Compelling writing is hard to define. It’s often slippery, always unexpected—but when you see it, you know it.
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time,” wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a meditation on writing and nature.
Good writing is focused and clear. It captures and holds the reader’s attention. It serves a distinct purpose: to elucidate, explain, convince, or inform. But great writing does something else, too, and Dillard captures the energy of superior writing. Her words have a spark that makes them human. They function like the hook of a catchy pop song. Readers keep reading in order to scratch that impossible-to-ignore mental itch.
Does all this sound a little woo-woo for the copywriters, editors, and entrepreneurs out there who simply want to convey a complex idea in a compelling way? Maybe. So let’s break down compelling writing into concrete terms.
Here are four key elements of compelling writing.
Develop a strong voice.
In technical terms, voice is defined by a writer’s use of vocabulary (or diction), syntax, tone, and point of view. Writers wield these rhetorical tools differently depending on who they’re writing for, and why they’re writing. Taken together, these elements define a manner of writing that’s unique to a particular writer.
In figurative terms, writing with a strong voice has flair. It’s got pizazz. It’s got that ephemeral je ne sais quoi. Writing that has a strong voice is distinctive, consistent, and alive. A real person’s voice is palpable on the page.
Sometimes, a strong voice even has an inimitable rhythm or cadence to it. Case in point: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Recognize that droll and succinct beat? That’s classic Ernest Hemingway.
How about this one? “If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” That lyricism and the perfectly placed expletive? That’s Toni Morrison, of course.
In short, a strong voice equals a human voice.
Infuse the text with sensory details.
Writing is a form of communication. While our brains are processing the meaning of the words on a page, the subconscious is working overtime, absorbing other elements of the text. The magic of vivid descriptions and powerful language is that they can engage multiple senses simultaneously. Compelling writing evokes a certain mood, or depicts a particular image with such clarity the reader can picture it in their mind’s eye.
Similes and metaphors do the trick, but sensory details are often subtle. A few candy-related taglines will help elucidate this point. What comes to mind when you read “Taste the Rainbow” and “Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hand”? Both capture something tactile about their product, evoking the experience of taste—the burst of fruit (Skittles) and the rush of creamy chocolate (M&Ms). These are simple and succinct taglines, but they expertly employ the use of sensory detail to capture attention and define a product.
Focus on clarity.
Economy of language, or using as few words as possible to get a point across, is a good rule of thumb for all writers, in particular copywriters and journalists. The fewer words muddling up the meaning, the better.
That’s easier said than done. You start surreptitiously inserting myriad SAT words in a first draft, equating intellectual acumen with loquaciousness, and end up with turgid prose. (See what I just did there?) Compelling writing is streamlined and compact. Precise words, simple sentences, and direct prose are the most effective way to get a point across.
Because efficiency and clarity are paramount when it comes to compelling writing, let us not belabor the point. Stephen King put it best in his bible for aspiring writers, On Writing: “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it…One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
Write to your target audience.
Whether you’re writing about the best way to fix a broken microwave or the underpinnings of geopolitics, effective writing tends to be driven by a voice that aligns with the intended audience for a particular piece. For example, an informed, authoritative voice might work for a blog post about repairing the world, or one about fixing your appliances. The bottom line is this: a writer builds trust by writing to their audience, not talking at them.
What does that look like? A writer who understands their audience avoids jargon and defines key terms. Good writers don’t alienate readers by talking down to them. They also don’t require readers to be sleuths. They meet people on their level, even if they’re writing with expertise on a particular subject.
Readers know they’re in good hands, and trust leads to buy-in. Here’s where purpose ties in with your audience. Is your purpose to inform, entertain, persuade, or elucidate? Are you writing for people with a baseline of knowledge about a particular subject, or for complete novices? Without clarity on who they’re talking to and why, writing easily gets tangled. It’s wordy, confusing, and oblique.
Why is audience so important? Without it, a text has a tendency to become bloated and unwieldy. That’s because the audience helps determine the voice and tone of a piece. From the very first line, a “What’s up, buddy?” versus a “Dear Sir or Madam” indicates a very different audience, and two distinct relationships between writer and reader.
Measuring Compelling Writing
This still doesn’t answer the question of how one assesses quality writing. Ultimately, when measuring a piece of writing, you’ll have to go on both instinct and intellect.
Rubrics can help by breaking down a piece of writing into mechanics, style, voice, tone, and adherence to a specific assignment. It can provide scoring guidelines for different levels of success, and offer concrete steps for improvement. At the end of the day, it’s still hard to pin down—and that’s part of the magic of the writing process.
One last point: compelling writing starts with sharp thinking. So grab a second cup of coffee, clear away the brain fuzz, and get to work.
Looking for copy that compels and sells? Turn to the savvy team of copywriters at MarketSmiths. Reach out today.