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:
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 everyday 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).