The Three Universal Writing Principles
How do you become a better writer? The same way you become better at any other skill. A skilled writer writes. A skilled designer designs. A skilled baker bakes. Instruction opens your mind to new ideas. Advice from others helps. But if you don’t put your learning into practice, it serves no purpose.
Over the past several years, I’ve learned and tinkered with a multitude of writing tips. I’ve published almost 1,000 blog posts. I’ve also completed a 130,000-word manuscript. Most of these writing tips have their place in your toolkit. You can deploy them tactically in the right situation. Many of these tips are not worth the effort unless you’ve mastered the basics.
I am going to make a bold statement. There are only three skills you need to learn before moving on to any of the more advanced techniques.
I debated including this on my list. Clarity should be a given. If your reader cannot understand you, nothing else matters. I chose to cover it for one reason.
I read a lot of blogs that lack clarity. Your writing will always make sense to you. It is more difficult to judge whether it will make sense to a reader unfamiliar with the inner workings of your brain. A former copywriting mentor of mine used the phrase instant getability.
Every sentence or phrase should be understood the instant it’s read.
Always remember. It is YOUR responsibility to make sure your reader understands your writing. Never blame your reader for being too dimwitted.
I aim to make my writing understandable to a reader at a fourth-grade reading level. Short sentences and white space are your friends. Avoid sentences with ambiguous or double meanings. Give yourself at least twenty-four hours of distance before your final edit. You need time away from your writing to spot poorly written sentences.
Try this clarity test. Ask a friend read your piece. Have them note any sentence they need to read multiple times. If your reader needs to re-read a sentence to understand it, then it’s NOT clear enough.
Curiosity Is King
Writing with clarity is essential, but not enough. You can write with absolute clarity and still bore your reader to tears. Many writing books and teachers talk about conflict and tension.
Both of those concepts fall under the banner of curiosity. If I am curious to find out what comes next, I will continue to read. Curiosity is easy to create but difficult to sustain. Look no further than the plethora of clickbait headlines. They suck us in and promptly disappoint us.
Curiosity — The gap between what we know and what we desire to know.
Conflict creates tension and helps sustain interest. If the conflict is plausible with high stakes, we feel compelled to read on and find out how it resolves.
I prefer anticipatory conflict to amplify the tension. With this technique, you set the stage for the reader to infer that a clash will soon take place. Consider the simple storyline of an unlikely romance. Imagine a strong, confident woman with a secret interest in kink. Imagine a wholesome, religious virgin man. Now, imagine they’re involved in a budding romance. What will happen when they finally bed?
There is no conflict yet, but the reader knows it’s coming. She’s anticipating some blowup when these contrasting characters fulfill their destiny. This technique is harder to pull off but satisfies when done well.
Curiosity, in its purest form, comes down to answering a question.
Do I feel compelled to keep reading?
For newbie bloggers, there is a simple formula that works well. Let your reader know in the beginning. What question or problem you plan to address. End your piece once you’ve satisfied that promise.
Many successful bloggers will also layer a story that builds to a conclusion. The key with that approach is to reward the reader and maintain curiosity. Deliver a few nuggets of wisdom along the way. Create a new knowledge gap once you close the old one.
Elicit Emotional Response
Have you ever read an article or book and waited for something exciting to happen, only to be disappointed? Everyone has. You can write with clarity, maintain curiosity and still disappoint.
Yesterday, I read a story about climate change. The writer asserted an irresponsible and false idea. I had to restrain myself from punching a hole through a wall. It so angered me that it lingered in my thoughts for the rest of the day.
As much as I disagreed with his point of view, he accomplished an important goal. He elicited an emotional response.
If you try to please everybody, you please nobody.
Avoiding reader wrath is where many bloggers go astray. They water down their opinions and assertions. It’s often an unconscious act to avoid negative feedback. Here is a typical example of an apologetic opinion.
“I believe [insert subject]. I know some of you don’t. I’m sorry if I offend you. Keep in mind this belief is based on my own experience and not necessarily relevant to all… blah blah blah”
By the time your reader wades her way through a diluted opinion, she loses interest.
I find this in novels too. I’ve read books that were well written, maintained my curiosity but disappointed me in the end. Why? Because the author played it too safe. He smoothed the rough edges of a character to make it less offensive. The rough edges are what makes fiction interesting.
The fear of offending is real, but also unavoidable. Taking a strong position will offend some of your readers. But those who agree with you will laud your courage and leadership. Making a weak or apologetic stance wastes everyone’s time and is offensive to all.