Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

5 Secrets Good Writers Know

Nathaniel Hawthorne said “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

If you’re a writer, maybe you were like I was in the beginning and imagined when you picked up the pen to write, inspiration would flow through the nib and onto the page as easily as your hand glided across the foolscap.

Or, maybe you imagined it more like a scene from the movies where the writer, having roused the Muses, frantically pecks at the keys of the typewriter and lays down the final words of her magnum opus before ripping the paper from the carriage, pressing it to her lips, and ceremoniously placing it on the stack that is her manuscript.

If you’ve written for any length of time, you know the nostalgia that surrounds writing is mostly baloney. It just doesn’t work like that.

However, good art looks like it emerged that way, fluid and easy.

Like one leader recently said about his craft—it should remind you of a duck. While the duck glides across the pond all peaceful and smooth-like, you know underneath the water his feet are kicking like crazy, doing all the work.

Good writing is the same.

Art doesn’t just appear from the pen in its final glorious form on the first draft. Just ask Ernest Hemingway. Writing is writing, and rewriting, and rewriting some more.

If you want people to read what you’re writing, you’ve got to make it easy for them. And that means hard work for you. But where do you begin? Where should you concentrate your efforts?

Let me suggest these five secrets good writers know for turning hard writing into easy reading.

Be Correct

Do the hard work of study and research before making claims. As most of us know 79.8% of statistics are made up on the spot. Or, was that 78.9%? I don’t remember. Anyway, that’s not okay.

There are lots of great resources available to writers today. There’s no excuse for poorly researched content. For example, there’s Google Scholar to find books and journal articles. There are study Bibles and Bible-study software if you are writing about biblical concepts. If you’re writing about political issues, there’s

These examples are just a few drops from the sea of information available.

TIP: You build trust with your audience by doing the hard work for them and providing accurate content in an easy-to-read format.

Be Cogent

Cogent writing is clear, logical, and convincing. It takes hard work to make complex issues easy to understand. Einstein said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

So be sure you understand what you are writing about. Make sure your logic is solid. Then rewrite until it is easy enough for a six-year-old to understand.

TIP: Read your content to a six year old and listen to what questions she asks.

Be Concise

Make sure it’s brief but comprehensive. Don’t use words that are bigger than your audience.

Lots of pretentious words, and flowery, run-on sentences, and redundant statements about what you’ve already said, while still trying to say it in a too-clever manner makes for very hard reading when it doesn’t need to be. And yet, don’t use so few to become ambiguous.

Be sure you say what you mean and mean what you say. And use only the words you need to.

TIP: Twitter is a great tool to practice being concise.

Be Creative

Show instead of tell. Use your imagination. Don’t tell us she was an adulteress. Instead, hang a scarlet “A” from her dress.

Don’t tell us in drab theological language the Old Testament Law is now obsolete. Drop a sheet full of unclean animals from the sky and let the voice of God speak to a law-abiding Jew, saying, “Take up and eat!” Then destroy his Temple by the hands of ungodly Roman soldiers.

Don’t tell us your character was in love with her. Make him answer, “As you wish,” every time she asks for something.

TIP: Recall something you read recently that moved you, and study how the author created that effect.

Be Compelling

There is something good writers know that poor writers don’t. It’s a secret of the craft only writers who get read have discovered. Do you want to know that secret? I’m going to tell you.

But first, you should know who discovered it. An amazing story-teller in a distant age whose name has been forgotten by time discovered three things about people. First, people only listen to what interests them. Second, people only believe what they are persuaded is true. Third, people only act on what moves them, emotionally.

So here’s the secret: good writers know human nature is predictable. So does the mob, but that’s another article.

The good writer intrigues his reader to read the next line, persuades him to believe with accurate proofs, and rouses the appropriate emotion to compel him to act. There, the cat is out of the bag. Just please don’t go blabbing it around town.

TIP: Study human behavior to write compelling content.

Remember, writing is art. And we want to make good art. Making good art is hard work. And hard work pays off if it makes the reader’s job easy. If it’s easy for him, he’ll keep reading. And if he keeps reading, we’ll have one more reason to keep writing.

One final thing, before you go.

Which of these five secrets do you believe is the most important? I would appreciate a quick note in the comments if you have time.


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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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9 Replies

  1. I am an oil painting student and I’m fascinated by the similarities between different kinds of creative endeavor. In my opinion, the most important thing on your list is being correct. This applies to painting as well as to writing.

    All art has to express truth to be meaningful. For me, if my artwork wanders into the realm of fantasy, it must be still be rooted in the objective truth of how the real world looks. It’s the same with writing either fiction or non fiction. It needs to tell the truth as accurately as possible. Even make believe stuff can and should fit what is true about the world.

    I’m sure we all know to keep in mind that although the internet is a huge blessing as a way to check our facts, it’s full of misinformation as well as truth. We need to be very discerning and skeptical in evaluating what we find there.

    I love what you say about Twitter. It’s a fine tool for honing our conciseness. I believe twitter writing is an art form in itself.

  2. Russell L. Smyre Sr.

    Its very diificult to read the news paper if we throw it on the roof. Be Concise

  3. Christine

    My choice is “Correct” or in other words True. When I read words that I know to be untrue or incorrect, I stop reading. Why waste my time.
    Thanks for writing. Good job, IMHO. 🙂

  4. Dan Spaeth

    Great article, Scott! In my mind the most important of these is “Be Cogent”. To often articles leave me wondering what exactly the author’s purpose was in writing it at all. This is usually because their text does not flow logically from one point to the next and fails to build a convincing case. They tend to use multiple and seemingly unrelated subpoints that leave me dizzy and still searching for the main point.

    1. Thanks, Dan. I agree. Cogency is paramount. Everything else is icing on the cake.

  5. As a person who prefers writing novels (though I infrequently write blog articles as well), certainly most of your points apply equally well to fiction. Creativity is a big one, of course, when you are attempting to come up with the “new” idea, or combination of ideas, that have never been used before. You can play a bit with the facts, but need to stay within the bounds of believability… I’m always jarred when reading a novel where the author has not checked his facts; that momentarily takes me out of the story. Compelling? If you don’t catch and hold their attention, they close the book.

    1. Francis, good point. We want readers to keep the book open. :~)

  6. I think being creative is one of the biggest. For me it is really easy to write the same old articles over and over. I really enjoyed these tips, it was very crisp and clear!

    1. Josiah, keep writing and expand your reading. There is nothing wrong with writing what you know. Hit it from every angle and keep expanding your reading. Before you know it, you’ll be amazed at your creativity.