How to write a great article
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 Go deep
Before writing, do your research. Really do it. Go deep. The depths of your research will determine the quality of your article.
Graydon Carter, the legendary editor of Vanity Fair, would dismiss work with "It's first room stuff". Meaning it's too basic. Too obvious. The purpose of your research is to get out of the first room.
Set out to really nail a subject. To convince the sceptical reader. To dazzle them with your insights.
Articles that fail do so for two reasons
The first is a failure of writing. The second is a failure of research. Fix this by getting out of the first room and getting into the nitty gritty of your subject.
2 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.
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).
3 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.
4 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 the pen. Anything less and you've wasted our time.
5 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.
6 Be detailed in your advice
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.
7 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".
Caitlin Moran wrote of expensive purses: "It also turns out that husbands do not read Grazia, and no matter how magnificent or loving they may be, they can’t help themselves from sporadically saying ‘£225! For a purse! JESUS CHRIST’, as if you’ve just stabbed them quite violently in the balls with a fork, left the fork there, and then hung your coat on it, while you go and have a bath."
This is your chance to dazzle the reader with entertaining prose.
Fill your articles with memorable prose.
We would much rather you go too far than be dull.
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 - and this is a genuine sentence in an article written for BizAge:
“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.”
Grisly. Doubly so since it 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.
9 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.
Re-read your article. Look at any statement which is obvious. Delete that line.
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”
We don't mind a bit of corporate plugging at BizAge. It's why we exist. Just do it clearly.