HOW TO SAY IT: BUSINESS WRITING THAT WORKS by Adina Rishe Gewirtz: “I was writing a book, and didn’t know it…”

James Thurber used to tell a great story about himself. He’d be standing at a party, I guess staring off into space, and his wife would say to him, “Damn it, Thurber, stop writing!”

I can relate. For almost two decades, I was writing a book, and didn’t know it.

It started back in Journalism school at the University of Maryland in the late 1980s, where I had the good fortune to study my craft under some fantastic teachers, one of whom was two-time Pulitzer-prizewinner Jon Franklin. He had pioneered an outlining system that transformed standard news pieces into narrative gold – real stories that people wanted to read. In school, he taught that system to his students as the best way to take advantage of how the brain naturally takes in information – in traditional story form.

I drank those lessons up, because until meeting Jon, I’d relied on inspiration and gut to get me through as a writer. Those are two essential ingredients, but they’re not enough. When you’re dealing with complicated ideas, you need some way to get a grip on them, some way to see the story before writing it.

So I learned. And after graduation, I used Jon’s system in my freelance work. It just made sense. I learned to add to it, too, remolding parts so I could use them better. Then one day a friend asked me if I might help her son, a learning-disabled high schooler, with writing. I said sure, and decided to try showing him how I approached my own writing. I worried that the system wouldn’t work for him. I thought maybe it was meant just for professional writers. But he looked at the steps I laid out for him, and I could almost see the light bulb switch on over his head. He loved it!

Not only that, but it worked. It worked better than I could have imagined, and more quickly, too. In no time, he had the sense of it, and his writing improved dramatically. With this early success, I started teaching writing on a more regular basis, first at a community college, then for the accounting giant Arthur Andersen. The system never failed to work. Whether I was teaching senior citizens, high school students or accountants, they all loved it for its sheer logic. Most of all, the system took the fear out of the writing process.

After a while, I began teaching high school students one-on-one, often in the evenings, sometimes at school. And that’s when the gentle pushing began. A learning specialist overheard my lesson one day and asked to see my system, saying she’d never heard a better way to teach writing. Most of all, my husband launched a campaign with the refrain: “You ought to write a book, you know. Nobody teaches writing that way.”

I worried a book about writing would bore people. But that’s where, after all my years working on the nuts and bolts of craft, inspiration kicked back in. One day, I started to hear the book in my head, and I was amazed to find out it was funny! Even more astonishing, it came fairly quickly, because, in fact, I discovered I’d been writing it in my head for more than fifteen years.

So I wrote it, laughing a lot of the time, found an agent who was interested in it, and watched in sheer wonder as she sold it to Prentice Hall, a division of Penguin. They gave me a great editor who appreciated my sense of humor, and in no time, it was in the bookstore. So that’s the story behind How to Say It: Business Writing That Works!

Adina Rishe Gewirtz is the author of HOW TO SAY IT: BUSINESS WRITING THAT WORKS. You can visit her website at


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