The Three Dimensions of Writing

In the previous blog, we considered John Trimble’s definition of effective writing: “Writing is the art of creating desired effects.” When applying that definition to persuasive writing, we have this definition:

Persuasive writing is the art of creating the desired effect of persuading readers.

Or, to shorten the definition . . .

Persuasive writing is the art of persuading readers.

So how exactly does a writer achieve persuasion? What is the anatomy of a persuasive essay? In short, you should think of writing as involving three aspects:

1. The writer (ethos)

2. The writing itself (logos)

3. The reader (pathos)

Every writer—or at least, every writer who wants to be successful—must consider all three of these writing aspects. They are all part of the rhetorical game. The writer wants to give a sense that she is an authority on the topic, or at least that she knows her topic well enough to write with some authority. At the same time, she does not want to come across as stodgy or inaccessible. Some personality (infused with a healthy smidgen of honesty) helps give the reader the sense that the writer is a friendly, sincere soul—but one who still knows her stuff. That’s ethos: the identity of the writer as transmitted through the writing.

What about the writing itself? Is it clearly written? Does the argument make sense? Does the argument ever contradict itself? Is the research cited pertinent to the writer’s arguments or points? That’s logos: the logic, unity, and essential clarity of the writing.

But even if the writer’s points are clear and well argued, who wants to read a dry, clinical list of pertinent data and formalized arguments? Writers win readers over not only by appealing to readers’ intellects, but also by evoking emotional responses. A good writer makes people think, but she also makes them feel. This aspect of style infuses otherwise dull facts and mute statistics with humanity and purpose. Emotional responses come in many forms. Does the writer want to make the reader laugh? Does she want readers to cry? Does she want her readers to be angry about the issue she’s discussing? Is she writing to shock her readers? Maybe she wants a bit of all four responses. That’s pathos: the emotional impact that the writing has on the reader.

The figure below shows these three essential aspects of writing. Consider the writing practices for achieving each effect. Also, while considering the image below, consider how there is an area where all three effects overlap. That area of complete overlap represents writing that balances logic (logos), character (ethos), and emotion (pathos). As a rule, that center of balance is where we want to be, although some writing situations call for us to emphasize some aspects over others. (For example, a lab report might be more logos-driven, while a personal response paper will emphasize a bit more ethos and pathos.)

The Three Dimensions of Writing: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

The goal is to balance all three of these aspects in your writing. Experienced writers often achieve all three simultaneously. “Simultaneously? How is that done?” you might ask.

I’ll show you. Here’s an example from Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. These passages are drawn from the introduction to Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes,

When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human infant . . .

What moved me most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion, spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us. “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said. “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . .

“You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

No matter our position on the existence of god, the sheer power of Ehrman’s prose is undeniable. It possesses a moving level of sincere frustration (ethos), and Ehrman presents some shocking numbers (logos) to give reasons for his frustration–and perhaps to transmit some of that frustration to the reader (pathos). In short, this writing represents a perfect fusion of all three writing aspects.

Four Essentials for Effective Writing

Here are John Trimble’s four essentials for winning readers. Consider how Ehrman’s writing in the passage above exhibits all four of these essentials:

1. Have something to say that’s worth their attention.

Ehrman’s discussion presents a topic that is relevant, for religious and non-religious readers alike: considering human suffering in light of popular religious beliefs.

2. Be sold on its validity and importance yourself so you can pitch it with conviction.

Can you feel Ehrman’s conviction in the writing–writing that is based on his life experience?

3. Furnish strong arguments that are well supported with concrete proof.

Consider the specific numbers that Ehrman presents. Notice that he presents a range of examples by discussing different forms of human suffering.

4. Use confident language—vigorous verbs, strong nouns, and assertive phrasing.

Verbs like affirmrepeated and mutilated are–without a doubt–vigorous verbs. Strong nouns include reflections, darkness, frustration, and misery. We hear assertive phrasing, for example, when Ehrman writes, “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t.”

These are the elements of any successful writing strategy. Consider how Trimble’s four essentials are building blocks for producing ethos, logos, and pathos in our writing. Those three effects–those three dimensions of writing–create persuasion: the core “desired effect” of persuasive writing.

Next Up: All About Commas

One key to producing the desired effects of writing is having control over the movement and tone of a sentence. Punctuation is how writers do this.

Perhaps the most confusing punctuation technique is also the most frequent: the comma. The next part of The Writer’s Toolbox will help you understand the comma and its applications so that you can add this useful punctuation tool to your writing toolbox.

If you want to see the comma made simple, read on!

Here’s the link:

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

In the introduction to The Writer’s Toolbox, I mentioned that writing is like chess. Specifically, I compared writing to chess when considering the mindset of the novice writer versus the mindset of the experienced writer.

Writing is like chess also in the sense that writing involves a strategy—a larger game plan for convincing readers. The strategy of chess aims at the goal of winning (by putting the opponent’s king in checkmate). But what exactly is the strategy of writing? What are you trying to win when you write?

Well, it depends on what you are writing. A persuasive essay, for example, seeks to persuade or convince. An expository essay or a how-to manual seeks to explain or instruct. A story seeks to entertain, often while encouraging some life lesson or point of introspection. The situation determines the goal of the writing.

Still, I have found a pretty good working definition for the goal of all writing. I should note that when I say writing, I mean writing that is intended for some reader, whether an English teacher or the American reading public—or both.

As much as I’d like to take credit for it, this definition is not mine. John R. Trimble, who wrote what I consider the book on writing, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, shares the following general definition for writing:

“Writing is the art of creating desired effects” within the reader.

I like that definition. It works for any writing, whether it’s a mystery novel (desired effects: suspense and conjectures on “who did it.”), a persuasive essay (desired effect: to convince the reader that the writer’s position is correct, or at least valid), or a romance novel (desired effect: I’d rather not say . . .).

My desired effect for that last parenthetical phrase was to make you laugh. Did it work? My desired effect in this paragraph is to give you the sense that I’m in your head—that I’m conversing with you and responding to the thoughts that come to you as you read my writing. Is that working? (I hope so.) These are smaller desired effects, but they serve the purpose of my larger strategy: to teach as I entertain.

My discussions, for the most part, address the writing form I teach in most composition courses: persuasive writing. As its name implies, the desired effect of persuasive writing is persuasion. Simple enough.

But what do I mean by persuasion? The best case is that my reader—who at first disagreed with my position—enjoys my essay and promptly decides to agree with me. Still, that result is not realistic, no matter how eloquent or convincing the prose. Chances are, people who hold strong worldviews will not change their positions after reading one essay. Still, I hope to convince them that my position is tenable. At the very least, I want my reader to say, “I don’t agree with his position, but he argues it well. And–you know what?–I like him.”

That last part, the notion of liking a writer, is important. In the writing business, we call that concept ethos. When I write, I try to come across as the kind of guy who anyone—even those who disagree with me—would enjoy having a beer with. (That’s one reason I ended that sentence with the preposition, with: traditionally a no-no in formal writing. Think about it: if I had said, “with whom they would enjoy having a beer,” no one would want to actually have a beer with me.)

This level of persuasion is subtle, but powerful. The reader, immediately after finishing the essay, still disagrees completely. But since the arguments were strong, and since the writer came across as sincere, personable, and intelligent, the reader continues to consider, on occasion, the writer’s assertions over the course of the day. In fact, even the following day, the reader continues to recall points made in the essay. As the year goes by, the memory of the argument lends itself to a body of works and life experiences that affects the reader, whether he knows it or not, in moving towards the writer’s position. A few bricks fall out of the foundation upon which the reader has built his position. Persuasion has happened.

So, how do we persuade? Simply put, the writer must aim to win readers over to himself and his ideas, while affecting the readers’ emotions. These components make up the three aspects of writing, which those of us in the composition-rhetoric business call ethos, logos, and pathos. No piece of effective writing can exist without these three aspects.

Want to learn more? Here’s the link:

The Three Dimensions of Writing

Works Cited

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

The Rules Practices of Effective Writing

Consider, for a moment, all of the grammatical and stylistic rules so often taught to children by parents, teachers, and other mentors. Too often, those rules seem disconnected from one another–an arbitrary list of do’s and dont’s for would-be writers to memorize and force upon their prose. For now, we should forget about those rules, or at least forget about them in the sense that they exist for their own sake. They serve a higher purpose: producing effective writing. That said, when those rules do not make for effective writing (and sometimes they don’t), we should bend–and even break–those rules.

With that point in mind, dear reader, I want you to move away from the idea that there are any hard-and-fast rules of writing. The “rules” exist to make the writing effective, and not because of any decree issued by some imagined circle of Grammar Gods. In the upcoming blogs, I will discuss many practices of effective writing, and I prefer to talk about practices, instead of pontificating about rules. At the end of the day, the goal of effective writing is just that–to be effective: to achieve our desired effects for the documents we write. Practices will get us there; rules will not.

Return to the analogy, mentioned in an earlier blog of the writer’s toolbox: a collection of techniques that the writer can call upon to produce effective writing (and also the inspiration behind this blog’s title). A skilled carpenter does not have a set of rules that force him to use a tool the same way for every situation. There is no rule in carpentry that says, “You must always use the back part of the hammer to extract a bent nail from the wood. If you use any other tool besides a hammer for this task, you will fail as a carpenter.”

Nonsense! The carpenter looks at the situation, and he finds the best tool for the job. What if that nail is in a spot where the carpenter cannot fit the hammer and gain leverage? Or what if the head of the nail has broken off? The carpenter then uses another tool, perhaps a strong pair of pliers, combined with some lubricating element, to remove that nail.

Writing is the same. The “rules” are just guidelines–practices. The skilled writer, like the skilled carpenter, works on a case-by-case basis, choosing the right tool for the right job. And the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as the carpenter works with his overall goal in mind (building a sturdy but elegant table, for example),  so too does the writer keep her overall goal in mind: producing an effective document that will move her intended audience towards her perspective.

Writing, then, must begin with goals–and that just happens to be the subject of my next blog. Interested? Check it out:

The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Writer’s Toolbox: Introduction

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox!

I share these blogs on writing in hopes that they will prove helpful to anyone who might be curious about the nitty-gritty details of writing. I write for those who are unsure of themselves as writers and for who view writing as a chore—a necessary evil of surviving in this Information Age, where we are so often required to take up our pens (or keyboards) to compose memos, essays, e-mails, and letters.

But effective writing goes far beyond the ability to engage in necessary, mundane correspondences. Writing is the stuff democracies are made of. And it’s much more than that: it’s one of the qualities that make us human. The more we develop our writing, the more we develop as people. This knowledge should not be limited to colleges and universities. It’s for everyone. With that thought in mind, I feel that my mission as an English educator extends beyond the four walls of my classroom, where I will reach about twenty-five people per section. My responsibility is to share with anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing.

So read, write—and enjoy.

Why Learn the Rules?

Writing is a lot like chess.

Like novice chess players, inexperienced writers do not know for certain that the decisions they make are the right ones. Unsure how to proceed, they simply guess. A writer, for example, who is unsure whether to use a semicolon or a comma to combine two sentences must end up taking a blind stab at it. It becomes a fifty-fifty guess, a leap of faith, one that will make the writer look either skilled and knowledgeable, or clumsy and ignorant. In the same way that the novice chess player sighs, “Well . . . I guess I’ll move my rook forward and just hope it works out,” so too does the novice writer resign himself to the fickle hand of fate.

Other novices take a different approach to the chess game of writing. They play it safe. This cautious, play-it-safe writer—although she would like to combine the two closely related sentences—is unsure how to do it. So, instead of taking that chance on writing the best sentence, she backs down and sticks with what she knows: she separates the two sentences with a period. The writer is not happy with it, but she knows that it’s “grammatically correct.” The play-it-safe writer settles for less than her best, while the unfortunate reader is left with disconnected, choppy prose.

The experienced writer, though, knows how and when to make even the most complex moves. She knows how to combine sentences—and she does so with full confidence. (In fact, she knows about five or six ways to combine any given set of sentences—and all of these possibilities are at her disposal.) Through mastering the real rules of writing, the experienced writer liberates herself from the chains of those pseudo-rules that are so often forced upon students in grade school English.

Contrary to popular perceptions, those who know the rules of grammar and mechanics are not the ones who are bound by them. The ones who are bound are those who do not know the rules. They are bound by their uncertainty and by the many false rules that they learned about writing at an early age. Perhaps recalling bad experiences in past English courses, these people have been scared, quite literally, out of their wits. I am writing this blog to free such writers so that they can compose the sentences that reflect the dreams, ideas, and assertions that they want—and need—to express.

The first step to liberating your writing is to develop what I call a writer’s toolbox—a set of essential writing techniques that the writer can call upon at any time. In the same way that a carpenter works with many more tools than a hammer and a saw, so too should the writer work with more tools than the period and the question mark. With every technique you add to your toolbox, both your confidence and your eloquence will increase. You will write a memo to your boss with confidence. You will be certain that you used commas in all the right places. You will know when you make your readers laugh. In short, you will know that your writing is effective: that it will achieve your goals. At that point, writing will no longer be a chore; it will be a pleasure—or, at least, an invigorating challenge.

Up to this point, I have been discussing the rules of writing, but really I prefer to talk about practices instead of rules. To find out more about the practices of writing, read on by clicking the link below:

Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

If you are interested in skipping to subject-specific article series, feel free to visit these links to begin reading. (Note: These articles will be added over time. The links may not be available today. Stay tuned.)


Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

 

Welcome (Back) to The Writer’s Toolbox!

Hello friends,

You may remember my old blog, Writer’s Toolbox, which later became known as Words on Words. The blog began when a friend who found value in my ramblings had given me space on his site to begin posting my blogs.

And post I did! I posted on a variety of writing topics, from comma use to effective word choices. My target audience was the everyday non-academic simply looking to improve written communication skills, but who might also be looking to see matters like grammar and punctuation demystified and made applicable. Writer’s Toolbox did just that. Friends were reading–and learning.

But things soon changed for me . . . and for Writer’s Toolbox. A few months after beginning Writer’s Toolbox, I found myself teaching at a new college, living in a new city, and embracing many new patterns in my life, all of which made me very busy. I put Writer’s Toolbox on the shelf, for a time.

That time is over. As I have continued to teach, I have continued to develop more material for the blog. I have decided to step out on my own by creating my own WordPress account so that I can have full control over the blog, the format, the postings, and such other technical matters.

I want to emphasize that I am not stepping out on my own due to any hard feelings. In fact, I want to thank my friend, Will Nesbitt, who gave me my start–and who encouraged me to begin posting this blog in the first place. Will, your encouragement and kindness have made all the difference. Thank you.

To express further gratitude, I would like to share a word (or two) about my friend. Mr. Nesbitt is a realtor in the Northern Virginia area. He owns Nesbitt Realty, LLC, and he has had a hand (or two) in many other successful projects, from real estate to publishing.

Click the link below to learn more about Mr. Nesbitt and his many endeavors.

http://condo-alexandria.com/about/will-nesbitt/

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox! Topics covered include comma use, advanced punctuation techniques, writing strategy, word choices, and others still. Stay tuned!

Best,

Chris

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).