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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 July 18, 2019

What Makes People Happy? 20 Secrets of “Always Happy” People

What Makes People Happy? 20 Secrets of “Always Happy” People

Some people just seem to float through life with a relentless sense of happiness – through the toughest of times, they’re unfazed and aloof, stopping to smell the roses and drinking out of a glass half full.

They may not have much to be happy about, but the simplicity behind that fact itself may make them happy.

It’s all a matter of perspective, conscious effort and self-awareness. Listed below are a number of reasons why some people are always happy.

1. They Manage Their Expectations

They’re not crushed when they don’t get what they want – or misled into expecting to get the most out of every situation. They approach every situation pragmatically, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

2. They Don’t Set Unrealistic Standards

Similar to the last point, they don’t live their lives in a constant pursuit towards impossible visions of perfection, only to always find themselves falling short of what they want.

3. They Don’t Take Anything for Granted

Happiness rests with feeling fulfilled – those who fail to stop and appreciate what they have every now and again will never experience true fulfillment.

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4. They’re Not Materialistic

There are arguing viewpoints on whether or not money can really buy happiness; if it can, then we know from experience that we can never be satisfied because there will always be something newer or better that we want. Who has ever had enough money?

5. They Don’t Dwell

They don’t sweat the small things or waste time worrying about things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. They don’t let negative thoughts latch onto them and drain them or distract them. Life’s too short to worry.

6. They Care About Themselves First

They’re independent, care for themselves and understand that they must put their needs first in order to accommodate the needs of others.

They indulge, aim to get what they want, make time for themselves and are extremely self-reliant.

7. They Enjoy the Little Things

They stop to smell the roses. They’re accustomed to find serenity when it’s available, to welcome entertainment or a stimulating discussion with a stranger when it crosses their path. They don’t overlook the small things in life that can be just as important.

8. They Can Adapt

They’re not afraid of change and they work to make the most out of new circumstances, good or bad. They thrive under pressure, are not overwhelmed easily and always embrace a change of pace.

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9. They Experiment

They try new things, experience new flavors and never shy away from something they have yet to experience. They never order twice from the same menu.

10. They Take Their Time

They don’t unnecessarily rush through life. They work on their own schedule to the extent that they can and maneuver through life at their own relaxing pace.

11. They Employ Different Perspectives

They’re not stuck in one perspective; a loss can result in a new opportunity, hitting rock bottom can mean that there’s no where to go but up.

12. They Seek to Learn

Their constant pursuit of knowledge keeps them inspired and interested in life. They cherish information and are on a life-long quest to learn as much as they can.

13. They Always Have a Plan

They don’t find themselves drifting without purpose. When something doesn’t go as planned, they have a plan for every letter in the alphabet to fall back on.

14. They Give Respect to Get It

They are respectful and, in turn, are seen as respectable; the respect they exude earns them the respect they deserve.

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15. They Consider Every Opportunity

They always have their eyes open for a new road, a new avenue worth exploring. They know how to recognize opportune moments and pounce on them to make the most of every situation. Success is inevitable for them.

16. They Always Seek to Improve

Perpetual self-improvement is the key towards their ongoing thirst for success. Whatever it is they do, they take pride in getting better and better, from social interactions to mundane tasks. Their pursuit at being the best eventually materializes.

17. They Don’t Take Life Too Seriously

They’re not ones to get offended easily over-analyze or complicate matters. They laugh at their own faults and misfortunes.

18. They Live in the Moment

They don’t live for tomorrow or dwell on what may have happened yesterday. Every day is a new opportunity, a new chapter. They live in the now, and in doing so, get the most out of every moment.

You can learn how to do so too: How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying About the Past or Future

19. They Say Yes

Much more often than they say no. They don’t have to be badgered to go out, don’t shy away from new opportunities or anything that may seem inconvenient.

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20. They’re Self-Aware

Most important, they’re wholly aware of themselves. They self-reflect and are conscious of their states of mind. If somethings bothering them, they fix it.

We’re all susceptible to feeling down every now and again, but we are all equipped with the necessary solutions that just have to be discovered.

Lack of confidence, inability to feel fulfilled, and susceptibility to stress are all matters that can be controlled through the way we handle our lives and perceive our circumstances.

Learn about How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life.

Final Thoughts

The main philosophy employed by the happiest includes the idea that life’s simply too short: life’s too short to let things get you down, to take things for granted, to pursue absolute and unrealistic perfection.

For some, employing these characteristics is a second nature – they do it without knowing. For others, a conscious effort must be put forth every now and again. Self-Awareness is key.

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Featured photo credit: Charles Postiaux via unsplash.com

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