From Words To Culture: The Levels Of Resolution In Writing

When we want to master a specific domainwe need to understand every level of resolution. A mechanic needs to know far more than how to drive. It is the same for writing. A writer should know more than the mechanics of writing. So let’s embrace the nuancethe multiple levels of resolution that writing exists in. We’ll begin at the most literal level and rise in levels of abstraction.


Level 1: Words

Professor Jordan Peterson said wrote, “Each word should be precisely the right word.” What’s the right word? It’s concise. It’s never two when one will do. It keeps the beat. It’s never the 17-letter synonym that you think makes you sound intelligent. The right word is like a star in the night sky. Alone, it seems insignificant. But when it’s surrounded by hundreds of other right words, your writing shines bright. Lao Tzu said, “Great acts are made up of small deeds.” Similarly, great writing is made of the right words. Every word matters. Just as every pebble mattered to the crow in Aesop’s fable…


The Crow and the Pitcher

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher.  


Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher.  

Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.  

Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.  

Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.  

Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.  


At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life. Little by little does the trick.


Level 2: Sentences

Write good sentences by obeying these 3 laws:


  1. Put the words in the right order so the sentence is grammatically correct.


  1. Make them clear and easy to read.


  1. Express only one thought per sentence.


Level 3: Paragraphs

Like a sentence should express one thought, a paragraph should express one idea. Those sentences, or thoughts, should be ordered logically to communicate the overarching idea. Here’s a rule to follow when writing a paragraph: Each paragraph must be at least 10 sentences or 100 words. If you can’t write 100 words on an idea, you don’t need a thesaurus, you need a better idea. Regardless of any reasoning, the 10 sentence/ 100 word rule exists because it works. Nassim Taleb wrote, “Not everything that happens happens for a reason, but everything that survives survives for a reason.” You don’t need to know why the rule works, but you need to follow it.


Level 4: Structure / Sequence Of Paragraphs

“You must map out the path if you ever plan to make it to your destination alive.”Ryan Holiday

Your paragraphs should follow a logical progression. Each paragraph builds upon the previous paragraph. Paragraph by paragraph, you build towards your ultimate conclusion.  

You lead, they read.


Level 5: Your Piece Of Writing As A Whole

All the previous levels of resolution can be correct, yet the writing can suck. It’s not what’s written that makes it weak, it’s what’s lacking; originality, creativity, insight. Consider the inverse: writing filled with originality, creativity, and insight. But it’s also filled with grammatical errors, a disorganised structure, and uses the wrong words. It can still be brilliant. The previous steps are more technical. This step is not. It’s a poorly translated Dostoevsky; the grammar is wrong, yet it is still brilliant.


Level 6: Reader’s Interpretation

Before America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima they gave a warning: The Potsdam Declaration. It demanded complete surrender, or promised complete destruction. The Japanese Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, responded via a news conference saying “No comment. We’re still thinking about it.” However, the Japanese word for ‘no comment’ is ‘mokusatsu’, which also means “We’re ignoring in contempt.” It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what your reader hears.


Level 7: Our Culture

People are not blank slates with completely open minds. They have developed a way of looking at the world. Their perception is a product of their culture, and biology. You may mean one thing, but a reader can interpret it as something else. 7 billion people view the world 7 billion different ways. Different people can read the same work differently. There have been more than a few disagreements over the interpretation of the bible.


It is not enough to simply want to write well. We must also understand how—and follow that process. Otherwise we will never reach our potential. However, as we are analysing our own writing, we must not overanalyze. We must keep writing, not writing a piece that’s perfect at each level of resolution, but is moving towards perfection. We learn to write by putting these ideas in practice. As Amelia Earhart said, “Always think with your stick forward.”