“Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think.
If you want to ‘get in touch with your feelings,’ fine — talk to yourself; we all do.
But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts.
Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce.
The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.”
That’s one of the best quotes about the craft of writing that I’ve ever read, particularly that deceptively simple final line. But then, it’s always the simple stuff that trips us up when we think we’ve got it covered.
Why is cutting out the crap in our writing so difficult?
More importantly, how do we do it? Let’s take a look …
Writing is a mind meld
You already know you should be writing to just one person, right?
If you’re, say, the Pope, feel free to pontificate (the verb was named for you, after all) and address the masses with all the eloquent turns of phrase you can manage.
Assuming you’re not a major religious figure, just write to me, your one, single reader.
Even if you have a massive audience, one person at a time reads your work.
It’s nice to think that crowds are huddled around a computer screen raising a toast to your just-published post, but that doesn’t happen.
In order to communicate with this single reader, you’ve got to organize your thoughts before you send them on the journey from your mind to your reader’s mind.
The act of writing forces you to do this.
Determining your message, ordering its presentation, and refining it until it’s crystal-clear all help to facilitate the trip.
Aim your pen
Aim your writing pen at the goal you’re trying to accomplish with your content. Your objective will determine the path it takes.
Do you plan to persuade or instruct?
Why not do both? Even learners need to be convinced your instruction is worth spending time to consume.
Do you want to discover something new?
The research needed to produce effective writing is a great way to expand your own knowledge. That’s why the Latin proverb says, “By teaching you will understand.”
Do you want to seduce and convince?
Use time-tested techniques to persuade with the one-two punch of logic and emotion.
Establish your authority, provide proof in the form of testimonials, and weave it all into a compelling story line.
Think you’re done? Now … cut the crap
You have it. I have it. We all have it. Crap happens.
Every piece of writing starts out suffering from excessive verbiage, woolly thinking, and confusing tangents.
And that’s okay. Write everything down, crap and all. Then cut out the confusing parts. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Remember, using more words doesn’t make your writing better.
William Safire calls this “the secret way” to lend order to your writing so your message reaches your reader intact. But it’s not a secret anymore, is it?
Want to keep these concepts in mind as you write?
You can download and print our poster of the William Safire quote above (86 KB). It’s perfect for taping next to your computer screen.
Editor’s note: The original version of this post was published on March 30, 2011.