In the podcast 99% Invisible host Roman Mars highlights design elements that go unnoticed by most of us. These elements are part of such well planned and executed designs that we take them for granted – it’s as if their success makes them invisible. The same is true of the elements that make up effective writing.
As a result, it’s often easier to notice only what is wrong when editing. William Strunk Jr says in Elements of Style that, “the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is” (Strunk & White, 2000, p. 20). Writers are also dissatisfied, and discouraged, when critique focuses only on what is lacking. In contrast, critique focused on the positive sparks ambition and excitement for the revision process.
I recently found a piece from The Guardian called “Why do people hate vegans?” which explores this cultural bias through history, identity politics, pop culture, and the rise in popularity of plant-based diets. As a vegan who often feels reluctant to share my diet publicly, the title immediately piqued my interest. Let’s examine it to learn how to evaluate writing for what it does right.
Good structure makes effectiveness possible
I find effective writing leaves me eagerly wondering what will happen next when I finish a paragraph, rather than wondering how much longer I must keep reading until I’m finished. With no roadblocks to my engagement, the rest of the world just disappears. As the popular phrase says: I get lost in a good book (or piece of writing).
The structure of The Guardian piece helps offer this type of reading experience through a few means:
- Paragraphs end with strong sentences that propel me to read more
- Rich word choices – emblazoned, flashpoint, virulent, entrenched, screaming vortex, vociferous – evoke the emotion of the topic and offer surprises in sound to regularly reignite interest
- A mixture of sentence structures balance long, complex sentences with simple sentences to create a natural rhythm
- Imagery inserted at regular intervals offers rest stops from reading (The mixed-media cauliflower mushroom cloud image is notable for its inventiveness. I’d have expected a mushroom to be used for a mushroom cloud.)
Good storytelling makes the difference
While the structure of a piece may help you stay engaged in reading, it’s the story content that engages you in the first place and keeps pulling you deeper. This article’s title instantly intrigues. “Why do people hate vegans?” Why do they? I want to know!
After the title, the writer hooks me because:
- Emotional and factual content is well balanced. The writer leads with the emotional: “Gatis Lagzdins skinned and ate a raw squirrel,” and drives home the topic with the factual: “vegans in western society experience discrimination and bias on a par with other minorities.”
- Pop culture references create relatability. I’ve personally encountered the woman laughing with salad meme on social media so the mention of it triggered a gleeful head nod.
- Unique, detailed content increases interest. Instead of saying veganism has become mainstream, the writer shares that even Beyoncé spoke of trying it. Instead of saying opponents associate vegans with judgmental behavior, he explains how the promotion of veganism as morally superior in the 19th century forged this association.
- Images help tell the story. A smashed tomato reminds readers of the tradition of throwing the fruit at people we hate, the mushroom cloud featuring trendy cauliflower reflects the explosion of the diet in popularity, and an Instagram-worthy photo of a jackfruit taco speaks to the role social media has played in raising visibility of veganism.
Good writing makes better writers
Finding effective pieces that resonate with you can help you both learn the invisible details that comprise exceptional writing and set aspirational goals for the kind of writer you want to become. Accordingly, when reviewing your writing, know how to identify what you did right and build on it.
Strunk, W. & White, E.B. (2000). The Elements of Style. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.