How I Think About Writing

Five P’s guide my writing—purpose, people, precision, persuasion and place. Here is what I mean by each P:


I view the purpose of writing, any type of writing, as making the complex understandable and the understandable memorable. Every week on my blog Resource Insights, I take complex topics in energy and the environment and make them accessible to a broad audience of activists, policymakers, investors, financial advisors, industry personnel and the general public.

I’ve had to do the same for health care related materials which I produced for audiences that included both physicians and patients.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of this task is my work with political campaigns for which I produced television and radio advertising, wrote direct mail and walking pieces, and provided day-to-day messaging advice for candidates–all with an eye toward communicating with the average swing voter.

To make messages memorable I employ standard forms such as alliteration and parallel construction. To make messages accessible I follow the advice of the stylist I admire most, George Orwell. Generally, I prefer short words over long ones, active voice over passive voice, and everyday English over jargon or scientific words. Naturally, there are exceptions such as when the audience is familiar with and expects the use of scientific words or jargon. And, of course, it is better to depart from the general guidelines mentioned above if following them would result in an atrocious phrase or sentence.


It almost goes without saying that I want to know whatever I can about the audience for which I’m writing. This is not just a question of demographics. There are myriad pieces of information that can shed light on the members of any target audience. Are they current or prospective customers, donors or clients? More generally, how can we characterize their relationship with the organization? What recent events in the news and surrounding the organization and its peers are relevant to this audience and need somehow to be addressed? Are there particular phrases and ideas that this audience will understand in a uniquely impactful way? Are there civic holidays, religious festivals or anniversary dates of events such as 9/11 that should be reflected in the copy?

Every writing project calls forth questions such as these, some of them peculiar to the situation. I seek answers to all of them before completing a project.


To be understandable, writing must be precise. The words chosen should leave little room for ambiguity (unless ambiguity is the aim) and be familiar to the target audience. When dealing with scientific topics as I often do—where policy, chemistry, physics, finance and a dozen other disciplines collide—I carefully examine my word choices to make sure they properly describe phenomena in the field in question.

Naturally, when creating company names, product names, slogans and headlines, it is just as important to consider all the nuances of the words under consideration. It is essential to examine the broader cultural context: Where do the words chosen appear in history and in contemporary culture, and do they have associations that are negative or in any way in opposition to the intended message of the client?

Of course, there was no room for error when I was writing manuals for powered surgical instruments. I had to check, recheck and then check again each instruction and procedure for accuracy and clarity.


Engaging readers emotionally as well as intellectually is the key to persuading them to place importance on your message. Persuasive writing does this by connecting not only with a reader’s needs, but also with his or her values.

Naturally, some information about the values of the target audience will often come from the client and any publicly available market research. Beyond this, there is the logic of the target audience’s place in society. The logic of the lives of stay-at-home mothers will be considerably different from that of professional mothers or single women—even if all are the same age, ethnicity and income level.


Good writing is always cognizant of place. Where are the members of my audience when hearing and/or seeing my message? Are they at work, at home or at play? Are they walking, in a car, eating a meal, or attending a sports or cultural event? Are they watching television, listening to radio, on a computer, or on a cellphone? Are there people competing for their attention? Family members? Co-workers? Friends? In short, does the writing fit the venue in which the audience will receive it?

Using my experience I can combine all of these elements into effective writing for your organization. To discuss how I might do that, please me call (202) 313-8270 or email me at