Gene Fowler Quote

2 October 2019

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 30 years, I continue to develop my craft. I see evolution as a mandate, not 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. (Note: buying from these links supports the Atomic Tango martini fund.):

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

Writing To Persuade: How To Bring People Over To Your Side
by Trish Hall

Although Hall isn’t a strong writer — her prose is a bit dry — as the former Editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page, she knows more than anyone how to write persuasively. Plus, the story of why she rejected an editorial from U2 lead singer Bono is worth the read.

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. (After all, some critics deride all marketing as “fiction.”) This book definitely helps with branded content, where storytelling is a way of life.

Copyediting With An Attitude: How To Edit Ads And Other Marketing Copy
by Freddy Tran Nager

Yes, I wrote this book, so this is a shameless plug. That said, other communication professors have started recommending it to their students, so I think that makes it worth reading, no?

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 managers trying too hard to sound smart and savvy. Instead, their jargon makes them sound like they’re hiding something, like a lack of talent. Unfortunately, executive bull-kaka has seeped into the writing of students and aspiring young professionals. 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, read other well-written publications, such as The New Yorker, on a regular basis. 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 studies are. Academic journal writers also fear that any creativity or emotion would make their research seem less objective. (Never mind that ALL research starts with some bias.) I could go on about the horrors of academic writing, but I’ll just say, if you have to read it, 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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