Accountants, Analysts, CFOs, FP&A professionals. We’re helpless. We can’t write, can we?
But there is good news. Writing is a cognitive ability. While good writing is an artful masterpiece, it’s the science of writing that can make or break this masterpiece. Accordingly, you too can be a writer.
Forewarning. I’m not a writer. I’m just a student of writing. I’m good enough to know I’m a 3 on a scale of 10. So let me step you through a few strategies I’m applying to bump my score upward.
Writing Starts with Ideas
If you are going to write, you’ll need ideas, lots of them.
I love writing in Moleskins. Buy one. Heck, I have about 20 of them. Some are in my office, my home office, in my truck, and in my computer bag.
Each drive I make to Columbia, Missouri, I get about 4-5 blog ideas. When I’m with a client, there’s 2 or 3 more. My best ideas come from client work.
When I’m mowing, I get ideas. Working out, it’s like the ideas don’t stop. Of course, the shower too.
As the ideas spill out from wherever (thank you God), commit them to paper. Eventually, I transcribe these written scribbles to my Evernote account.
I have one Evernote notebook just for blog posts and another for future book ideas. When I transcribe my idea to Evernote, sometimes I’ll pound out a quick 300 or 400 words and then come back to it later. Other times, I’ll just add a few more notes like I did below on matching supply and demand from a customer’s perspective.
Don’t have a journal? I have close to 300 emails I’ve sent to myself when I have an idea. Periodically, I’ll peruse those Outlook folders mining for gold.
Ultimately, I copy my best ideas in these Outlook folders to Evernote for future use.
You have the ideas. You just need some temporary storage capacity so that these epiphanies don’t get lost in the Neverland.
The Craft of Writing
A CFO on the craft of writing? That’s hilarious. So let’s call these tips. You can follow up with your own research.
- Just write. Don’t edit yet. Edit later. I fail miserably at this concept. Just keep trying. The objective is to not stymie the flow of writing. I’m not referring to Mars-like, Zen-esque concepts here. I’m referring to effectiveness over efficiency. Write now, edit later.
- Develop a habit of writing. Start with 200 words per day. Then try 300. Go for a streak. Discipline is the result of habit. Stick to the habit, and the discipline will follow.
- Speaking of habits, I use Quora to keep me in the game. About a year ago, I was in the writing doldrums. So I went back to my Quora account to answer 1-2 questions a day. My intent was never to get clients or even get noticed. It worked. Some 300,000 words later with about 2 million impressions and lots of upvotes, I started regaining confidence in my writing. More importantly, my habit became a discipline.
- It’s time to edit. This point is so important, I’ve saved it to a category below.
Editing Is Boring, But It Has to Be Done
I hate editing. It stinks to read a draft about 15 times until you go crazy only to read the same published post four days later and then find 2 more errors. I’m hopeless.
So I drank from my own consultant water hydrant. I became a problem solver. I solved the problem by hiring a content editor. He’s good. He’s picky. He’s smart. Heck, he has a degree in English, whatever the heck those people do. I just know that he has my back.
But what if you don’t have an editor? Then do the following:
- Edit when the writing is done. There is a huge temptation to hit the Publish button in WordPress before editing. Don’t. Wait a day. Wait two days. I’ve even gone longer for some posts.
- On your first 3-4 edits (yes, that many), read the post out loud (ideally in private). You’ll be amazed at the errors you catch. Drop the silent auctioneer act. You’re doing this out loud, slowly and deliberately.
- Read your piece backward. This will help with missing punctuation.
- Do one more edit after you publish your work. I guarantee you’ll still find at least one error.
What if you do have an editor?
I can’t share all my secrets, but I will step you through a couple of tools we use on Google Drive starting with a few files we regularly maintain.
Our most important tool is the tracker below. When I’m done writing, I’ll add the post to the list. If there are errors, he’ll link those to a document recommending changes that I make. My editor owns the obvious technical errors, and he will correct those immediately.
We’re so much on the same page that he knows when to highlight a questionable sentence or phrase. He wants me to write in my voice, so he has me make the change(s). I do so about 70% of the time. He’s that good.
Whether you have an editor or not, you can quickly lose credibility if you don’t edit your own work. I’m sorry, it has to be done.
Apply the Science of Continuous Improvement to Your Writing
Want to be a better writer? Then read books that teach you about being a good writer. Personal favorites that I recommend are the following:
- I love Stephen King’s On Writing so much that I’ve listened to it 4 times. I’ll keep listening to it annually.
- Ann Handley’s book Everybody Writes is a gem, and I love her wit and sarcasm. Read it.
- If you are truly serious about being a better writer, then consider Hemingway’s book on writing along with Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
- I used to get paid for writing (which is hilarious), and I carried my little Strunk and White book everywhere I went–The Elements of Style.
You need to read a lot. Read widely. Get out of your comfort zone. I never read finance books. Not only are they poorly written, I find them painfully boring. Read literature, biographies, science, economics. Try to be like great CEOs who rarely read the business gurus of the day.
The more you widen your reading tastes, the more ideas you’ll get. You’ll become a better writer too.
Do a search on Don Graham in Quora and take note of the types of books he reads. Gates is similar. Business is not 100% science. Business is better learned through the arts and humanities. That’s where our eyeballs should be focused if we want to be strong business writers.
Read. Read. Read.
Your Writing Is Killing Me
I wish I had a dollar for every dull and boring article I’ve read about improving cash flow.
If you find yourself with the urge to write about cash flow improvement like the hundreds of other CFOs have before you, please watch this clip from the movie Walk the Line. It’s brilliant and aptly applies.
Tell stories. Write from the heart. Give examples. Don’t write for Wikipedia. Write for CEOs who have a dream.
If you were hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song (or write one blog post for CEOs). Huh? One song (blog post) that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song (blog post) that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song (blog post) that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song (silly blog post on cash flow) you’d sing (write)? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it out?
Or… would you sing (write) somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt.
Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song (content) people want to hear (read). That’s the kind of song (writing) that truly saves (moves) people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.
Sam Phillips Speech from Walk the Line and Tweaked for CFOs Who Dare to Write
I’m not saying you have to write like Hemingway. Don’t. Just don’t write dull, boring content that belongs on Investopedia. You’re creative. You’re unique. There’s only one of you. Write like it.
The Jim Cramer Lightning Round
I used to listen to Jim Cramer on my way home from Columbia to Fayette every evening. I loved his lightning round. Does he still do that?
So let’s wrap this little writing session up by using a speed round of writing tips.
- Thank you Stephen King. We’re going to do our best to chuck the adverbs. Can’t do this? Then read On Writing. He’ll cure you of this little evil of yours.
- I love Bob Costas. That guy is great. I wish I could talk like him. More importantly, I wish I possessed his vocabulary. Only Costas can say,”The ball that ripped just inches past the pitcher’s midsection will be indelibly etched in our minds due in part to the player’s act of self-preservation as he instinctively dodged a serious bullet.” Here’s the good news. I don’t have a 160 IQ. So I have to use simple words. Just be careful about finding and using big words.
- Shorten those paragraphs. I hate giving a rule on how long a paragraph should be. Just don’t torture us with a one-page paragraph. It’s just too hard to read. Be liberal with headings and subheadings too.
- Are there writing errors you commit regularly? Know them. Remember them. The Elements of Style will be your master playbook for killing off those repeatable, unforced errors.
- Procrastination is the achilles heal of writers. No one is immune from procrastination. Both Michael Hyatt and Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach talk about procrastination a lot. Stephanie Song of The Strategic Coach once told me that my 80% is probably another person’s 100%. Bingo! When writing, don’t strive for perfection. Strive for excellence. Get version 1.0 done first, then hit Publish. You can add the next 80% if you like at a later time.
Personal Note: I learned the Version 1.0 idea of writing from Gary Klaben. That writing mental model will stick with me forever. Gary, you are a genious.
Let’s Call This a Wrap
I’m wiped out. That’s because I’m anything but a writer. Yet, I hope this helps.
I wrote this as much for myself as I did so for you. And this is only my 80%. I’ll be adding to this post over the following year, maybe forever. I won’t hit Six Sigma territory. I will, however, start to achieve some mastery where I badly need it.
Finally, Matthew Payne, thank you for your God-given talent. Keep taking photos.