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8 Qualities of Powerful Writing

8 Qualities of Powerful Writing

Every semester I agonize over how to help my students learn to write more meaningful, interesting papers. Not just in my class, but altogether. Writing well is a key skill in today’s information-heavy society, and above all else my job is to help prepare students to become active participants in the society we live in.

Writing well is about far more than proper grammar and spelling. In fact, good writing often violates the rules of good grammar, sometimes violently. It is also about more than simply developing a good style. Hemingway and Proust have very different styles, but both were good writers.

One piece of advice often given to students is to write conversationally, and while that can be helpful – particularly for students (and others) who feel that good writing means using a lot of big words and complex sentences – not all good writing is conversational. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is very conversational, and is quite effective for it; on the other hand, David Mamet’s writing is famously NON-conversational – and he writes plays and movie scripts that consist almost entirely of conversations!

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While trying to figure out something I could do for this year’s best and brightest, I decided to list some of the qualities that make writing good writing. The characteristics that make the best prose stick with us, that keep us reading or listening to a book or speech. This is what I came up with.

1. Powerful writing is readable.

I borrowed the notion of readability from the world of typesetting, where it refers to the effort required to make sense of the letters and words on a page. A paragraph set in Times New Roman is very readable; the same paragraph in Edwardian Script is nearly unreadable. In terms of what makes for good writing, readability is about the basic ability of a reader to make sense of what is written. A work that’s readable is grammatically sound (not necessarily grammatically correct – what’s important is that grammar not get in the way of the meaning) and stylistically clear, requiring only as much work to understand as is necessary.

2. Powerful writing is focused.

Good writing has a point, a goal that it is intended to achieve. That goal might be to sell something, to convince someone of something, or to explain how to do something, but whatever the point, it informs every line. Anything that doesn’t lead the reader towards that goal is stripped away.

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3. Powerful writing develops gracefully.

Powerful writing is not just focused on a goal, it leads the reader inescapably towards that goal. That may be through the use of evidence in support of an argument, through the relaying of a narrative describing events occurring over time, or in some other way, but it must be graceful – without gaps of reasoning, unsupported assumptions, missing information, or anything else that would cause a reader to stumble.

4. Powerful writing flows.

Good writing is all of a piece – the various elements that make it up fit together neatly and draw the reader along. Think of how bad joke-tellers tell jokes: “So the priest says – Oh, I forgot to tell you that the horse is gay. Ok, so the priest says…” That’s the opposite of flow. Flow means that everything in a piece of writing is exactly where it belongs, that whatever you need to understand paragraph 4 is present in paragraph 1, 2, or 3, that each part transitions nicely into the next, and that the style and tone remain constant throughout. Think of the way the Gettysburg Address moves effortlessly from the founding of the United States to the Civil War battlefield on which Lincoln stood.

5. Powerful writing is concrete.

Our society tends to value abstract thinking and generalizations over concrete particularities, but this tends to  lead to particularly limp and empty writing. The best writing, even when the subject is an abstraction, grounds its topic in the real world through examples, metaphors and analogies, and storytelling. This is an intensification of the old “show, don’t tell” rule – powerful writing doesn’t just show, it shows in real-world ways that are easily apporachable.

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6. Powerful writing is well-suited for its audience.

A good writer knows his or her audience intimately: the language they understand, the beliefs they share, the knowledge they hold. He or she knows what assumptions can be made about the reader, and what assumptions can’t be made. Good writing isn’t boring because the writer knows what will hold his or her audience’s interest. It is neither too dense nor too simple for the intended reader – it’s just right.

7. Powerful writing is compelling.

The best writing demands attention, whether through the force of its argument, the strength of its language, or the importance of its topic. The reader doesn’t want to stop reading – even when they’re done.

8. Powerful writing is passionate.

Good writing is about something important. Not necessarily something important in the grand scheme of things, but something either the audience already cares about or something the author makes them care about. And you can’t make an audience care unless you care, deeply, about whatever you’re writing about. It’s always clear when a writer doesn’t care – it’s what distinguishes the hacks from the greatest writers – and it’s easy enough not to care when the writer so clearly doesn’t.

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Normally I’d ask what I missed (and feel free to let me know in the comments) but I want to ask something else: What kind of writing speaks to you? What is the most powerful writing you remember? While writing this, I kept thinking of Barack Obama’s speeches, which even people who utterly disagree with him find deeply moving. What about you?

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

2. Pace Yourself

Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

3. You Can’t Please Everyone

“I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

6. It’s Not All About You

You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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