Gene Fowler Quote

6 March 2016

Ask Freddy: What Books Can Help Me Write?

Q: Dear Freddy:

Can you recommend any books that would help me with writing techniques for marketing? Or does your writing come mostly through a lot of practice?

— KC at USC

A: Dear KC:

Both books and practice.

Even though I’ve worked as a professional writer for nearly 30 years, I continue to develop my craft. I see evolution as a mandate, not just a theory. That’s why I closely evaluate sentences I admire. I read tips from legendary writers. And, yes, I read books on writing. Here are a few publications I recommend:

The Elements Of Style
by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White

Known by generations of writers as simply “Strunk and White,” this essential reference book reads like a how-to manual, but you should peruse it cover to cover. Regularly.

Made To Stick
by Dan Heath & Chip Heath

This book generally discusses how to be memorable. Along the way, the Heath brothers nail some key writing guidelines, such as using specific and concrete terms. Writers need to employ vivid language — exactly what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste — not vague abstractions. Detailed and memorable descriptions are vital in marketing, so I assign this book to my copywriting and content management students.

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers: How To Edit Yourself Into Print
by Renni Browne & Dave King

Although created for would-be novelists, the lessons in this book also apply to marketers. (Some critics deride all marketing as “fiction.”) This book should be required reading for all marketers working in branded content, where storytelling is a way of life.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide
by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway & Jon Warshawsky

Jargon has infested business writing, with MBA-brainwashed middle managers trying too hard to sound smart and savvy. Instead, their jargon makes them sound like they’re covering up some con or a lack of talent. Unfortunately, executive bull-kaka has seeped into the writing of students and aspiring young professionals, who think that’s how they’re supposed to communicate. This book by some former Deloitte consultants dispels that notion. (Ironically, Deloitte still spews jargon in its promotional materials.)

Wired Magazine

No, this magazine won’t teach you how to write — at least, not explicitly. Rather, the writers and editors of Wired will just show you how to cover seemingly dull topics with flair. Their articles on topics like mathematical formulas and neurological research read like page-turner mysteries. Who says tech writing — or writing for professionals in general — has to be flat and void of creativity? Wired doesn’t.

On that note, the ultimate secret to improving your writing is to read, read, and read…

In addition to Wired, find other well-written publications, such as The New Yorker, and read them on a regular basis. And if you’re alone, read them out loud, so you can hear the rhythms and language choices.

At the same time, avoid terrible writing — academic journals being at the top (bottom?) of that execrable heap. Like business jargon, academic writing is intentionally complex to cover up how shallow many of the studies really are. Academic journal writers also avoid any personality whatsoever, since they fear that any creativity or emotion would make their research look less objective. (Never mind that ALL research starts with some kind of bias.) In college, I had to take a rhetoric course simply to purge myself of academic writing habits, such as using only “be” verbs, and including 14 clauses in a single sentence.

I could go on and on about the horrors of academic writing, and how it’s a massive disservice to students, academia, and human knowledge in general. But I’ll just say AVOID IT unless assigned to read it, then cleanse your neurons by listening to some smart stand-up comics, like John Oliver and the late great Robin Williams.

By the way, as a young writer at MCA Records, I listened to comedy albums while driving to work. This got me in the right mood every morning while helping me learn timing and word choices. Smart comedians have an uncanny ability to sense what an audience will enjoy, and they deliver with distinctive style.

So consider that your last homework assignment here: go listen to some comedy. I know – how cruel and unusual, when there are so many good academic journals to read…

— Cheers! Freddy

P.S. You might also want to check out my recommended books for marketers and entrepreneurs.

Do you have a question about marketing you’d like to ask Freddy?
Simply drop him a line.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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