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I never thought I’d be giving writing advice. I was always the worst student in my literature class in Russia. I never received a grade higher than a C on any Russian essay I ever wrote. I have a theory that my teachers got sick of reading and grading my horrible essays, so they stopped and automatically gave me a passing grade out of pity. I don’t blame them.
When I came to the U.S., my grades in English class in college were not spectacular either; in fact, English was the only class I failed in college and actually had to retake my senior year.
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My writing has improved slightly since then – and you, my loyal readers, get to be the judge of my scribbles. However, if the prequalification for giving writing advice was based solely on quantity – on how many words have blackened a perfectly fine white screen or besmirched innocent paper – then I am more than qualified. I have been at it for exactly a decade.
My writing “career” started in 2004 when I was hired as a writer by TheStreet.com. I was not hired because I was good – I wasn’t. But I had an investing background, and TheStreet.com was not very picky; it needed warm bodies (ideally with CFA next to their names) to comment on the markets and stocks. TheStreet.com paid almost nothing, and it was overpaying me.
I had zero experience, but I was ambitious. I took writing very seriously, and therefore my articles were serious. They were filled with big words, and, quite frankly, they were enormously boring. In addition, I was extremely self-conscious about grammar. Sentence structure and punctuation drove me nuts, and I was afraid of confusing words that were spelled similarly but had unrelated meanings (like comma and coma).
This brings me to the first lesson that I want to impart about writing, and it’s one that will drive English teachers insane: Don’t worry about grammar.
Once I stopped worrying about grammar, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders (as all those little punctuation marks emptied themselves from my brain). I completely gave up on a, an and the (my 12-year-old son, who was born here, does a great job fixing those for me), I stopped obsessing about commas (and comas), and I stopped trying to ferret out all the other marvelous secrets of English grammar. I let copy editors – who are very talented and oh so skilled at this – catch me out in all my little peccadilloes. Instead I channel my energy into making writing interesting and funny (if appropriate); this is Lesson No. 2. There are a lot of smart investors, and a lot of them write (just visit the web site Seeking Alpha), but only a small fraction manage to make their writing interesting (again, just visit Seeking Alpha) – and those are the ones who are read more than once.
As I mentioned, when I started writing, my articles were technical and boring. I still feel sorry for the people who read them and especially for my dear friends who felt an obligation to read them.
By Vitaly Katsenelson, read the full article here.