Writing Guide Part 4: Message

Credit: Jeshu John from  Designerpics.com

Credit: Jeshu John from Designerpics.com

The purpose of communication – be it written or spoken – is to communicate a message to another person or group of people. In my opinion, this message should be delivered as simply and efficiently as possible. The reason that I say this is because this is the topic of part 4 of the writing guide: communicating your message to your reader.

Remember the Golden Rule

Allow me to reiterate something that has (somewhat accidentally) become my Golden Rule of writing:

Say what you wanna say in as few words as possible, be as loud about it as you possibly can, and get to the frikkin point. Because nobody cares! Nobody has the time!
— Dana Shultz (Fizzle Show; Episode 210)

The key to having a written message resonate with your reader is having as few obstacles as possible standing in the way between her and your message. Remember those written assignments from high school/university that required a minimum number of words or pages?I think that an unfortunate and unintended consequence of this was that it conditioned people to add excessive “fluff” to their written content because they subconsciously feel required to always hit a minimum amount of words in order for the message to be “worthy” (note: this is why I generally prefer requiring a maximum instead of a minimum). All this “fluff” is actually an extremely obnoxious obstacle that stands between your reader and the message you’re trying to communicate to him/her.

The key question then is: how can you communicate your message effectively without using all those unnecessary and empty filler words?


First Principles

A good place to start is to apply (somewhat of a derivative of) the ‘first principles’ concept to your writing. The concept itself isn’t particularly new or revolutionary but the (correct) application of it does really carry extraordinary power. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I recommend quickly reading through this blog post by James Clear to understand the essence of the theory.

Applying the theory to your writing, then, means that you should ask yourself one question before you write any piece of content – be it an email, a message to a potential lover, a blog post, and so on –  At the fundamental, molecular level, what do I want the reader to know or understand after reading this? Consequently, you have to “reason up” from there such that every sentence you write is linked to this goal or purpose that you have for your content.

This doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to occasionally go on tangents or use humor to add levity to the occasion – in fact, if used correctly, these can be very helpful in adding substance to your message – but these tangents/metaphors/analogies must always be connected to this fundamental, molecular purpose of your writing. Applying this principle won’t necessarily eliminate all the fluff from your writing, but it will certainly substantially decrease it.

Good writers are those who keep language efficient.
— Ezra Pound

Lastly, this also reminds me of a concept that I learned about in high school, namely that it is correct writing etiquette to start every paragraph with a “core sentence.” This sentence* exists to capture the essence of the ensuing paragraph and is like a synopsis of the paragraph. It’s like telling someone what you’re about to tell her before actually saying it to her. This gives the rest of your paragraph structure because this sentence becomes a sort of compass that guides and anchors your writing.

*If I recall correctly, I think we had to start and end the paragraph with a core sentence. Using (a slightly different variation of) it at the end would supposedly give the paragraph a more emphatic conclusion. Also, I actually learned this concept in Dutch (“een kernzin”) so maybe the term I used for it in English is not exactly ‘scientifically’ correct. Nevertheless, it serves the same purpose.

The purpose of the rest of the paragraph, then, is to elaborate on and explain this core sentence using whatever tools necessary (e.g. metaphors, data, personal anecdotes, philosophical argumentation etc.). Here’s an example from one of my older blog posts:

However, I do disagree in a nitpicky sense. A person’s mindset and mentality can be fundamental enablers or disablers for taking action in her life. Like I said before, if you irrationally think you’re the worst person on the world, you won’t take action to change your life. I do hate to say this but honestly, you have to take responsibility and ownership for your own inaction, shitty mindset, and, as a result, current state in life. All that is to say that if you don’t consciously choose to adopt an enabling and rational mindset and humbly take responsibility and ownership for the things that happen in your life, no action will ever occur. Then again, no amount of positive thinking will change your predicament if you don’t take action. Action and mindset are simply complimentary sides of the same coin; much in the same way that Yugi Moto and the Pharaoh are.

Let me be completely honest here: do I really follow this rule to the letter in every single piece of writing that I publish? Unfortunately not. For instance, technically the core sentence in the above example was the second sentence of the paragraph, but for stylistic reasons I felt that the paragraph would lose its touch if I forced that sentence to the start. (Note: you could argue that the final sentence of the paragraph loosely paraphrased the core sentence.)

This doesn’t really bother me though because to me the essence of this rule (and, for the most part, any rule really) is that it gives me a framework – a foundation, if you will – that grounds and guides me in my writing such that I’m no longer just stabbing in the dark. Although I know that, ideally, the core sentence should be first, I can slightly adjust this if the situation calls for it or if I prefer it differently.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that you adopt the same approach. This rule and any other rule isn’t meant to restrict or tie you down; instead, its clarity is supposed to put you at ease and hopefully set you free so that you can be the best writer that you know you can be.

My personal mantra is that I create structure so that my creativity can flourish.

Playing with sentence structure to create emphasis

You’ve probably realized by now that your message is absolutely fundamental. Hence, you need to use as many tools as possible to specifically help you emphasize this message. One such tool that I’ve found to be useful is to be creative with sentence structure. Let’s look at some examples:

Set A (Dana Shultz)

  • Say what you wanna say in as few words as possible, be as loud about it as you possibly can, and get to the freakin’ point!

  • Being as loud about it as you possibly can, in as few words as possible, and getting to the freakin’ point, say what you wanna say!

  • Being as loud about it as you possibly can and getting to the freakin’ point, say what you wanna say in as few words as possible!

Set B (César Luis Menotti)

  • To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.

  • Being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people is [what it] means to be a footballer.

Set C (Angela Duckworth)

  • I think that one of the skills that one must develop in life is to learn to substitute nuance for novelty.

  • Learning to substitute nuance for novelty is, I think, one of the skills that one must develop in life.

The point of these examples is to show you how tinkering with sentence structure (i.e. reordering sentence clauses) can affect what the reader takes away from your text. Looking at Set A, do you want the reader to feel the power of “say what you wanna say”, “say what you wanna say in as few words as possible”, or “get to the freakin’ point”? Given one of these choices, can you best achieve this by putting this sentence clause at the beginning or end of the sentence (as shown in the three sets of examples)?

Hence, you have (at the very least) two options. On one hand, you can have the real emphasis right at the start of the sentence (with the rest of the sentence there to ensure that it is grammatically coherent). On the other hand, you can have the sentence start low, build up, and eventually culminate in a crescendo at the end.

The choice is yours; I’m not saying that any one of the examples stated above is the best sentence structure to use to emphasize your message. I’m merely stressing that you should a) be aware that you have options, b) understand that these different options might have different outcomes, and c) use the method that most powerfully emphasizes your specific message. As long as the reader feels the full force of your message in the way that you intended and (s)he understands it clearly, you’ve achieved your mission.

Stylistic tip: If you can help it, try as much as possible to not end sentences with prepositions or start them with the words “so”, “and”, or “but”.

That's all for now!

That’s it for Part 4 of the Writing Guide! Part 5, where I’ll discuss writing style, will be the next and final part of the writing guide. If you feel that five parts are not enough and would like more segments to this guide, please leave a comment in the section below or use the contact form to contact me personally. You can also contact me through the official Facebook page of Cowboy Funk, which you should obviously like and follow!

See you, Space Cowboy