Recently I replied to an aspiring writer on a Linked In group. “How can I get started?” she asked. Then I read some of the ill-advised comments. I had to reply. Here’s an adaptation of the list applied to aspiring business book authors.
1. Sweat grammar. Traditional Standard English grammar is essential. Americans incorrectly use most pronouns (e.g. that vs. who for humans) and misuse most adverbs (e.g. very, absolutely, incredibly, basically, only). Agonize over spelling, grammar, and syntax…always. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not to be taken seriously.
2. Cuddle your errors. Make a list of the errors others say you make. Put the list in front of you. Review the list before you write anything. I started with 10 handwritten items in 1975. Now the list is 10 pages. These are typically the mistakes whose rules are hard to remember.
3. Get a writing buddy. Have someone review your writing. Never, never send something to an editor without having a second opinion. Email has made us all too quick with the send key. My partner Jack Rochester and I routinely bounce copy off each other…and we are seasoned book editors, book authors, business writers, and book ghostwriters.
4. Exercise benign neglect. Put aside your writing project for a day. You will be surprised at the errors or just the changes that seem necessary.
5. Subscribe to good publications. First, Vocabula Review (www.vocabula.com). Editor Robert Hartwell Fiske is a prescriptivist, not a descriptivist. The latter folks excuse bad grammar as cultural expression. Nonsense! Fiske includes many regular features: Grammar mistakes made by people who should not make them. Examples of great writing. Articles on the language. Lots of fun and funny stuff about writing. I do not know what I would do without The New Yorker. Subscribe to serious newspapers, e.g. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. You can get the electronic versions with the paper subscriptions. I get the Sunday Times in print and the whole rest of the week electronically.
6. Never depend on Word’s grammar checker. I have found it wrong 75% of the time. I am not exaggerating. Even the spell checker is often wrong.
7. Get a big kids’ dictionary. Merriam-Webster is a descriptivist dictionary. If you have one, grab it with both hands, hold it out far from your body, turn your nose…and throw it away. Use the Oxford English Dictionary, not a collegiate or contemporary usage dictionary.
8. Get a grammar handbook. You can find them at any college bookstore on the shelves for beginning English textbooks. At last count I have 10 handbooks within reach of my PC, each tagged for its special treatments and tools. Elements of Style is a good reference, but it’s not a handbook. Other references are helpful. For example, get a copy of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A bullfighter’s guide.
9. Think target audience. Every publication, whether print or electronic, has a reason for publishing and an audience to reach. One of the first articles I sold was about Wyatt Earp, a topic I know well. I sold it to the San Francisco Examiner’s California Living magazine (Sunday supplement). The angle: Earp’s fascinating years in SF. They bought it without hesitation.
10. Write first about what you know. Find an angle on that knowledge. Examples off the top of my head: Why family businesses fail? Why undergraduate college educations are failing students? How to interview home improvement workers. Tips for interviewing college graduates seeking employment. How to choose a church. Why are girls harder to raise than boys? Checklist for selecting a new neighborhood. How to choose a good childcare facility. After you find something you know, find the right publication. If necessary, call the editor…you may get through. Once published, see if the editor might be interested in a regular column on what you know. Then keep a file for a possible book, and make sure the publication gives you the right to do that book.
Writing is hard work. Hard work is good. What’s good is fun. Always look for examples of good writing, including stuff you don’t agree with.
Roger S. Peterson
West Coast Editor
THE BUSINESS BOOK GHOSTWRITERS