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Lesson 53: The four masteries of writing
All about developing excellence in this critical skill
You have reached the end of this program. This lesson and the next are the last — and I have written them with the hope that you may be interested in pursuing writing further.
If you have been inspired to write more, to think of writing as a craft that is worth practicing, rather than a skill you simply need to be “good enough” at, then I’d like to offer you some additional advice.
One batch of that advice is practical, and I’ll cover it next time. The other is more theoretical or foundational, and I’ll cover that today. It consists of explaining what I call the “four masteries” of writing.
To explain these, let me first offer a metaphor.
Writing is a bit like courtship. A writer invites his reader on a date. (Modern dating is so jacked up that this analogy is hard to use any more, but bear with me.) The writer picks the location — the text itself: the website or book or magazine that Sam reads. (Sam, in this metaphor, is obviously Samantha.) He buys her a coffee, or a meal, or a movie, like a good gentleman — this is the content, what Sam gets from reading; what she learns, what she discovers, what she feels.
The writing itself — the words he chooses — is how distinctly and clearly Sam experiences the whole event.
It is not a perfect metaphor, but bear with me because it makes an important point.
In most cases of writing, Sam may engage in some flirtation, but little else. In rare cases the charm is permanent, and she may even be seduced. Thereafter, she will happily consent to further trysts. This is especially the case for email copy, but I am speaking more generally now, about any kind of writing you may like to do.
That said, you might be tempted to think this metaphor applies best to creative writing — but you’d be wrong. Creative writing seems more romantic because it offers the enticements of better gifts and greater intimacy. So it’s easier to write successfully. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to write well — after all, there is Twilight. Conversely, nonfiction writing seems less romantic because most writers woo artlessly, and most readers show up only for the gift. The transactional nature attenuates the romance — but therefore, really, writing seductive nonfiction is more challenging, because there are more handicaps.
In fact, it is so challenging that many writers miss the possibility of being “seductive” entirely. Don’t make this mistake. Your skill as a nonfiction writer is proportional to the allure of your piece — and every piece can be alluring. Even the driest material can be captivating to the right Sam, when presented from the right angle and in the right light, following the 4C Cipher; and even the most materialistic reader can be won over by an artful courter presenting himself well.
I am not just airily saying this on the assumption that it must be true. If you have content which is truly difficult to bring to life, truly dry to begin with, I don’t want you to think I’m offering mere platitudes. I know that dry material can be made engaging because I have learned it through hard experience. For instance, here is a testimonial from one client, an agency named Viderity, whom I helped to write copy about government contracts:
Bnonn can make the most dry topics so delightful and engaging that you can’t help but to continue reading with enthusiasm and admiration. His writing definitely stands out and gets positive results.
If your topic is dryer than government contracts...I don’t believe you.
The art of writing like this is built on four obligations. Because these form the foundation of great writing, I suggest thinking of them less as duties, and more as masteries. Hence I call them the four masteries of writing. These masteries are more burdensome than the obligations suffered by the creative writer. He discharges his duties if his writing entertains his reader and pleases himself. You labor under harsher expectations. You must inform as well as entertain; persuade as well as please. You must work harder to hold Sam’s attention because your subject matter is less romantic — and she isn’t interested in romance to begin with.
You might think I’m having a go at fiction writers, and in a way I am. This is for two reasons:
Firstly, many people still see nonfiction as a second-class citizen in the world of literature, and web writing as its youngest and most embarrassing idiot child. It is no such thing. You need at least as much skill to write good nonfiction as good fiction — and a great deal more to write copy your readers will pore over with anything like the interest they’ll show towards a novel.
Secondly, you may be like many nonfiction writers who harbor (sometimes secret) ambitions to write fiction. If so, I’d like to encourage you. You now have an indispensable foundation for any writing of any kind. It is much easier to be lazy when writing fiction than nonfiction — you can rely on the natural appeal of stories to cover the flaws in your writing, both technical and logical. You can conceal your lack of concern for the obligations of your craft, your lack of care for its masteries, behind a stage curtain. All other things being equal, a creative writer who has mastered copywriting will easily outshine one who has not.
So let me explain the obligations — the masteries — of writing.
1. You must write to be read
Excepting self-indulgent poetry, therapeutic journals, and the Great American Novel, all writing expects a reader. Therefore, the enterprise of writing should start in consideration of the reader. With William Zinsser, I call this the mechanical obligation, because it involves the science of correctly constructing your writing in the most basic sense. It requires that you skillfully use the tools of language to piece together the components of language. It is the most complicated and challenging obligation to master. Most writers never do.
More than any other mastery, success here hinges on knowing Sam. You must know as much about her as possible — and particularly about the sorts of things that affect her reading. How well educated is she? Is she among the majority of Americans who read only at an eighth grade level? Is she among the “literati”? Somewhere in between? This will affect the vocabulary (words) and grammar (language rules) you can safely implement (use) as components (parts) of your prose (writing). You cannot permit it that Sam be unable to parse your modes of expression and find herself stranded among the treacherous atolls of your overwrought verbiage. That is to say, you can’t let Sam be confused by your bad writing.
But it is not merely a matter of choosing the right words and putting them together competently. Even when addressing the literati your writing must be more than comprehensible — it must be perspicuous. It must be clearly stated and immediately understood. It must have an economy of expression and a straightforwardness of structure that makes it not just easy, but enjoyable to read. How you assemble your sentences; how you compose your paragraphs; how you fit them together into the artifice of your piece, must be simple, precise, lucid.
Yet even this is not enough. To write entirely perspicuously is to write better than most web writers. But it is not yet to write seductively. To achieve that, you must imbue your writing with one final, more subtle characteristic. This is one that develops gradually out of perspicuity. The more determinedly you try to grasp it, the more it will defy you. Many writers, especially less experienced ones, believe that it is style and go after it with all their might. Style is something else. The characteristic I’m talking about is what you might call “luminousness.”
Let me illustrate with the metaphor I used previously. Even the worst reader is secretly looking for romance. She enjoys the simple delights of well-presented ideas, and — believe it or not — the gradual process of discovering you, the writer. But she doesn’t expect to find romance on the web, because she so rarely does. Most web writers arrange their “dates” in seedy places lit not only by their writing, but by the confusing overlap of garish neon ads. So, like an embittered feminist, she concludes that all web writers are pigs and becomes accustomed to the tiresome routine of trying out their offerings, taking what she likes, and beating a hasty retreat.
But that doesn’t mean romance doesn’t interest her. It’s just that it isn’t on her mind. If you take the time and the care to cast yourself and your ideas in the most attractive light you can, from the most appealing angle possible, you will get her attention. But you must remember that Sam isn’t interested in the “light” itself. It is not your writing, but what it illuminates, that interests her. Many writers make the mistake of thinking that their writing is what people come to see. That’s just the nature of creativity: self-indulgence and showmanship. So they go to great lengths to write impressively, and end up either florid or turgid — often both. But readers don’t want to see your writing. They want to see you and your ideas, and they want the sight to be titillating. So this is how your writing must be: luminous. It is not there to be seen, but rather to be seen by. It must illuminate what Sam really wants, clearly, naturally — and preferably while being entirely invisible.
2. You must write to convey ideas
No one will notice that your writing is luminous if there is nothing of interest for it to illuminate. In my metaphor, I’ve talked about the light — your writing — being cast upon both yourself and your “gift.” The gift is the central idea of your piece. And as with a real gift, the less generic and overused it is, the better your chances. But as with a real gift it must be right for your reader. If it isn’t to her taste she won’t accept it. So you must know her taste — her attitudes and her beliefs.
We read to discover new ideas. But learning and accepting are far removed. Whether we accept what we read has surprisingly little to do with its truth, and a great deal to do with whether it fits what we already hold dear. If you do not know Sam’s view of the world, you cannot know how she will view your idea. And if you do not know that, you cannot know how best to proffer it. An artfully carried argument might fail to persuade merely because some innocuous statement wasn’t justified. To you, it seemed obvious; to Sam, wrong. Sam is always right. Thus, you must fulfill what I call the conceptual obligation: to choose a strong idea, and to convey it both clearly and convincingly.
You could fold the conceptual obligation into the mechanical. They are two sides of the same coin, and it can be hard to pick out clear borders between the two.
Writing to convey ideas means four things.
You must be able to identify the idea you want to convey: the premise of your piece. This sounds simple, but if you ask most writers to do it they will have a surprisingly hard time.
You must be able to identify the other ideas you need to convey: those that support your premise.
You must be able to arrange them into the best order for Sam to follow.
You must be able to articulate them in a way Sam can easily grasp.
None of this is easy, since good writing is good thinking expressed clearly — and good thinking sadly does not come naturally to us. It is something that must be learned. It is hard work, and requires constant practice. Your long-term success will depend on your willingness to commit to an ongoing process of becoming a clear thinker, and an expresser of clear thoughts.
3. You must write to express yourself
It’s impossible to express your ideas well without also expressing yourself well. No reader wants a dry discourse devoid of humanity, no matter how efficiently and precisely and clearly it may convey an idea. What makes a piece of writing interesting is not just the idea being conveyed, but the person behind it.
People are fascinated by other people.
Think of a topic you’re deeply interested in. If you’re deeply interested in it, you probably know of quite a few experts in it. And you probably have strong preferences about which of these you’d rather learn from. For my own part I think of both copywriting and theology; I know a lot of expert copywriters whose newsletters and blogs I follow, and a lot of expert theologians whose preaching and podcasts I listen to. But I skip most of them, or at best skim without reading or listening fully — not because their ideas aren’t interesting, but because they aren’t interesting. A notable exception in copywriting is Drayton Bird, who injects so much of his cynical, acerbic outlook on bureaucratic incompetence into everything he writes that I can scarcely help reading from beginning to end. Drayton understands that writing is about more than mere informing — it is also about entertaining. A notable exception in theology is James Jordan, who also combines keen humor and deep insight in an irresistible way.
This doesn’t mean you must be a professional entertainer. Not any more than you must be when you invite your friends over for dinner. If some people will spend time with you in person just because they like you and what you have to say, then other people will spend time with you on the pages of a website or in an email for the same reason. The difficulty is being both relaxed enough and confident enough that you can express yourself clearly enough to make this happen.
So writing to express yourself is what you might call the human obligation. And it’s not just an obligation to your reader — if you ever want to feel comfortable writing, if you ever want to enjoy the endless enterprise of selecting and arranging words, you must find the process amusing. When you are amused, at least some of your readers will be — and to hell with the rest of them.
The human obligation is where style and voice lurk — those timorous twin beasties we all yearn to tame. Nothing in either the mechanics of writing or the concepts it expresses will help you find to your voice or develop your style: only when you learn to express yourself will you discover either.
4. You must write to write
Just as the mechanical and conceptual obligations cannot be separated, so with the obligation to express yourself and the obligation to simply write.
This is what I call the aesthetic obligation. It is the only obligation which you owe entirely to yourself — though of course it has benefits that rub off on Sam. If the human obligation is about entertaining your reader in the process of expressing your ideas, the aesthetic obligation is about entertaining yourself in the process of writing. So the human obligation is related to the conceptual one, and the aesthetic obligation is related to the mechanical one.
Very simply, you must enjoy the fundamental process of writing. It must have value to you. You must appreciate the delicate craftsmanship of composing good prose. You must take delight in selecting one synonym over another; arranging one clause beside another; constructing one sentence instead of another; expressing one thought in consequence of another. You should not wilt like a pansy when faced with the inevitable prospect of rewriting something you’ve already rewritten — but rather relish it with that same strange intoxication that afflicts the inventor, tinkering with his creation, tuning it to a state of perfect operation. You should even find a simple pleasure in how your words look on the screen.
It is rather far-fetched to imagine teaching this. Just as with a desire to woo a woman you either have it or you don’t. But assuming you do, I will offer you some inspiration and assistance in cultivating your appreciation for writing in the next lesson.