How I Write How-To
Over the past 17 years, Ive worked at least
40 hours a week as a career counselor. During the
same period, Ive gotten five how-to books and
400+ articles published, well published:
How do I do it?
My keys to productivity
Im 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 wont 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
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
womans guide to X..
Here are titles of three of my recent
- The Mens Career Guide
- Americas Most Overrated Product:
- Do What You Love and Youll Probably
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 dont get
up until a draft is done. As a result, I usually
complete a draft of an 800-word piece in an
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 cant immediately see a way
to make it excellent, Ill 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 readers 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
- confine humor to turns-of-phrase. That keeps
them entertained without adding reading
I try to create connection between the reader
and me. So, I often write in the I/you voice, in my
true voice. Heres 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 theres 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 its assigned. If you say
youll start it later, chances are you
wont until the last minute, at which point
you probably wont have time to do a good
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 theres a way to complete the task
without doing the hard part. People tend to
procrastinate hard tasks because they know
theyll be struggling with the hard part
foreverthats painful. The 15-second
struggle technique will make tough tasks less
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 wouldnt happen if I just
emailed it to them.
For me at least, this process makes writing not
only productive, but fun.
© 2007, Marty
* * *
Nemko holds a PhD from the University of
California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in
Berkeleys 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
Careers for Dummies.
and author of The All-in-One College Guide.
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