- Julius de Jong
How to Write so People Read (Episode 1-39)
Updated: Jul 30, 2021
Five things I discovered which make good writing.
Writing doesn’t happen chronologically. It’s a messy process, like solving a puzzle. These first two sentences came to me while sitting on the toilet. I guess writing happens in the head first. Apparently, writing also happens when running in the woods. While on a run this afternoon, it dawned on me that writing can be like getting lost in the forest. If we don’t pay attention to where we’re going, or where we came from, we might find ourselves somewhere different from where we intended to end up. When I’m not careful, this happens too when writing. But how can one write in a structured matter? How can we simplify the writing process? How to write so people read?
This blog is about studying and researching 39 ideas that make life better. Obviously, this process involves writing. For good measure, I therefore figured it’s best to start with writing as the first idea to research. Good writing, to be precise. How to write so people read, to be even more exact. People have told me I have a way with words, verbally. That might be true or not. But when putting ideas and concepts down in writing, I find it a complex and hard task. I find myself getting lost in the woods of words. Also, when something is written down, it is fixed, carved in stone. For some reason, that always adds some anxiety to the experience.
Based on the research I’ve conducted on writing I will hereby share five things I discovered, which make good writing. With every learning and every insight, I reflected on how this applied to my writing. I’ve also tried to apply my new learnings throughout my writing wherever possible. Realizing, I probably still have a lot of work to do. The following learnings stood out for me particularly:
1. There is no one recipe for writing
Obviously, I was looking for a master key to good writing. I read books on writing and interviews with writers about their writing process. One thing they all had in common was a different approach to the writing process. There was no road map. No structure. No master key. This disappointed me of course. But it also gave me hope. It meant that there is no wrong or right way of writing. It meant that I could write as I would see fit. I could write in my own voice. You can write in your own voice. What exactly my own voice in writing sounds like, I have yet to discover.
2. Noticing expands the inventory for our writing
When we notice, we can find inspiration for writing. Noticing externally, but also internally. When we perceive with attention what happens around and within us, we expand the inventory for our writing. It gives us more words, feelings and experiences to use in our texts. To add color and texture to our work. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes of the importance of noticing for the writing process. As he states, ‘everything you notice is important. […] If you notice something, it is because it is important. But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice, and that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice in a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.’ Noticing helps you build bridges between your words and the reality and perceptions of the reader. It builds familiarity and trust. The more we practice with articulating what we notice, the more, I imagine, we develop our own voice. Because what we notice is unique to each and every person. It’s what we authorize ourself to notice. And that’s a personal process.
3. Make your writing personal
When we articulate ideas and arguments in a clear way, people understand us better. When we do so in a personal way, people can relate to us. We seek to express our opinions and ideas to be heard and understood. To share our learnings and insights. To connect with other people. Being seen and being heard are our primary human needs. We all wish to express ourselves. We all wish to be heard. When we pay attention, it is this what we notice to be universal. When we write in our own voice, sharing our own perspectives and experiences allows for others to authentically relate to us. ‘Readers gravitate toward the genuine’ (Hall, 2020). Personal experiences bring stories to life and provide a human connection. As the title suggests in Naked Conversations, a book about blogging, the authors suggest being ‘naked’ in your writing. ‘Always be honest. A […] blogger can almost do no wrong by telling the truth’ (Schoble and Israel, 2006).
4. Know your audience
While studying this topic, my learning was a mix of aha-moments and open doors. A key truth about life, relationships, business, communication and as it turns out, also writing, came around once again. Give first, receive later. Listen first, if you want to be heard. ‘Being a good listener requires the self-discipline to focus on what another person says without looking for openings to speak or disengage’ (Hall, 2020). For good writing, we need to listen. We need to read. We need to understand our audience. Who is our audience? What is their interest? This was also the first thing mentioned by Jan Havik, founder of De Havik Text and Communication, when I asked him for an interview on the topic of writing. In all honesty, I’m not sure I have an idea of who exactly I am writing for with this blog. I know at least one person who I am writing for, and it’s myself. I am writing to learn about myself. To learn about new ideas that will make life better. Both for myself and others. I am also writing to connect with people. To open my eyes, ears and heart to new ways of being. I guess my audience shares these interests. You too want to get better. You too want to make the most of life, I imagine. Nice to meet you!
5. Create stories
‘Stories are how humans understand life, synthesize experiences and learn’ (Shad, 2020). As Jan Havik of De Havik mentioned at the end of our interview in the forest, you can never kill a good story. ‘A really good story wins in the end’. We all remember good stories. Where the protagonist overcomes the antagonist, fights her demons and overcomes her obstacles. In good stories we recognize the struggle and feel sympathetic to the underdog. Stories enable us to empathize and relate. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s probably best to keep things simple and not let different storylines, plots and subplots mix too much. In the beautiful book H is for Hawk, author Helen Macdonald clearly has different ideas about this. She creates stories inside other stories and underlines this with a stunning expose of observations and emotions. Reading her book made me glow with delight and discovery. It also humbled me thinking about the work it must have taken to write this book. In The Write to Happiness, screenwriter Samantha Shad shares a trick screenwriters use to lay out the events in a story. She uses a “beat sheet”. Each beat represents a change in the story or the main character. By plotting these changes on different index cards, it becomes easier to rearrange things and keep track of the story. Perhaps Helen Macdonald also used a beat sheet for H is for Hawk?
Having spent these nine days researching and studying writing, I learnt a lot. Also, from talking to Jan. It also made me realize that I just scratched the surface. There is so much still to learn and experience about (good) writing. Today, on that run in the forest, while thinking about writing being like getting lost in the woods, I also realized something else. A good story is the path in the forest that takes us where we want to go.
Thank you for reading my first blog post. I hope this was as educational and interesting for you as it has been for me. In case you feel I’ve omitted an important point about writing, please mention it in the comments below or get in touch here. I look forward to hearing from you. Thoughts and suggestions on Ideas For Life worth researching are also more than welcome. I am curious to hear from you!
Writing cheat sheet:
· Be honest;
· Write short sentences;
· Be personal and be ‘naked’ in your writing;
· Write in your own voice;
· Identify your readers and audience;
· When in doubt, leave it out;
· Avoid confrontation in writing. Readers (and people in general) resist being told they are wrong;
· Disturb your reader (it gets and keeps their attention), but don’t do it too much;
· Write stories;
· Use synonyms. Keep variety in your sentences;
· Don’t start sentences in the same way;
· Use metaphors in your writing;
· Read your writing out loud (check for flow and rhythm);
· Omit words, phrases and sentences that slow your flow;
· Use an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand writing style. Avoid jargon;
· Be optimistic and put your audience in an optimistic mood. Then they’re more likely to hear you;
· When blogging, focus on one topic. Keep entries simple and focused;
· Replace technical language with simple terms;
· Use plain language;
· Spice up your text. Use attention-grabbing words and experiences;
· Keep a journal. The more you write, the better you become at writing.
To learn more about writing, I interviewed and old friend and former neighbor; Jan Havik.
As long as I know Jan, he has always had a way with words and languages. Jan studied literature and taught French for six years. He also worked as an independent editor for the last twelve years. In 2019 Jan founded a text and communication agency De Havik, where stories are the essence for success.
During the interview, Jan and I walked through the forests of the Veluwe. Therefore, please forgive the periodical fluctuations in audio volume throughout the recording, and the sounds of the birds and our footsteps on the soil. And Jan, forgive me for taking us so deep in the woods. Although we had a beautiful hike and conversation, our dinner afterwards was much belated.
Abrahams, Matt, and Kramon, Glenn, 2021, Writing to Win. https://tinyurl.com/jeswj69k
Hall, Trish, 2020, Writing to Persuade. https://amzn.to/35TDKjX
Klinkenborg, Verelyn, 2013, Several Short Sentences About Writing. https://amzn.to/3vLoS1c
Macdonald, Helen, 2015, H is for Hawk. https://amzn.to/3da0qjS
Schoble, Robert, and Israel, Shel, 2006, Naked Conversations. https://amzn.to/3zKiZVc
Shad, Samantha, 2020, The Write to Happiness. https://amzn.to/3zKYPKP