One Secret to Good Business Books: Good Writing

Today Publishers Weekly published a great article on writing by John Hodgman, a favorite writer of mine (his The Areas of My Expertise is the funniest book published in the past year). His piece triggers a core belief of mine, which is that the one common thread you’ll find among good business books is good writing.

(By the way, an analogue to this theory has to do with the remarkable success of Dilbert. Why is Scott Adams’ business humor so spit-taking good? Because he’s funny. I can’t tell you how much would-be business humor that has been inspired by his work has fallen flat, and not because the authors don’t know business well. They just aren’t funny. But I digress.)

My favorite business books, ranging from Moneyball by Michael Lewis, to Good to Great and Built to Last by Jim Collins, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Lou Gerstner, and even the obscure A Ghost’s Memoir by John McDonald, all share smart, crisp, prose, spurred no doubt by the ultimate goal of good writing: clear thinking.

There’s good news here. Good writing can be taught. Even those artists who, use prose as the means to produce art, learn their craft first. As John Gregory Dunne once wrote: “What civilians do not understand—and to a writer anyone not a writer is a civilian—is that writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

Later this year I’ll be teaching a workshop on business writing. And the starting point for anyone wanting to improve their writing is the bible of good writing: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (Do NOT use the recent illustrated version of this book. It’s pretty and all, but the illustrations add as much value to the book as earmuffs on your iMac. They contradict the core message of this book, which says write simply, think clearly, and avoid distracting detritus.)

The next best primer on good writing: two essays from George Orwell. Okay, everyone knows Politics and the English Language, which I think is a very good discussion of the causes and consequences of sloppy writing (again, a function of sloppy thinking.) But this essay make the most sense when paired with the piece that precedes it in A Collection of Essays. I'm talking about On Shooting An Elephant. The political essay tells you how to write well, while the elephant piece shows you precisely what he means. Clear, powerful, insightful writing that shares a deep message by reporting the right details of a meaningful narrative.

“In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

How can you read this opening sentence and not feel compelled to continue? He establishes everything you need to know about what follows: a sense of place, a sense of narrator, and an idea of what’s at stake, all done simply and thoughtfully. I won’t say too much more about this piece, since my hope is that you’ll please read it right away. I can’t however resist sharing one more passage, buried within the essay. I would consider this the thesis of the piece, though that’s too clinical a term. The following thoughts capture the heart of the piece, the idea (or epiphany) that drives the tale. But Orwell’s genius is displayed, instead, through the deceptively simple story he tells from start to finish.

“And it was at that moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s domination in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in that moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Posted by tom at August 17, 2006 04:05 PM
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