An image of a man writing at a desk

Learning to Write (Well), Changes Everything

Your ideas are stuck inside your head. If they stay there, you’ll never get what you want. Your career will stall, your bank account will crumble, and your life will feel meaningless. I’m not trying to be dramatic, just honest. If you feel stuck, it’s because your ideas are stuck.

I get it. I’ve felt that way many times, and it’s because two things go missing in my life: articulation and persuasion.

To be articulate means you can state your thoughts clearly. To persuade means that your thoughts create valuable change. The next time you want to make more money, build a community, change a government law, or start a business – start by converting those golden ideas into an essay.

This is the point where you get angry because I used the E-word (essay). When I graduated from college, I never wanted to write another paragraph. All those research papers, essays, and book reports amounted to little more than PTSD. Maybe you feel the same way about your public education experience. That’s because they forgot a few pieces of crucial information that make writing the single best tool for reaching your goals.

High School Ruined Your Writing Career

Few kids love writing, but that’s because it’s taught incorrectly. I don’t blame the teachers; I blame the circumstance. Public education is a synonym for standardized education. Funnel everyone into a narrow range of acceptable outputs and grade them on that performance. It’s a potato masher system at best.

In order to teach millions of kids in English classes around the country, public education had to create a factory-like system of thinking. You learned things like the 5-paragraph essay: it should have an intro, three main arguments individually packaged into separate paragraphs, and a conclusion. You learned to avoid passive writing (something I still haven’t mastered), use proper citations, and (worst of all) reach a specific word count. That last one drives me bananas more than all of them combined. When I hear, “Write a 500-word essay,” I want to squash that banana flat. An essay should be the length necessary to make a great argument. 

Not All Writing Will Change Your Life

Most research papers, memoirs, and blog posts will not change your life. They won’t make you money, open doors for your career, or build your community.

Essays will (when appropriately written).

Your English teachers forgot to tell you that an essay is an animal unto itself. It has a specific job: to persuade the reader to change. It is the granddaddy (or grandmammy – whichever you prefer) of persuasive writing.

By the end of this essay, I hope to change your life. My goal is to convince you to become an essayist.

Become an Essayist

Complaining changes nothing; writing persuasively does. Be honest, you’ve been complaining about something in your life. What is it? Do you want a raise from your boss? Should the schools serve healthier lunches for the kids in your community? Perhaps you’re like me and want to grow a community online. Whatever change you want, try to avoid the complaints in favor of picking up the pen.

It’s time for you to make a difference.

Case in point. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in the early 1800’s without money, respect, or dignity. He had nothing until he learned to read and write. His essays transported him from the depths of hell to the side of President Abraham Lincoln as a trusted friend and advisor. His essays changed people, and in the process, they revered and honored him for it. They paid attention, and they’re still paying attention today, 128 years after his death. He opened people’s eyes to the awful truth of slavery.

Good writing is hard

Good writing is transformative writing. It helps the reader see things anew and gives them the courage to take action. I’ve done plenty of bad writing and know when I’ve fallen short. I can tell because the writing ends up being about me and my problems, or it turns into a summary of things that happened in the past. Good writing is just the opposite. It’s about the reader’s problem and what will change if they change. Persuasive writing should do just that — it should persuade.

Most people avoid writing because it takes a lot out of you. It’s not for the faint of heart. I’m convinced that’s why very few people are millionaires. How many people try to become more articulate and persuasive in their free time? Wouldn’t watching a movie tonight be much easier than writing an essay?

It would be easier. And by the end of that movie, your ideas will still be stuck in your head.

As the author of The Practice, Seth Godin tells us, “We are rarely in the mood to do meaningful work. It’s much easier to slug around and feel bad for ourselves. Your work cannot afford to be held hostage by your emotional state. It needs to get done regardless of how you feel.”

Your ideas matter. Even though it will be a challenge to get them down on paper, I ask you to embrace the work. Take on the identity of an essayist. See yourself as an agent of change.

Start by reading great essays

I can’t recall ever being asked to read a single essay in all my years attending public education. Why is that? I read many books, newspaper articles, and journals – but no essays. I’m angry about that. If I had read Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, I would have been much further along, but instead, I was asked to write a research paper on the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Here’s an idea for our educators: have your students read great essays. Give them Emmerson instead of Alzheimer’s, and they’ll pay attention in your class.

Fran Lebowitz famously said, “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” Let me suggest three essays I think you will love. They will teach you to think for yourself, and once you have that in place, you’ll be on your way to greater articulation and persuasion.

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell will make you think twice before acting foolishly. It’s an essay that shows how quickly we can get ourselves into trouble when we act emotionally. It’s engaging, and you can’t help but worry about the narrator and the poor elephant with each passing word.

The second is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. In this essay, Woolf challenges readers to consider how hard being a woman is when resources are withheld. This essay will bring you to your knees and help you see that everyone has a right to follow their dreams and create.

Finally, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson will give you the courage to stand on your own two feet and to stop seeking validation from others. With passages like, “We don’t have to wait to be picked, and we don’t have to stand by, hoping that we will feel our calling. And we certainly don’t have to believe in magic to create magic,” Emerson will have you ready to jump out of your seat, shake off the chains of conformity, and find a path that will make you happy in life.

This is what good writing does. It makes a point, and it drives the reader to change.

Morning pages are for thinking

Many people claim that the benefit of essay writing is that it helps you to clarify your thinking.

This is false.

Just like essays are not for reporting on things that happened or for sharing your personal problems, they’re also not a place to figure out what you’re thinking. To return to my original statement, an essay persuades others to change.

In 1992, Julia Cameron published The Artist’s Way, a book well known for something called Morning Pages. Cameron suggests that each morning, you wake up and spill your unconscious mind onto an empty page. Anything goes. The point is to get your brain moving, your creativity flowing, and a sense of self-awareness established. It’s a practice that has helped me over the years and the practice I suggest for any serious thinker. Putting words on a page forces us to come to grips with what we think and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, what we believe. 

You should do this daily, but you should not call this essay writing.

Once you’ve finished your morning pages and your subconscious has spewed onto the page, you can begin writing an essay.

Stop Writing About Yourself

Here’s a secret you probably already know: people don’t care about you. They’re too busy caring about themselves. Your potential audience is preoccupied. They have lawns to mow, dishes to clean, college degrees to get, and kids to raise. Life is a lot, and expecting them to stop and read something you’ve written is a big ask.

So, let us ask appropriately.

People will read your essay if it benefits them. Period. They will not read it because they like you or want to support your cause. They’re too busy for that unless they’re your mother or grandmother. The real world will only bat an eye if it helps them get where they want to go. It’s not a pessimistic viewpoint, just an honest one.

This means that if you’re going to be the kind of writer who changes minds, you must subscribe to the fact that your writing will not resonate with everyone. When you write for the masses, you write for no one.

You’re Writing Backwards

Writing usually happens in the wrong direction. The prospect of a blank page can be terrifying, so many writers panic and immediately try to fill the empty space. We go through a series of steps that usually produce lackluster writing.

The wrong way to write:

  1. Create the rough draft
  2. Reorganize it into clarifying arguments
  3. Edit for grammar
  4. Give the piece a title
  5. Find an audience for the work and hope for the best

This is a bottom-up approach. If you want to write well, you must fight your urge to fill the blank page as a first step. Flip this process on its head, and your words will have an impact.

Let’s do this the right way:

  1. Find a specific audience you want to persuade
  2. Define a problem that the audience wants or needs to fix
  3. Come up with a great title
  4. Craft a series of arguments and order them logically
  5. Write the rough draft
  6. Let it sit
  7. Edit and ship

A specific audience is an audience that can change

Identify the audience you want to persuade. Do you want to change how the Future Farmers of America runs its Agriscience Fair? Or do you want to encourage haunted house creators to make their attractions more family-friendly? You must know who you’re speaking to to create a solid argument.

Getting clear on your audience also defines who your audience is not. Knowing that makes your job as a writer much easier. I find this idea liberating. I no longer have to please or convince every reader. My work should speak to a select few.

Let’s go back to public education for a moment. Every writing assignment I received started with a topic assigned by the teacher.

  • What caused the plague, and why does it matter?
  • What should the President do about immigration?
  • What are the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on the quality of life?

You get the idea. There are several problems with this approach. First, I didn’t pick these topics, so I never really cared. I was only writing because I had to do it. Second, there’s no consideration of the audience.

I was never taught how to write for a specific audience because the school gave me a built-in reader — the teacher. And, to make things worse, they are being paid to read my writing! They’re not reading because they are ripe for change – they’re reading because it’s their job.

In the real world, people only read your work if it benefits them. By writing for a specific audience, you can solve a particular problem.

Your Reader is a Needer

If you’ve done your job of defining the audience, you get exposed to a wealth of information as a writer. Most importantly, you learn that this reader wants one of two things: getting more pleasure or avoiding pain. 

That’s it! 

They need to know how you can make their lives better, or they need to understand how you can help them avoid a painful situation. They are not readers – they are needers.

Write 25 Different Titles 

Write 25 different titles that focus on a specific pleasure or pain point. Writing the title first is one of the great secrets of crafting an essay because once you have a solid title, it keeps you focused in the writing process.

Without a good title, your writing will wander. That’s because a good title makes a promise to the reader. It says, “If you pause what you are doing to read my words, this will happen.” 

Because you’ve made a promise, your essay now must fulfill that promise. When you write, never stray away from that goal. Never write anything that dilutes, distracts, or degrades the fulfillment of that promise. I encourage you to print out the best title and tape it to the wall while you write to keep its promise in mind.

25 titles may sound like a lot, and it is. When I write, this is the hardest part of the entire process for me. Force yourself to come up with 25 exciting ideas. Don’t stop at seven once you get a decent title. 

Pushing yourself and spending an appropriate amount of time here does three things for you:

  1. You get clear on the promise your writing will fulfill.
  2. The first few ideas will be cliché and overused. By forcing yourself to come up with 25, you’ll work your way into a unique title that will stand out to the reader.
  3. Once you get a great title, it will keep you motivated to finish the essay. The promise of the title will be so clear and exciting that you’ll want to see it answered.

Think Like a Lawyer

You’re about to make an argument that the reader should change something. Think about what it takes to get you to change something in your own life. If I were making a case for you to manage your finances differently, go to the gym more frequently, or finally commit to reading Anna Karenina (A fantastic book), I would have to make a compelling argument. 

Maybe I’m weird, but I think building an argument is fun. It’s like being in debate class, but you get to fight for something you believe in.

You’re a creature of habit. You have your beliefs, your set ways, and your routine. If I’m going to get you to change, my argument must:

  1. Be distilled down for clarity. No waffling, extravagant words, or lengthy sermons.
  2. Be organized in the correct order. Each paragraph must lead the reader to a logical and persuasive conclusion.
  3. Fulfill the promise of the title.

Lay out your argument by creating a series of bullet points, each one a specific building block to your idea. Make each bullet point a single sentence that is clear and easy to understand. Then, reorder those points until their sequence becomes persuasive.

The right ideas in the wrong order will only create confusion. Your reader will walk away with no desire for change, even though the individual points are impactful. 

Order is everything.

Consider baking a cake. Just because you have all the right ingredients, that does not mean the cake will be a winner, especially if you put everything in the oven, and after it’s done baking, you pull it out and add the eggs as a last step.

Order matters.

Find your voice and write your essay

Now you can start writing, but take care here. Do not write with passivity or a lukewarm attitude. If you’re not passionate about the topic, the reader will not be passionate about change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a pushover when he spoke, so we remember his message.

Turn to your computer, or if you prefer to write the first draft by hand, your blank page. Look at the first bullet point in your sequence of arguments, and make sure you understand precisely how that point strengthens your argument. Read the title of your essay one more time to ensure you stay on track with fulfilling that promise.

And then write.

Opinions are the missing piece of a good essay. Again, don’t get lost thinking that an essay is a research paper where you present facts only. No! You’re opinion counts, and you’re allowed to say that other ideas are wrong. You can put your foot down, ask for change, and make your case.

If you write with a bland pen, nobody will follow you. Tell me why I should care! Tell me why I should change deep-seated practices in my life. Tell me why I should pay attention; if you do a good enough job, maybe I will.

Final Thoughts

I’m not going to talk about editing your essay since that’s a technical aspect of the craft that can be learned through the millions of resources already created. What I will say is that when you go back and read your rough draft, the most essential part of the edit is to ensure the following:

Does each paragraph push the reader into the next section? Does each sentence do the same? Your message will be lost if the reader never gets to the end.

When you learn to write (well), everything changes. You will start movements, build more wealth, and open more doors. People will seek you out for your ideas, and they will want to know your opinion. Your community will improve, your family will have more direction, and, most importantly, you will have made a difference. 

That is the change I am asking you to make – I am asking you to write your essay.

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