Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
“To write well, express yourself like the common people,” said Greek philosopher and scholar Aristotle (384–322 BC), “but think like a wise man.”
It seems too simple, doesn’t it? Just two writing tips promise better writing. Yet time has proven that Aristotle’s pithy two-part maxim delivers that, plus more. Put these two tips into practice, and it’s not just your writing skills that will improve. You will grow, too.
“To write well,” said Aristotle, “Express yourself like the common people.”
In Aristotle’s day, common people — about 90% of the population — were largely uneducated. Yet even those who couldn’t read or write nevertheless communicated verbally.
Ari’s advice? Express yourself as they did. His contemporaries didn’t have time to massage or tweak every thought. Their goal was to survive. They communicated clearly, simply, directly.
What was true then is true 2,500 years later. We call it “conversational writing.” It’s the style of choice for today’s “common people” — the 5.07 billion people in the world who are on the internet and who are your potential readers. They are searching for helpful information. But they’re time-starved and don’t want to have to work to understand what you write or decipher complex layers of meaning. Nor will they stop and look up a twenty-dollar word in a dictionary.
Write to them clearly, simply, directly. Conversational writing conveys meaning without flashy words or complex sentences. It’s logical and ordered.
“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away,” said editor and teacher William Zinsser in On Writing Well (1976). “Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?” Clear writing allows the reader to focus on your point, rather than spend brain cells to decode every other word.
As an aside, there are times when you need to appeal to a small group of elites rather than “common people.” Technical writers, legal writers, and scholastic researchers know this well. In those instances, complicated language and detailed concepts are the norm.
But even those academics appreciate these simple tips for writing cleanly.
If you aspire to write well, says Aristotle, then you are to “think like a wise man.” Simple writing is not the same as simplistic content. Rather, good writing communicates substantive ideas in simple terms. It has depth.
Note that Ari did not say you need to be a genius … achieve a perfect SAT score in language arts … or accumulate two or three college degrees in order to write well.
Rather, writing well is a skill that can be acquired by adopting wise thinking. King Solomon, hailed as the wisest man who ever lived, outlined a wise man’s thinking process in the preface to the Book of Proverbs, penned around 700 BC — nearly four hundred years before Aristotle was born.
In Solomon’s words, “The wise listen and add to their learning” (Proverbs 1:5).
That stands in stark contrast to pride (listening only to yourself) and fear (resistance to change). Both pride and fear are characteristics of a foolish person and obstructions to good writing.
But to actively listen and never stop learning? Those skills mark you as wise and help you write well.
In my pursuit of writing well, I fight against FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Courses and tutorials and platforms and books promise me the Magic Bullet. That is, each one proclaims to be the answer I need to achieve writing greatness.
Make no mistake — all those tools are useful. (I create some of them myself!) I use the tools to develop my craft. And I’m sure you do, too.
But at times, confusion reigns. Which guru should I embrace? And my To-Do list inspires panic, with too many projects to complete in too short of a time.
It’s then that Ari’s words help to ground me. I’m reminded of the philosopher’s two truths recorded thousands of years ago. These two principles continue to guide my writing journey.
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