Distinguish the Editorials from the Obituaries—The Lively Writing from the Dead
Engaging writing is more like a debate than a lecture. Lectures plod along. Debates are varied. Debaters interject with important points. Debaters create theatre. Debaters repeat key messages in new and surprising ways.
To make your writing sound more like a dialogue than a monologue you can use:
- Colons (:), em dashes (—) and question marks (?), italics and bold.
- Colourful quotes (i.e. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”—Stephen King).
- A wide vocabulary and the use of unexpected words.
- Varied sentence length.
- Write about interesting and useful things.
These tactics help distinguish the editorials from the obituaries, i.e.—the lively writing from the dead.
Beware of the WebMD Fallacy
You’ve experienced the WebMD fallacy if you’ve been sick and Googled your symptoms. You find yourself on a site like WebMD and discover you have 4 types of terminal cancer, type 1 and type 2 diabetes and werewolf syndrome.
A thesaurus is the WebMD fallacy for writers. When you rely too heavily on a thesaurus to create a wide vocabulary (point 3 above) and use unexpected words, clear writing transforms into an incognizable salmagundi of vainglorious promulgation.
Ernest Hemingway has never been accused of relying on a thesaurus—he used simple words and short sentences.
We Live as we Write and Write as We Live
Hemingway’s simple words and short sentences produced a lively writing style. His lively writing style was matched by a lively life. He went deep sea fishing, gambled at racetracks, was hit by a mortar in WWI, and boxed for money and pleasure.
Hemingway’s writing reflected his living. His declarative short sentences, avoidance of superfluous details and use of aggressive imagery are all virtues of his masculine style.
As Hemingway showed, the way we do one thing is the way we do everything. If you want to write with discipline, live with disciple. If you want to write with style, live with style. If you want to write with confidence, live with confidence.
Finish like a Champion Racehorse
Furthermore, each Hemingway sentence finishes with the strongest word. If a reader already knows the point of your sentence halfway through, the rest becomes boring.
For example, consider this idea from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson; Stand like a rock in matters of principle and swim with the current in matters of style. It makes sense, but it doesn’t finish strong.
Jefferson knew that. Which is why what he actually said was;
“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Jefferson’s actual sentence uses the principle of finishing strong in two ways. Firstly, it contrasts matters of style with matters of principles. The comparison makes matters of principle feel more important. Secondly, it ends with the metaphor; stand like a rock. The metaphor is a strong finish not only because we can visualise it, but because it finally reveals the meaning of the sentence.
Our writing should be like a champion racehorse that Hemingway would bet on, it finishes strong.