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).