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.
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 factcheck.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.