First, a confession: I'm not a big fan of business-writing books. It's not that I know it all: I don't. But most of the business-writing guides I've read are too elementary, redundant, or insipid to be of interest to me or anyone I know.
This week, however, I learned about a shining exception: 30 Days to Better Business Writing, by Matthew Stibbe, a British marketing writer who blogs at Bad Language. Not only is it smart, clear, and even funny (!), it's free.
You read that right. Matthew is giving away all this invaluable information as a free e-book.
Go read it. Then come back here and let me tell you why I think 30 Days to Better Business Writing is so terrific.
It's based on the principles and practices of journalism, not "business writing." The Fourth Estate is suffering right now, but trust me on this: journalism made me a better writer, and it will make you one, too. Here are some of the chapter titles of Matthew's book: "Be a Reporter," "Interview Someone," "Ask the Right Questions," "Find the Angle." All journalism basics. By the way, those instructions apply when you're creating a naming brief, too.
This is a writing book for the real 21st-century world. There are chapters on writing blog posts, case studies, presentations, and email. There is even—hallelujah!—a chapter on writing "a proper brief." Do you know how many otherwise well-informed businesspeople have told me they don't even know what a brief is? Eleventy gazillion, give or take. Here's what Matthew says about briefs:
Great buildings start with an architect's drawings. Even Ikea shelves come with assembly instructions. To write well, you need a clear brief. It doesn't have to be an elaborate formal document. It doesn't have to be a document at all if you can answer all the basic questions in your head or by reference to something you have done before. But you do need it.
And then he gives us the template he uses with his clients. A really good template, by the way.
Matthew backs up his advice with solid evidence and statistics. "As a journalist," he writes, "I would plan to do one interview for each 250-500 words of copy." He also writes: "Half my time is spent researching and interviewing. One-third is spent proofreading and editing. Only a sixth is spent actually writing." And: "A 30-minute interview equates to roughly 1,200-1,500 words when transcribed." That is really helpful info, whether you're the writer or the client.
And not only does he assert that "bad writing is expensive," he offers a metaphor:
Writing fails if the reader doesn't understand it, doesn't believe it or doesn't remember it or act on it. Consequently, comprehension, credibility and retention are the requirements of business writing. ... To help calculate the cost of bad writing, imagine you had a tool that could tell you how successful a piece of writing was in meeting these requirements. The opposite of a bullshit detector. (A good-shit detector?) It would tell you how readable it was. Think of readability as the 'clickthrough' rate for writing.
How often have you seen "good-shit detector" in a business-writing guide? Not often enough, if you ask me.
There's a chapter on name development. And it's good.
How did I find out about 30 Days to Better Business Writing? Well, I've been lucky. Matthew Stibbe was one of the first bloggers I discovered when I began writing my own blog in 2006. He linked to me, encouraged me, and even took time to meet me when he and his wife visited the Bay Area. He wrote for Visual Thesaurus before I joined that team of contributors, and his participation reassured me that writing for VT would be a good idea. (It was, and is.) Throughout, I've been impressed by Matthew's skill, insights, and generosity.
Now you too can get lucky. Read Matthew's book, and don't be shy about telling colleagues, clients, and bosses about it. The world needs better business writers.
Oh, and you can follow Matthew Stibbe on Twitter, too.
Note to U.S. readers: As I said, Matthew is English, so expect UK spellings ("favourite," "analyse") and the occasional semi-scrutable reference, such as "hard graft."