Five Key Rules for Effective Writing

The biggest writing mistake novice writers make is thinking that it’s all about words, style, grammar, or cleverness. It’s not. It’s all about communicating good ideas . . . clearly. At a seminar I attended at Agora Publishing last month, I learned what one $110 million company knows about good writing.

At the event, which was hosted by copywriting giants Bill Bonner, John Forde, and Michael Masterson, a group of Agora’s top writers analyzed the company’s best-written — and, not incidentally, most successful — publications and identified five key “rules” that all of them follow:

1. Develop one good idea.

2. Ensure that the idea is useful.

3. Express the idea clearly.

4. Provide supporting details.

5. Speak with an authentic voice.

Here’s how you can use these rules to improve your own writing:

1. The first step is to get that one good idea. Refine it, discuss it, mull it over. Sleep on it. Write it down a few times in different forms. Say it aloud to the mirror. Don’t waste your time writing anything else until your idea is as clear as a bell and you can state it in 10 words or less. Keep going back to the drawing board until you get it right. When you’re absolutely sure, you’re ready for the next step.

2. Make sure the idea is useful. A useful idea will make your reader think, ” “Hey, this is good. This is important to me. I really want to know more about it.” To test the usefulness of your idea, make a quick list of all the ways it will actually benefit your reader. It’s not about how clever the idea seems to you. It’s about how useful it will be to him.

These first two rules are not just important to good writing; they are necessary for it. Without them, you may spend hours (or even days) polishing a piece of writing that is, ultimately, destined for the trash basket. Once you know that your idea is good — and useful — you can get excited about it. You’ve done 80% of the hard work. Your piece is already good.

The next three rules will make it even better.

3. Express the idea clearly. If you ramble or sound “choppy” (which can sometimes happen when you’re really excited about an idea), you’ll lose your reader.

4. Provide solid details that back up your main idea and prove every supporting claim you’ve made. This requires knowledge, and knowledge sometimes requires a lot of research. Do what’s necessary. Read. Conduct interviews. Search the Internet. Let me give you a quick example. It’s much more powerful to say “According to the Federal Reserve, the GNP rose 4.7% last month — the largest gain in 2 1/2 years” than to say “The economy grew last month.”

5. Speak with an authentic voice. If you’ve taken care of the other four rules, you will be confident that your idea is good, that it’s helpful to your reader, and that you’ve backed it up with solid evidence. This confidence will show through in your diction and tone of voice. Never try to pretend to be more authoritative than you really are. If your ideas are supported by research but you have no personal experience with the subject, say so. Your reader will be able to detect any phoniness on your part, so don’t even try to pretend.

These are the most important rules. They are, incidentally, all covered in detail in AWAI’s copywriting course, which I’ve taken (a requirement for working with Michael Masterson). I not only got a lot out of it, I also truly enjoyed it. If you want to achieve competence (or even mastery) in writing, the AWAI program is my best recommendation to you. By the way, all of the top Agora writers and copywriters are graduates of the AWAI program.

These are the guys responsible for creating more than 100 million dollars’ worth of revenue-generating words every year. In other words, “We “eat our own dog food” around here. (See “It’s Good to Know,” below.) So, we’ve made sure that the writing course we offer is the best available anywhere. Quite frankly, since writing is our livelihood, we’d be crazy to do anything else.