotional for certain cases like business and boys.
  16. The Message should be “ego” free. The focus should be on customer’s needs solved and not the company’s ability to solve them.
  17. Your service should be clearly defined.
  18. Problem to solution - Customers should be able to identify previous failures with other products and think your product can deliver it: ex. Weight loss commercials
  19. Once you discover the emotional hot button of your customers, it’s time to use it as the major theme of all your branding. For FedEx (then Federal Express), it was OVERNIGHT. For Heinz ketchup, it was THICKNESS. What is it for your product and your customers? And how can you use this emotional hot button as a brand hot button to organize all of your marketing messages around?
  20. Don't bore: creative, engaging, charm her, make her hungry,
  21. Innovate: start trends
  22. Psychological segmentation: not only important to classify customers by age, sex, etc. but by psychological thinking - people who think a certain way
  23. Provide Testimonials (proof of working)
  24. Visual demonstration of promise, if possible - Ariel ads
  25. Use pictures instead of words
  26. Cartoons when targeting kids and only kids - not grown-ups
  27. Localize headlines: name of the city in the ad improves clicks
  28. Target your prospects in the headline: Going to Europe? Mothers? Online tutor?
  29. Before and after - fat slim ads.
  30. Use photos rather than artwork or drawings.
  31. Use captions to sell - photo with good captions helps in selling a lot. never use a photo without a caption

Other tit-bits

  1. Writing Fiction - Characters change. Nobody is singularly good or bad. So should be your character. Conflicted characters or characters which start as good and then gradually grow evil and find their way back resonate highly (breaking bad). 
  2. Writing Comedy - It should be "matter of factly." If the characters don't know that they are funny, but the stuff that they do is funny, it has more impact.



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