As a business writer, I've always cared as much about writing as I do about business. In fact, I took the discipline of writing seriously long before seeing the practice of business as a dynamic activity. Today I care about both....
And so, when looking for good business writing in other outlets, I look for two things: insight into business, and good writing. In a former life I was a writer and editor for Inc. Magazine, where, for a while, I edited three columns from authorities for each issue. While the job was tough for me at first, I loved it, and had the chance to work with great folks like Jim Collins, Mary Baechler, Marion McGovern, Michael Hammer, Amy Miller, Roxanne Coady, and many others.
Over time I developed a set of guidelines to help prospective authors get a head-start. Though I wrote this set of rules years ago, they still pass along most of what I know and believe about business writing (or simply, writing.) So this late summer seems a good time to share. The following guidelines are copied word-for-word from the copy I would send people (along with a handful of our best columns to demonstrate what we wanted by example):
Each month we publish three columns by entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and other small business authorities who have something to say to the Inc. audience. These columns are designed to open up the magazine to a range of voices and to allow our readers to speak directly to one another. Unlike the more descriptive, prescriptive, or narrative-driven feature articles, these columns are generally written in the first person, designed around an argument, and address a broad range of topics related to the new economy. We tend to work on columns about four months before they are published. Some columns of a more timely nature can be worked on closer to publication, but we will never be current. Topical, but not current. Columns run from 750 to 1200 words. We hope you will produce a great column for us. Here are some rough guidelines that may help.
Write about what you know. What have you learned about the process of growing a company? And how did you learn this lesson? Those are the two most important questions you will address in your piece, and they are directly related. There must be a sense that no one else could write your column. Your conclusions must come from direct experience or from observation. Your beliefs and ideals are important, yes, but it is crucial that you defend them in a business context. Speculation doesn't belong here. You are writing to businesspeople who will always be asking, "where's the beef?"
Columns are structured simply. In the first two or three paragraphs you should tell the reader what the column is about. What are you going to prove? Then you will spend the rest of the column elaborating your message. You will say what you know, and then you will show how you know it. Finally, sum up with a conclusion about what you have learned.
Know your audience. Never forget that you are writing for businesspeople who read Inc. to learn about and to celebrate the process of growing a business. It's okay to talk about personal stuff like divorce or impersonal issues like national health policy–as long as you keep the audience in mind. One CEO wrote a column describing her foray into professional boxing, because it taught her a lesson about growing her company (that growth must be managed and goals must be set internally). One attorney wrote about a new theory of economic returns. The common thread is that they had something to share with our audience. There must be a sense that your column is running in Inc. because Inc. is the perfect–only–fit for it.
Surprise us. We don't want to hear that top managers must get involved and that people are your most important asset, that regulations are stifling economic growth, or that every company should set up a web page in an increasingly global economy. Think "man bites dog." The best columns are surprising, provocative, counterintuitive, orginal. They start a conversation rather than end one, they provoke an argument among smart businesspeople. If you want to tackle a current debate, ask yourself what new thinking you'll bring. Many of the columns set up a straw man in the beginning–an assumption that they want to attack. We really don't care what position you take. We don't have a party line. We only care about publishing good material that brings new thinking to a relevant subject.
About writing. Don't worry about how your column will sound. Worry instead about what you have to say. Of course we want well-written essays in the magazine. But the most important thing is that you have something to say. Focus your attention on the question: What is your message? Simplify, simplify, simplify. The best columns are the most direct. Don't worry about your voice. It cannot help but emerge when you tell your story. Don't be self-conscious. Just say what you have to say. We can always help you structure your message–but finding out what you have to say is your job.
Here's what you can expect from us. Because the bulk of our columns are written by people who don't write much, we often edit them aggressively. If you column arrives in pristine condition, we won't touch it. If it needs cosmetic work, we'll trim the adjectives and make the tenses correct. For those people who have something to say but no time to write it, we might interview you, tape the conversation, transcribe the chat and edit it into a column that you will then review. Our preference is always to do the least amount of work–not because we are lazy, but because the best columns tend to be those where the writing is primarily done by the author.
We will however do everything possible to make your column work, including sending it back to you for major revisions if necessary. Some columns, unfortunately, will not make it–even after work on your part. We don't like when that happens. But it does. Here's the best way to insure that your column will work: read and study what we have already published. Enclosed with these guidelines are a handful of columns that have worked in the past. We would love, in the future, to be sending out one of yours in this mailing.
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