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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 January 15, 2019

What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

When I wrote my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide, I was surprised at the various layers of review and editing necessary to get the book to publication. Before I ever submitted the manuscript, I enlisted a former colleague to read and copy edit my work. Then, I submitted my work to an editor at the publisher’s house, and once she approved it, she sent it to her colleagues and then her company’s editorial board.

Upon editorial board approval of my book, my editor sent my work to reviewers in my field, then a developmental editor, then a designer and layout team and, finally, another copy editor. There were a host of personalities with whom I needed to interact along the way.

It turns out that getting a publishing contract was just the beginning – a lot happens between developing a concept, writing the book, finding an agent and publisher, and getting the book on bookshelves or on Audible or Kindle. Through every milestone of the publishing process, my ability to interact with others was crucial. This underscored for me that no matter what or how much a person accomplishes, you never do it alone – everyone needs assistance from others.

While I conceived of the book and wrote the manuscript, there is no way my book could have hit booksellers’ shelves without the dozens of people who were involved in the publishing process. Further, interpersonal skills can propel or stonewall success.

Even as someone who has written hundreds of essays, press releases, pitch notes and other correspondence, writing itself is not a solitary endeavor. Sure, I may write in solitude, but the moment I am finished writing, there are always clients, colleagues, partners, peers and others who review my content.

What is more, even as a published author and contributor for this platform, I try to never submit final copy (content) that has not been copy edited. I send everything to my copy editor, whom I pay out of my own pocket, for her review, edits and approval. Once she has reviewed my work, caught unbeknownst-to-me errors, I am much more confident putting my work out in the world.

How Interpersonal Skills Affect Relationships

It is clearer to me now more than ever before that interpersonal skills are needed in every profession and every trade.

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People don’t elect leaders because the leaders are smart. Individuals are motivated to vote when they have a hero and when they feel they have something to lose. If they seriously dislike the other candidate, they are much more likely vote according to a 2000 Ohio State University study:

“A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be motivation to go to the polls. But a threat alone isn’t enough – people need to have a hero to vote for, too, in order to inspire them to turn out on Election Day.”

In a work setting, interpersonal skills impact every facet of your development and success. Trainers must collaborate with a design team or the company hiring them to facilitate the training. During the training itself, the facilitators must connect with the audience and establish a rapport that supports vulnerability and openness. If the trainers interact poorly with the trainees, they are unlikely to be invited back. If they are invited back, they may be unlikely to inspire cooperation or growth in their trainees.

Solopreneurs interactions with clients and subcontractors, and those interactions will, in part, support or adversely impact their business. If you enjoy a career as an acclaimed surgeon or respected lawyer, your interactions with patients, clients, health insurance agencies and a team of other practitioners – many of whom are shielded from public view – will improve or decimate your practice.

As a hiring manager, one of the things I consider when interviewing candidates is their interpersonal skills. I assess the interpersonal skills they display in their content and face-to-face presentation. I ask probing questions to learn how they interact with others, manage conflict and contribute to a team atmosphere.

When candidates say things like, “I prefer to work alone” or “I can hit the ground running without assistance,” I bristle. When candidates appear to know everything and everyone, I wonder if they will be receptive to learning or open to feedback. Could these statements be indications that these individuals lack interpersonal skills?

It stands to reason, then, that interpersonal skills are among the most valuable and the bedrock of all talents and skills.

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What are Interpersonal Skills?

Interpersonal skills range from emotional intelligence, empathy, oral and written communication to leadership to collaboration and teamwork.

In sum, interpersonal skills are skills that enable you to interact well with others. They include teachability and receptiveness to feedback, active or mindful listening, self-confidence and conflict resolution.

From a communications standpoint, interpersonal skills are about understanding how colleagues prefer to communicate and then using the appropriate mediums to meet respective needs. It is about understanding how to communicate in a way to get the most out of different people.

For instance, in my career as a public relations practitioner, part of what I am constantly evaluating is which colleagues, clients and members of the media prefer email, text or phone calls. I am assessing how much frill to use with each person depending on what has worked in the past and depending on what I know about the person with whom I am interacting.

Making these decisions and being disciplined enough to follow each person’s known preferences helps me better connect with the various individuals in my orbit. Is this tiring at times? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

How to Improve Interpersonal Skills

There are tons of resources to teach interpersonal skills. I love books such as Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, and The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

There are also a host of books and articles on emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and perceive and adapt to others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence is likewise a critical component of positive interpersonal relations. You can learn more about it in this article: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why It Is Important

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Active and mindful listening also support improved interpersonal skills. I recommend you take a look at this piece: Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

I have further found that humility helps a ton with interpersonal skills. It takes humility to admit you have more to learn and that you can learn from the people around you. In fact, everyone with whom you interact has a lesson to teach you. And employers are increasingly looking for team members who are lifelong learners, meaning they believe there is always room for growth and professional and personal development.

Forbes contributor Kevin H. Johnson noted in a July 2018 article,

“That’s why, when anyone asks what the next ‘hot’ skill will be, I say it’s the same skill that will serve people today, tomorrow, and far into the future—the ability to learn.”

Don’t overlook introspection.

While interpersonal skills may seem simple enough, introspection is critical to learning where and in what ways you need to grow.

Through introspection and observation, I have learned that my interpersonal skills suffer when I am sleep deprived, because then I am short-tempered and irritable. I’ve observed this connection over a significant period in my life. Unsurprisingly, it is also true of others. Fellow LifeHack contributor, health coach and personal trainer Jamie Logie noted:

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When you are chronically sleep deprived, it really does a number on you. A lack of sleep can keep your body in a constant state of stress and over time this can get pretty ugly. Elevated stress hormones can be involved in creating a bunch of pretty nasty conditions including anxiety, headaches and dizziness, weight gain, depression, stroke, hypertension, digestive disorders, immune system dysfunction, irritability.

Additionally, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported,

“Sleep deprivation can noticeably affect people’s performance, including their ability to think clearly, react quickly, and form memories. Sleep deprivation also affects mood, leading to irritability; problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers; and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase anxiety.”

The point is, even as you are identifying ways to improve interpersonal skills, think about what is getting in the way. While sleep deprivation is a trigger for me, your stumbling block may be different.

The Bottom Line

You cannot fix what you do not know is broken. Even as you work to understand and apply interpersonal skills, spend some time in mindful meditation to get clear on what is holding you back from developing solid relationships.

Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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