Opinion

How to write a great article

Advice for composing a smash hit
By
BizAge Interview Team
A typewriter and pad of paper

At Business Age we are privileged to work with brilliant thinkers and writers. But only a fraction of the drafts we get are up to scratch.

Here is a quick guide to writing an article that lands with a punch.

1 Begin with a bang

Begin with a gripping opening. We want what the tabloid newspapers call a Hook'em and Hold'em. Be bold. Be imaginative. Ensnare us from the first line.

Above all, avoid The Generic Intro. The one that goes, “In today's global economy, companies are being asked to do more with less. With inflation looming on the horizon, and...[a paragraph of generic economic blather continues]”. if you've written that, just delete it. It's just throat clearing.

Strong introductions can deploy a tale, insight or observation, or plunge straight into a thesis. Jolt us into paying attention.

Tip: Be wary of relying on generic survey data in your opening paragraph. Readers are rarely gripped by the revelation that “70% of CTOs think innovation is the future” and so on. Numbers are rarely sexy (very occasionally they can be, but they've got to really speak to the reader.

2 Be chatty

Tell us your story the way you'd tell a friend. Use normal sentences. Everyday words. Honestly, the very best writers communicate in the way they'd talk to a family member. When writing, imagine you are talking to a single person, not delivering a speech to a crowd.

For the love of all that is holy, do not use Business Speak. The moment you start writing drivel like, “In order to align strategic objectives with tactical thinking” readers will simply stop reading.

Business Speak simply radiates a lack of confidence by the writer. The author fears they will not be taken seriously enough, so resort to management cliches.

Red flag words include: strategy, proactive, migrating, empowers, solution, shared outcomes, win-win, customer goals, silos, aligns, key, key drivers.

Be chatty! Don't be like the Army in this example. (The perpetrator later apologised for his crimes against the English language)

3 Defend your thesis

A great article is trying to convince the reader of something. So do it. Convince us. By the end of the article we want to be able to highlight the sentences that directly defend the thesis and hope to cover 75% of the text with my pen. Anything less and you've wasted our time.

4 Watch out for Hitchens' Razor

Support your claims with evidence. Use survey data, economic data, and real world stories. The reader is sceptical. They will assume you are unreliable. Win them over with proof.

Also: watch out for falsehoods masquerading as the obvious. For example, “Talking to your staff about mental health will prove their morale.” Says who? Many staff hate personal stuff at work. Truly great writers interrogate “obvious” ideas and lay out how the world really works. For example, Rory Sutherland, vice chair of Ogilvy UK, points out that “The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.” It's a sharp, counter-intuitive observation. Wonderful. Business logic is not always obvious, and readers treasure original thinking.

5 Be practical

Entrepreneurs read Business Age to learn how to make more money. So help them! Spell out how to follow your advice.

Articles often fail because the writer advises the reader to prioritise something but is too lazy to spell out how. Eg, “Engage your customer!” Yeah, but how do we do that? Or “Use technology to streamline sales”. Which software? How much does it cost? Who uses is that we know and trust?

Give us all the nitty-gritty details we need to complete the job.

6 Be a writer

Use colourful metaphors. Vary your sentence length. Express your personality. Aspire to be a writer, not a press release robot. The journalist Giles Smith once wrote of something that it was “as alien as the alien from Alien” - a great line.

Jeremy Clarkson described a car as "devaluing faster than a grandfather clock pushed out the back of a Hercules".

Fill your articles with memorable prose.

We would much rather you go too far than be dull.

7 Edit

Finished your article? Edit in three ways.

a) Run it through Google Docs' spelling and grammar check. It's the best around.

b) After an article is written, take a day and then review. Improvements will leap out. Then show the article to a colleague. Ask them to proof it.

b) Shorten your sentences. A sub-editor once described their job as scrutinising every word and asking, “Do you absolutely have the right to stay on this page?” If sentences can be pruned with no loss of sense, then edit.

Example:

“Periods of market disruption and price volatility create opportunities to strategically adapt supply chains to better align with changing demand patterns and supply costs, resulting in lower risk and a more agile supply chain.” [this is a genuine sentence submitted to us].

Can be shortened to: "When times are hard it's easier to negotiate discounts from suppliers.”

Any sentence that can be shortened without loss of meaning should be trimmed.

8 Don't be obvious

Here is a (non) riveting prediction for the year ahead from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, taken from a press release we received.

“Innovation will be at the heart of what we will see in the next 12 months. This will be both in terms of product offerings, as businesses continue the process of digitisation, and also operating models which will require investments in terms of people, competencies and technology."

The problem? It's obvious. Ridiculously so. Therefore it is boring. Spare us the obvious. We want to read the unusual. The unexpected. The passionate.

Finally,

If you want to plug your company, tell us what it does. And say it clearly. A recent conversation went like this:

BizAge: “What does your company do?”

CEO: “We are an end-to-end solutions provider”

“Yes, but what does that mean?”

“We encapsulate value generation”

“Oh, so you make tractor parts?”

“Eh..? No, we make HR software.”

“Right. At last. Thank you. Say that”

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
December 12, 2022