Writing Advice from Great Authors

One of my favorite websites is Brain Pickings. The site is a treasure trove of thought-provoking advice from some of the greatest thinkers of our time. Brain Pickings does a particularly good job of collecting writing advice from influential authors, which we can apply to create effective compliance training. 

I've assembled a collection of my favorites below. 


Write the way you talk. Naturally
— David Ogilvy

The original advertising “Mad Man” David Ogilvy included this advice in his famous 1982 “How to Write” internal memo to Oglivy & Mather employees. Ultimately training will be spoken in one way or another. Either by you. Or by the employee in their head. Don’t use writing tortured with needless adverbs and adjectives. And of course, never use legalese. 

Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
— David Ogilvy

Ogilvy is a wise man, so don't be surprised that his name shows up more than once. Use simple language to more effectively communicate difficult concepts. This is really what training is all about. 

Start as close to the end as possible.
— Kurt Vonnegut

We live every second of the day in chronological order. Build excitement by starting a training story as close to the end as possible. Author Kurt Vonnegut listed “nonlinear” storytelling as one of his 8 tips on how to write a great short story. It also appears in such films as Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight, Inception, Babel and Magnolia. 

For example, insider trading training stories typically start with a list of what the “bad guy” did wrong. Instead, how about starting with the moment they were arrested by the FBI? By using nonlinear storytelling, you can zap your audience awake with an exciting part of the plot. You can always backtrack later. 

Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
— Henry Miller

Sit down and write a story that you would have fun listening to. Don’t worry about seeming “unprofessional” or “too casual”. If you want to inspire your audience, you need to let go of your own fear about writing stories with emotion. Trust me, it’s easy to get too concerned with how professional your writing appears when you work in a stoic profession like law or compliance. 

If you write with fear, your writing certainly won’t be fun to read. And if it’s not fun to read, it definitely won’t be fun for your audience. Do everyone a favor. Write with abandon. 

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
— John Steinbeck

Steinbeck advises us to just get the whole thing on paper before going back to revise. When creating a training script, just move forward. Worry about proof-reading and citing later in the process. It will only slow you down and waste your time. 

Do you have any favorites?

Email us today or leave them in the comments below!