Skip to main content
Ideas Development

My New Rules for Writing

Writing sales proposals helped me focus on a few top priorities.

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I debuted at around 5 years old with a taut potboiler about a magical cloud that transformed into—hold onto your hats—a monster truck. So I’ve always been fascinated by the power of the written word. Of course, I’m immediately humbled when I think about the wealth of talented writers out there writing breathtaking stories, some of which aren’t even about monster trucks.

But I’m constantly looking for ways to become a better writer. Fortunately, over the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to analyze my writing through another lens: sales. I’ve developed a few new writing priorities as I’ve worked on developing sales proposals, and I know they’ll help me be a better writer, both personally and professionally. Here are three of the most important ways that working in sales has changed what I focus on when I write.

Get to the Point

People are busy. People are really, really busy. Given how quickly things move in the modern world, it’s not even a given that people will always open your emails. So if you’ve gotten someone to actually use their eyeballs and their precious brainwaves to literally look at something you’ve written, you should seize the opportunity and make your point concisely.

This is acutely true in sales, but it applies everywhere. We learn atrocious behaviors in school as we struggle to reach the required (and seemingly insurmountable) word count. First, you would pad your margins, bump your font size up, and increase your spacing to something worse than double. Then, with a document that was already mostly white space, you’d start throwing in entirely pointless paragraphs: an intro paragraph to tell you what the next paragraph will say, a paragraph after that paragraph to recap the previous paragraph and transition to the following paragraph, then maybe a section-summarizing paragraph to re-contextualize each paragraph as part of some kind of larger meta-paragraph. Do this long enough, and you end up with a model plane that’s all glue and no wood.

Don’t make people search desperately for ways to read less of what you write.

YouTube tutorials are notorious for this. People often spend the first part of the video telling you what they’re about to tell you. Say you want to find out how to make a double quesadilla—that’s a quesadilla where the tortilla is an existing quesadilla. You search for it and find a video titled, “How to Make a Double Quesadilla.” Then, the video starts, “Hey guys, so… today… we are going to be talking about… how to make… something called a double quesadilla.” This excruciating practice led one intrepid pioneer to develop something called the Wadsworth Constant. With the Wadsworth Constant, you just start at the 30% mark, and every YouTube video becomes immediately more useful and direct.

This is what happens when people are relying on you to quickly and approachably show them something. They just want to get down to it. Don’t make people search desperately for ways to read less of what you write. Don’t waste their time, and don’t waste your own. Say what you’re trying to say, and move on to what’s next.

Keep it Simple

When you get deep enough into the weeds about something you’re working on, it can be tempting to drag everyone down into the weeds with you. When you write about some complicated technical process, you may be inclined to spell out every possible use case, every conditional, and every conceivable consequence. What’s worse, you can end up trying to cram all of this information into individual sentences that are bursting at the seams with commas, semicolons, and parentheses. Asking someone to read pages full of that kind of overwrought language should be forbidden under the Geneva Conventions, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s important to ask yourself what your audience needs to know.

It’s important to do that deep dive on the back-end and make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you’re selling something, you need to think everything through and be confident in what you say. But once you’ve done that work, you have more work to do: Refine that information into something that can easily be read and processed by, you know, normal humans.

This is critical when writing proposals, because that simplicity helps you hone your points. Instead of waffling your way through several semi-coherent arguments, you can strongly say exactly what you mean.

The same principle applies to much of the content we create. It’s important to ask yourself what your audience needs to know. When you turn on the firehose and start blasting extraneous information at people who don’t need or want it, you make it that much harder for anyone to make sense of what you’re trying to say.

In the ongoing battle against information overload, our society is making progress: A recent study by Pew found that only 20% of Americans feel overloaded by information; that number was 27% a decade ago. But I believe that number can be lower, and I think we all owe it to ourselves to prioritize communicating just the information that’s truly essential.

Cut the Crap

When I picture the worst, most stereotypical sales pitch I can imagine, it’s filled with empty platitudes and odious buzzwords. I’ll confess I’ve used a buzzword or two in my day—I was young! Everyone else was doing it! But this kind of business-y word salad isn’t just ridiculous, it’s seriously ineffective.

In a proposal, you obviously have to choose your words wisely. You’re trying to be persuasive, of course, but you also need to sound like a human. People can tell when you’re pulling their leg or puffing something up.

Respect the people reading your writing, and you’ll find it consistently makes your writing more effective.

Include too many meaningless turns of phrase in your writing, and people will mentally tune the whole thing out as so much baloney. Instead, focus on meaningful language that actually conveys real, important information to your audience. Respect the people reading your writing, and you’ll find it consistently makes your writing more effective.
All of these principles will continue to shape the way I approach my writing. Whether it’s a proposal, an outline, a script, or even an email, it comes down to this: Be concise, be clear, and be meaningful.

Chosen for You

Five Ways to Enjoy Revising Content

Editing your content got you down? See how improving your writing can be fun.

What Story Type is the Perfect Fit...

In some ways, all eLearning follows a narrative structure.

Collaborative Hiring

Great eLearning begins with strong teams. But what does that mean?