Some people think I am a journalist. My friends ask how I can possibly write as much as I do, given all the responsibilities that I have. I write forWashington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ASEE Prism Magazine, Bloomberg BusinessWeek,and now this LinkedIn blog. I’ve just co-authored a book, Immigrant Exodus, which The Economist named a book of the year. And I am working on two more books: one about women in tech and another about how the U.S. can reinvent itself. Writing is just a hobby; my day job is as an academic and researcher.
I get so much feedback from my writing that I know that it is making an impact and is well worth the effort I put into it. It is the best way of sharing ideas and educating. That is why I do it and why I encourage others to write. And that is why I thought I should share some secrets about how a guy like me got into writing. It may motivate others to find their own path.
If you look at my education and background, you’ll see that I started my career as a nerdy computer programmer who happened to build a far-out technology that led to the creation of a software company. This startup, Seer Technologies, achieved extraordinary success and transformed me into an entrepreneur. Much later, I became an academic.
I exited my second startup, Relativity Technologies, because of health problems. I decided to do something completely different for a while: help produce a Bollywood film. This caught the attention of BusinessWeek tech editor Alex Salkever, who had followed and written about my tech career. Alex thought that BusinessWeek readers would find my story interesting, and asked me to tell it in my own words.
I don’t have any journalism degrees, and have never taken writing classes. Frankly, I barely passed English in grade school, because I hated grammar. I could never figure out what an adverb was, or the difference between a noun and a pronoun. So I had to learn by doing, and all of my writing experience was confined to high-school essays and a few university research reports.
Needless to say, I had no clue how to write a BusinessWeek article. But I didn’t tell Alex that. I readily accepted his offer. Then I frantically wrote to journalist friends to ask for advice: how do you write a business article or op-ed? What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.
It was really, really hard to do this. The school essays that we are taught to write start with a boring preface, ramble on forever, and save the best part for last. In articles, if you don’t capture readers’ attention in the first or second paragraph, they lose interest and move on. And you have to say all you can in the fewest words possible. Schoolteachers reward you for verbosity and essay length. They don’t read every word; they just skim to see whether you have understood key concepts. Readers of business articles, however, want to learn something, and to gain the most knowledge by the least reading.
It took me more than 40 hours to write my first BusinessWeek piece: Bollywood, Here I come. Then it got progressively easier. It took 30 hours for the next piece, 20 hours on average for the next few, then five to ten hours; and now it takes me two to four hours per piece, depending on how much research it necessitates. When I know my stuff, I can sometimes knock articles over in less than an hour.
These really are the keys to writing blog posts, op-ed pieces and columns, and even testimonies to Congress: to speak fearlessly from the heart, get to the point immediately, keep the message simple and focused, and use the fewest words you can. Note this submission I made to the House Judiciary Committee on immigration reform. I simply told the story as if speaking to a friend.
I’ll share another secret. I almost always have a friend look over what I write, checking it for spelling errors, grammar, and sensibility. I am really lucky to have a childhood friend in Australia, John Harvey, who is a perfectionist editor. He drives me crazy with his demands that I add commas and semicolons. Just as the editors I work with at The Washington Post,BusinessWeek, and Wall Street Journal do, he questions everything that I write. Good editors make you fact-check and validate every statement. You can learn a lot from their criticisms.
So writing is a skill that you can learn. It gets easier as you go, and doing it well will help you make an impact. If you don’t have a Bollywood story that you can get BusinessWeek to tell, just write a blog on your own website, or comment on discussion sites such as Quora and LinkedIn. Your voice is as important as any other’s.