A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
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Long before I wrote books and your favorite newsletter 😊, I wrote for a financial newspaper about Federal Reserve regs and housing prices.
A high point of my career there was a headline I wrote for a story about NACHA (the National Automated Clearing House Association, a US electronic payment regulatory system).
The headline: “NACHA Business.” My pun game was strong even then.
The headline. I loved it. The editor did not. (Still salty about it TBH.)
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Eventually I went on to work for the Boston Globe, among other pubs. And while I left journalism a long time ago, writing for newspapers gifted me the biggest lesson of my career. The lesson:
No one is a great writer.
I’m not. You’re not. None of us is.
As a journalist, I learned—over time, and over many late-night drafts of my work—that great writing isn’t born; it’s made.
Great writers make writing look easy-breezy. But that’s only because they don’t skimp on rewriting. For me, the magic number is 4 drafts, each progressively less awful than the previous one.
Writing is editing. (Or: Bad writing? NACHA fault.) (Still stings.)
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“Rewriting” and “editing” sounds about as much fun as recovering from a second Moderna shot.
But nay—nay, friends. It’s actually the fun part.
The part where you add the color, the froth, the fun that makes it yours. It’s where you work the language, to paraphrase the late, great Maya Angelou. (h/t Bobby Lehew)
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No one is a great writer on the first draft. So work the language.
Send your Covid-flabby content to the gym for a stretch/tone class, then the salon for highlights and a waxing.
What emerges is its best self.
Eliminate selfish sentences.
Make each sentence earn its keep. The life goal for any sentence is to pass the baton to the next sentence—not stop the flow. Ax the blowhard sentences that repeat what’s been said, just because they like to hear themselves talk. A selfish sentence is not a team player.
Eliminate selfish words.
This is especially important in copywriting: Delete selfish words that are about the product (“the best on the market”) not why the prospect should care. Answer the reader’s question: WiiFM—What’s in it for me?
Take out the parts your reader will skip.
▶️ Kick to the curb vague descriptions of people, places, things, ideas.
▶️ Use action verbs (verbs you can visualize in your head) more than thinking verbs (verbs you can’t see—like considered, theorized, thought).
Show us the humans!
Write people and their stories directly into your copy and content.
▶️ Use you.
▶️ Use their actual words.
▶️ Help your readers recognize themselves in your writing: People don’t care about “scaling customer interactions”; they do care about “getting the exact kind of real-time insights.”
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It can feel discouraging to think that you’re a mediocre writer. That you’re not as good as that person. Or that author. Or that one over there, selling all those books.
But here’s the deal: If no one is a great writer… then that’s freeing, not discouraging—when you think about it:
It means that we all start out mediocre. But we don’t have to stay that way.