How I Write How-To

Over the past 17 years, I’ve worked at least 40 hours a week as a career counselor. During the same period, I’ve gotten five how-to books and 400+ articles published, well published:

How do I do it?

My keys to productivity

I’m motivated to write. Why?

I believe how-to writing is important. My Holocaust-survivor father never complained. He explained, “The Nazis took five years of my life. I won’t let them have one minute more. Martin, never look back. Always look forward.” Much writing encourages people to look backward: to past abuse, racism, sexism, etc. I feel motivated to write how-to because it shows people how to move forward.

I gain additional motivation by writing about what few other writers would write about. This makes me feel special, as though my writing will truly add to the world rather than be just another voice in a large chorus, as would be the case if I wrote about well-covered topics such as “a woman’s guide to X.”.

Here are titles of three of my recent articles:

  • The Men’s Career Guide
  • America’s Most Overrated Product: Higher Education
  • Do What You Love and You’ll Probably Starve

I usually choose easy-to-write pieces: those for which the content is already in my head or could be obtained with a Google search or Amazon purchase. I used to be a library junkie, but I get so much more, faster this way.

I try to revise my way to excellence rather than try to come up with it out of thin air.

I crank out a first draft very quickly. I usually start at the beginning, writing whatever quickly emanates from my fingers. I rarely stop to think for more than a few seconds. I don’t get up until a draft is done. As a result, I usually complete a draft of an 800-word piece in an hour.

Then I read the draft, usually four to eight times. Each time, I make only the changes that jump out at me. If I find a sentence or paragraph that reads poorly and can’t immediately see a way to make it excellent, I’ll make a little improvement in it, then another, then another, whatever teeny fix comes to mind quickly. Seeing it get a little better every few seconds is more rewarding than trying to convert lousy into excellent in one shot.

My keys to producing quality work

I respect the reader’s time.

My goal is that my writing be the most time-effective way to learn about a topic. To that end, I try to:

  • pack my writing with as many fresh, useful ideas per inch.
  • write so simply that readers never need to reread a sentence.
  • excise every nonessential word and detail.
  • confine humor to turns-of-phrase. That keeps them entertained without adding reading time.

I try to create connection between the reader and me. So, I often write in the I/you voice, in my true voice. Here’s an example:

Procrastination is career cancer. You may have first acquired the habit of procrastinating in school. You waited until the last minute to do an assignment or study for a test, the adrenaline rush motivated you, and lo and behold, you got a good grade. Soon, you became dependent on the adrenaline to get your work done.

But there’s no grade inflation in the real world. Procrastination is career cancer.

If you must do a task, please get started on it as soon as it’s assigned. If you say you’ll start it later, chances are you won’t until the last minute, at which point you probably won’t have time to do a good job.

And when you reach a hard part, struggle for no more than 15 seconds. The odds are that additional struggling won't help. At the 15-second mark, decide to get help, to come back to it later, or that there’s a way to complete the task without doing the hard part. People tend to procrastinate hard tasks because they know they’ll be struggling with the hard part forever—that’s painful. The 15-second struggle technique will make tough tasks less odious.

After I have a polished draft, I email and then phone one or more people from my target readership who are willing to give me feedback. I read it aloud while they follow along. Reading it aloud helps me find things to improve, and their simultaneously seeing and hearing it helps them provide better feedback. Plus, I get that feedback instantly, which wouldn’t happen if I just emailed it to them.

For me at least, this process makes writing not only productive, but fun.

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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