In all its disparate forms, writing, or at least good writing, has one common denominator: it seeks to make you think, read, or act differently.
Writing seeks to tell a story, prove a point, or bring about a new understanding. Obvious though that may seem, my experience has been that it’s really the largest divide between good writing and bad writing (and I’ve both read and produced my fair share of bad writing).
No matter how elegant your prose, perfect your grammar, or brilliant your metaphors, if I as the reader finish the piece and am not compelled to somehow be different, there’s been no great effect on me.
On the flip side: I’ve read some poorly-written, error-rich pieces that somehow managed to make a compelling point. Mistakes aside, I’d still rather read that than just a well-crafted diversion from the rest of my life. Writing can be a method of entertainment, but truly great writing compels the reader to take note, and take action.
There’s no secret formula to doing this well. Take Faulkner, a famous and prolific author. He’s renowned for the intensity and long-lasting nature of his books, but writes the most flowery, long, winding sentences I’ve ever seen. He even holds the Guinness World Record for longest proper sentence- 1,287 words! On the other hand is someone like Hemingway, who wrote with. Lots of. Short sentences. One of my personal favorite Hemingway stories is a grand total of six words long- “For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Each author, through totally different means, compelled their readers to be different, and that’s why their writing stuck.
Writing like Faulkner or Hemingway is no small task, but it’s easy to make sure we’re writing with a purpose, and writing to affect our audience.
When you first start writing, ask yourself two questions:
- What do I want the reader to know?
- What do I want them to do?
I’ve learned to write these two things down, bold them, star them, and outline from them, and it totally changes how I write.
The answers to these can be nearly anything- more often than not, the “do” answer will simply be “think about it!” That’s fine, but asking the questions will do wonders to help you write effectual pieces.
Instead of simply starting to write, starting with these two questions narrows the focus of my writing, and forces me to be aware of the reader. In my writing, It helps avoid the long, flowing, tangential writing toward which I seem to be inclined.
If you’re looking to make your writing sticky, memorable, and effectual, center it on what you want the reader to know and do when they finish that they didn’t when they started.
Focusing and refocusing on your readers will help you trim the fat, and make sure your writing always returns to the heart of the matter.
Try asking those two questions before you write next. How does it change the way you think and write?