Versatility pays: learn to write anything

Writers may at any time get called on to write anything from social media posts to instructions to research reports. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are.

I’ll illustrate this with examples from my own career. While it included a lot more than writing, you could easily describe many of my jobs as writing jobs.

  • I was hired as a technical writer at Software Arts (inventors of the first spreadsheet), to write text that accompanied application add-ons for a mathematical software product. The person who hired me did so because I was a decent writer with math ability. In that job, I learned to write succinct prose, write about technical topics, work with editors, and use markup tools. (I also got a lesson in avoiding passive voice, which served me well for the next 40 years.) I wrote a corporate memo making the case for a new product feature — and that memo helped prove my capabilities in future job interviews.
  • Next I went to work for a financial software startup called Javelin as documentation manager. I learned to write or edit tutorials and reference material, and to supervise other writers. I wrote some press releases. I also authored online help files and online tutorials, which demanded a very different set of succinct and clear technical writing skills. I worked with a graphic designer to get the products designed, printed, and manufactured, which taught me about the production phase of writing printed materials.
  • At MathSoft, I managed not just documentation but software support and quality assurance (bug reporting). I learned to write rapidly since the startup demanded it. I worked with the president and chief engineer of the company, writing tutorials for features that didn’t yet exist so he could code them to match the descriptions. I also fully managed the manufacturing, printing, and production of the product.
  • At Course Technology, I managed the production of more than a dozen textbooks, many with included software. I learned more about working with editors and layout professionals in a production process, an experience that is still valuable to me today. I became intimately familiar with another form of writing: graphics- and text-heavy textbooks. I also authored my first interactive products: interactive CD-ROMs for business education. That was my first introduction to writing for an audience of business professionals, not just software users or students.
  • Finally, as an analyst at Forrester, I learned to write in the brief, pointed, bullet-heavy format of research reports. I mastered that and eventually mentored and edited many other analysts. I wrote many speeches and presentations. I wrote and edited books. I started blogging. I learned to write effectively for social media, including tweets. I wrote scripts for video. I wrote bylined articles for sites like Harvard Business Review. I avidly sought out and attempted to master any format presented to me. For a while, once a week, I was penning a short, pointed, clever email about the five best Forrester reports published that week that was sent to all of Forrester’s thousands of clients and prospects. That job required me to understand an extremely wide variety of topics, to write very quickly, to be extremely succinct, and to be promotional without seeming promotional. It was one of the most challenging and enjoyable assignments I ever had.

After I left Forrester, I concentrated on books — writing, ghostwriting, editing, and coaching authors — and wrote over 2 million words on this blog. I even wrote some fiction.

I can now write almost anything

There is no format that intimidates me now. Just show me who the audience is, what the format looks like, and what it is intended to accomplish — with samples, if possible — and I’ll write what you need, or edit what you wrote. That format mastery extends the breadth of my T-shaped skill set.

This is not an accident. It happened because throughout my career, I took every possible opportunity to expand the breadth, not just of the topics I could write about, but of the formats I could write in.

If you are a writer, do this throughout your career.

Versatility makes you feel powerful. Be not afraid of new formats and topics. Embrace the unknown. If it’s delivered in words, you should learn to master it. That’s how you make sure you’re always ready for the next opportunity — and it’s how you recover quickly when you lose your job. Versatility creates value.

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  1. Josh, your writing experience feels familiar to me. I started writing copy and editing for an employee newsletter at Polaroid, and then moved onto Digital Equipment Corp. where I was the editor (and chief writer) for the U.S. Field newsletter for a few years. I wrote everything from short human interest stories to in-depth interviews about prevailing issues that few wanted to expose, like addiction and burnout. I also ghost-wrote messages from senior leaders. When I moved into a MarComm manager role in the PC Engineering group, I was responsible for all advertising and external marketing content, as well as user guides for our ill-fated Rainbow PC line. When I moved to a business consulting role, I wrote summaries of interviews and workshops I ran, as well as countless emails for global audiences. Now as owner of Guided Insights for the past 30 years, I have written a monthly newsletter for 25+ years, post frequently on LinkedIn, and still write summaries of my research and workshops. And then there are those proposals to write to bring in the $$…

  2. Looking back on my career, I wrote every step of the way. Hell, even in grad school, I was the lead writer on a four-person project. Whether it in HR, consulting, or higher ed, I can honestly say that writing has been an incredibly valuable skill. I certainly can’t write in all genres, but I’m confident in my lanes.