How to Write Well: The World’s Simplest Formula — Part 1
My income is based almost entirely on writing. And it has given me a very rich life — rich in every sense of the word. It can do the same for you.
I spend half of my working time coaching writers on how to write better. I spend the other half writing memos.
My memos are almost entirely persuasive: their object is to encourage my clients to make business and marketing decisions that will make them more profitable. If I fail to persuade them, then my ideas don’t get tested. If they don’t get tested, then I can’t help them make money. If I can’t help them make money, they will stop paying me. To date, I have never lost a client. (Knock on wood.) I attribute my track record to the persuasiveness of my memos.
Over the 30-odd years I’ve been doing this, I’ve developed many complicated theories about what good writing is. But now I’ve jettisoned them all in favor of a very brief, straightforward definition.
My definition of good writing applies to every sort of nonfiction writing I can think of. It applies to writing books, magazine articles, and direct-mail sales letters. It applies to business correspondence, telemarketing scripts, and speeches.
Here it is:
Good writing is the skill of expressing
compelling thoughts clearly.
When I say this to writers, I get incredulous looks. “How could it be that simple?” I can hear them thinking.
And then I explain. And re-explain. And eventually, some of them get it. And when they do, their writing gets much, much better. And their income gets better too.
Let’s go over that definition in detail. It has two parts:
Compelling Thoughts and Clear Expression
By compelling thoughts, I mean ideas that make the reader think, “Boy, that’s interesting!” Or, “I never thought of that before!” Or, “I’ve got to remember this!”
Good writing, then, has nothing to do with correctness. It doesn’t matter if the idea you are expressing is well reasoned or even factual. What does matter is that your writing engages your readers intellectually and emotionally and then motivates them to do or think what you want them to do or think.
Notice I said intellectually as well as emotionally. I have Don Hauptman, a living legend in the advertising business, to thank for that additional word.
After a speech I made once to a group of 300 writers, he wrote me to say that I had reiterated a common phrase he objected to: that people buy for emotional reasons.
“This lie,” he says, “just invites all the leftist critics of advertising and capitalism to charge that everyone is ‘manipulated’ by evildoers who exploit our emotions and irrationality. So we’re cutting our own throats if we perpetuate the ‘it’s all emotion’ fallacy. I know you don’t want to encourage that, any more than I do.
“FYI, there’s an old adage that expresses the point of your article another way: ‘Write the way you talk, if you could edit what you say.’ DM agency panjandrum Emily Soell once said something like: ‘Write it square, then add the flair.’ I’ve found these tips useful throughout my career.”
Don is absolutely correct. Not including the intellect in this discussion is incorrect and potentially harmful. It invites critics of advertising to accuse persuasive writers of pandering. And it encourages writers to believe that if they pander, they are writing well.
The most successful marketers and copywriters know that good writing requires that we engage our readers on both planes simultaneously. Ezra Pound had the same theory about writing poetic images. He called them “emotional and intellectual complexes in an instant of time.”
Creating the A-ha! Effect
And that is what I mean by a compelling thought: an emotionally and intellectually engaging idea expressed clearly and succinctly so the reader can apprehend it in a moment of time. That is what provides the a-ha! effect.
Malcolm Gladwell is an expert at this. And that is why he has become a multimillionaire writing books about arcane and academic subjects. His critics naively knock him because they argue that some of his ideas are incorrect. I made that point before: the correctness of the idea is not what makes for good writing. It is the effect it has on the intellect and the heart of the reader.
If you want to be a wealthy marketer, copywriter, or businessperson, you must be able to come up with compelling thoughts. You must be able to recognize ideas that are intellectually and emotionally engaging, ideas that arrest and charge up your readers and make them think, “That’s good! I never thought of that before!”
How do you find intellectually and emotionally compelling ideas?
In all the years I’ve been struggling to answer this question, I’ve found only one answer: you must read.
Successful writers are all voracious readers. Their ideas don’t spring fully formed from the thigh of Zeus, they come from hours of reading — reading vertically and horizontally about the subject at hand. They read and read until they come across something that gives them the a-ha! experience.
I’d like to tell you there was an easier way. There are some well-known copywriting gurus who will tell you that you can steal good ideas from Swipe Files taken from successful advertisements past or present. This is BS, plain and simple. Stolen ideas are like luxury cars. They lose 40% of their value the moment you take them out of the showroom.
The reason that my number one client is the dominant publisher in the information publishing industry is precisely because their 100+ writers have had this definition of good writing drummed into their heads. They know they can’t expect to write blockbuster promotions consistently without compelling ideas. And they know how to find those ideas.
Ask any of them how they come up with all their great ideas and he or she will tell you: “I read and read until I find one.”
Where to Place the Compelling Thought
The compelling thought must be placed in the lead. It cannot be lingering on page three or 33. It must be up front so the reader can have his a-ha! moment before he tosses the copy away.
It is the same for writing essays or memos. Put your most compelling idea very early and your readers (prospects, clients, whatever) will be excited. If they are excited, they will read on with enthusiasm. If not, you will lose them toute suite.
If you have the good fortune to discover several compelling ideas, put the best one first and let the others follow as soon as you can. Don’t make the mistake of “leaving the best for last.” You don’t have the liberty to do that. Hit ‘em quick and hit hard with your best stuff and spend the rest of the advertisement/essay/memo proving your points.
After you have put your compelling thoughts out there, then it’s time to make supporting claims and promises and prove that each one of them is valid.
You must do this because your reader is naturally skeptical. His intelligence requires him to weed out most of the advice and information he receives. If it weren’t that way, we could never get anything done. We’d be eternally lost jumping from one idea to another. Our brains are hardwired to be skeptical of ideas — and that goes for compelling thoughts as well. The reader’s subconscious tells him: “You have just been seduced by an intellectually and emotionally compelling thought. Before you act on it, make sure it makes sense.”
So this is where the good writer elaborates on his compelling thought by providing compelling proof of it. He knows he must support his ideas rationally by providing proof that they are “true.”
Truth, of course, comes in many shapes and sizes. And so does proof.
The Three Faces of Proof
There is factual proof. There is anecdotal proof. And there is social proof.
- Factual proof is easy to come by if your idea has been well researched. Anyone with an Internet connection can find all the factual proof he needs on most any topic if he knows how to do online research. And if you don’t know how to do it, don’t worry. AWAI has a product that will show you how to do it. Details on that product are right here.
- Anecdotal proof includes stories — factual and non-factual — that support an idea by “showing it” instead of “telling it.” Anecdotal proof is very powerful, because it appeals so immediately to the emotions. People are not critical when they are reading a story. Their purpose is to be entertained. This gives you, as the writer, a strong advantage.
- Social proof refers to the influence that other people have on our opinions and behavior. As a writer, a good way to support your ideas with social proof is to use testimonials and expert endorsements.
So that’s how you incorporate “good thinking” into your writing. Tomorrow we will talk about the second part of my definition of good writing: clarity of expression.
We’d love to hear your comments below.
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