What we talk about when we talk about good writing.
Years ago, I gave a presentation on writing during our then-annual Author Pow Wow. The conference was geared toward business authors—those who were and those who wanted to be—and we invited speakers and panel participants from all areas of the industry to offer guidance in regards to publishing, publicity, platform, etc. For the first two years, we also presented on how important good writing is to making a good business book, or rather, making a business book good. Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) we ended up cutting this part of the programming at future conferences because business writers didn't prove to be as engaged with the topic of good writing as they were about navigating the publishing and promotional seas post-printing. Still, we believe that good writing is truly one of the best sales tools an author can leverage. Good writing creates passionate fans, generates rave reviews, and stands the test of time. What creates word of mouth? An enjoyable read buoying useful information. How would you rather have your writing shared: via speed boat or life raft?
But what makes for good writing? That's a good question, largely because our individual tastes, our cultivated aesthetics, vary greatly. Maybe there aren't as many writing styles as there are snowflakes, but there is plenty breadth and depth. Brevity appeals to some while scholarship appeals to others; flourishes are like unearthed gems for some while adjectives and adverbs just muddy up clear waters for others. But sometimes good writing cannot be denied, and inspires a work to spread via social media not only for its topic but also the grace with which the topic is handled.
And that's what happened to me last week. I ran across some staggeringly good writing in this riveting (and worrying) article in The New Yorker, "The Really Big One", that kept me reading about a topic I would rarely tune in for: hypothetical geologic dangers. While I am a fan of memoir and biography, and of course I read a lot of nonfiction for work, I don't often dig into magazine articles because standouts are few and far between. And science articles? Even less often. As I read (not having taken a peep at the by-line because I'd clicked over from a Facebook recommendation), I realized that in the hands of another writer, this subject would not have been so engaging, nor would it have sparked such a nervous tension in me, but I couldn't stop. As a read, I found myself mentally clipping block quotes:
Describing the quake that became a tsunami:
It was March. There was a chill in the air, and snow flurries, but no snow on the ground. Nor, from the feel of it, was there ground on the ground. The earth snapped and popped and rippled. It was, Goldfinger thought, like driving through rocky terrain in a vehicle with no shocks, if both the vehicle and the terrain were also on a raft in high seas.
Describing why the ground beneath Seattle is the current danger zone:
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America.
Describing how a place called the ghost forest reveals a great earthquake having happened hundreds of years earlier:
When I paddled out to it last summer, with Atwater and Yamaguchi, it was easy to see how it got its name. The cedars are spread out across a low salt marsh on a wide northern bend in the river, long dead but still standing. Leafless, branchless, barkless, they are reduced to their trunks and worn to a smooth silver-gray, as if they had always carried their own tombstones inside them.
(Can I just highlight that last sentence? Leafless, branchless, barkless, they are reduced to their trunks and worn to a smooth silver-gray, as if they had always carried their own tombstones inside them." That there is better than the perfect bite of dessert to me.)
Describing, with addicting enthusiasm, the importance of learning of this earlier earthquake, which matches up with the early, but overlooked, oral stories in the region:
It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved. Still, the reconstruction of the Cascadia earthquake of 1700 is one of those rare natural puzzles whose pieces fit together as tectonic plates do not: perfectly. It is wonderful science. It was wonderful for science.
Describing what will happen when the big one happens:
But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward.
(That last line reminds me of something Joan Didion would style, perhaps in The White Album.)
At some point during my read, I scrolled up to take a peek at the author, assuming for some reason that it was a man (Maybe because all of the seismologists and scientists interviewed were men? Maybe because it seemed the topic—epic natural disaster—was the realm of film heroes like Pierce Brosnan or Will Smith? Or maybe because it reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Charles Fishman?), and was pleased to read Kathryn Schultz's name, a journalist whose writing I have enjoyed before, especially her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, which I reviewed back in 2010, writing:
Can a doggedly-researched book that relays the historical lineage of error, attempts to uncover the truth beneath truth, and even discusses something as impenetrable as "The Optimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything," be charming, accessible and eminently readable? Apparently so because Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz is just that.
Needless to say, you should read this article, and her book, both for style and for substance. There is seismology jargon, yet the science is reimagined for us layfolk. You will get a strong sense of just how the earth below us behaves, and why that should change the way that we do. (The closing section on the safety--or lack thereof--of the school children in this area will give you the shivers.)
Now, circling back to the question of what makes good writing, I wonder as I always do, if there is a way to effectively explicate what good writing is. When we chose books for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, or when we choose our annual winners of our book awards, we, as jury, select books we believe to be well-written. But of course that means more than there simply being completed sentences, colorful language, and the intelligent use of the semi-colon. Sometimes it means layering, using facts to support story which in turn supports fact. Sometimes it means evoking emotion; sometimes it means contradicting our knee-jerk emotional response to a subject. Always it means making a subject relatable, understandable, applicable, or digestible.
I like to reference Charles Fishman's 2008 Fast Company article, "Message in a Bottle", as one of my favorite magazine articles because it made me understand a global problem on a personal level, largely because the writing was well-researched, but also detailed and impassioned. Our editorial director, Dylan, wrote this (also extremely well-written) about Fishman's work:
If Charles Fishman were a baseball player, he’d be a pitcher worthy of the Cy Young Award year after year. Lucky for us, Fishman ended up a business writer—one of the most consistently excellent in the field. And twice now, he has gone “the full nine” and delivered perfect outings at book length. We featured his first effort, The Wal-Mart Effect, in this space in 2006. He got our attention again with his 2008 article in Fast Company, “Message in a Bottle,” which won him his third Gerald Loeb Award for outstanding business writing, the most prestigious award in business journalism. It was that article that served as the impetus for his new book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.
Here is a snippet from the opening of "Message in a Bottle" that I find particularly insightful in terms of fine writing. The style, you'll note, is similar to that of Kathryn Schulz's above. It's got detail, personality, a good balance of fact as well as well as contemporary references to make us feel like he is talking about us, our lives, something that is important to our lives, something we are co-conspirators with, something we can do something about if we just understand more about it.
The largest bottled-water factory in North America is located on the outskirts of Hollis, Maine. In the back of the plant stretches the staging area for finished product: 24 million bottles of Poland Spring water. As far as the eye can see, there are double-stacked pallets packed with half-pint bottles, half-liters, liters, "Aquapods" for school lunches, and 2.5-gallon jugs for the refrigerator.
Really, it is a lake of Poland Spring water, conveniently celled off in plastic, extending across 6 acres, 8 feet high. A week ago, the lake was still underground; within five days, it will all be gone, to supermarkets and convenience stores across the Northeast, replaced by another lake's worth of bottles.
Looking at the piles of water, you can have only one thought: Americans sure are thirsty.
Bottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and our culture. It starts the day in lunch boxes; it goes to every meeting, lecture hall, and soccer match; it's in our cubicles at work; in the cup holder of the treadmill at the gym; and it's rattling around half-finished on the floor of every minivan in America. Fiji Water shows up on the ABC show Brothers & Sisters; Poland Spring cameos routinely on NBC's The Office. Every hotel room offers bottled water for sale, alongside the increasingly ignored ice bucket and drinking glasses. At Whole Foods, the upscale emporium of the organic and exotic, bottled water is the number-one item by units sold.
I can tell you, I feel pretty guilty about the empty plastic water bottles rattling around in my car, carelessly purchased during fast food and convenience stores stops, and that's only the beginning of Fishman's convincing argument against the purchasing of bottled water. Much like Schulz, who, without a doubt, had me worrying about my friends living out on the West Coast—certainly they need to be warned?!?—and sharing the article before even finishing it, which isn't something I typically do.
That's the power of good writing. Good writing changes minds, because good writing compels people to read, and keep reading, and desiring others to get that same visceral response from what has been read. Whether you are writing about economic trends, corporate succession plans, or even human resources regulations, good writing matters, and can elevate even the dullest subject (sorry HR!).
In my writing presentation, I stressed that business writers follow " 7 Rs" of Construction. (Some people call this process, but construction feels more concrete.) This is the SUBSTANCE:
Read (Lots of writers you admire.)
wRite (Words on a page…the crafting can come later. Turn off your inner editor.)
Rest (Set the piece aside, get interested in something else so you can obtain a sense of detachment and objectivity.)
Reread (Come back to your writing and read for missing information and apparent edits.)
Rewrite x2 (Correct the apparent problems and fill in the black spaces noted in reread. Here is a good place to just to CRAFT.)
Response (Give the piece to favored readers: “What makes you keep reading? What was boring?" Revisit CRAFT here too.)
Release (Every writer could manipulate a piece to death…remember to give the piece life.)
The "7Rs" make sure that you actually do the writing. Writing isn't thinking, and writing isn't editing. Writing is placing one letter after another until you've completed a deliberate piece of work, whether it's a poem, a blog post, an article, a lesson, a novel, a business book.
Once you've done the writing, the construction, then look for opportunities to add these 5 valuable aspects of Craft. This is the STYLE.
Accuracy & Authenticity (As in the Fishman piece, references to current events give the issue immediacy.)
Detail (Re-read the quotes above from Schulz's article; it's the details that ignite our visceral response.)
Emphasis (Again, in the Schulz piece, she is careful to stress that these warnings aren't just warnings, they are science.)
Precision (Fishman uses specific numbers laid out over three paragraphs to express the breadth of the problem.)
Story (Schulz begins her article offering a real-live recollection of what it is like to experience a big one; she describes herself rowing out to the ghost forest.)
These added elements serve to humanize your writing. They enable your message to reach readers intimately. It's what gives your piece longevity and importance.
Good writing—writing with substance and style—is memorable writing. It's what makes us open a conversation with a friend with, "I read something the other day..." or, "You should really check out...." And memorable writing can make a difference, a world of a difference, both in your own success as a writer, but also your reaction as a reader. (Excuse me while I go and fill my reuseable water bottle...).