Isn’t it amazing how getting an answer often prompts us to ask more questions?
There’s an old well-known story about Zeno of Elea, the famed thinker who lived in 5th c. B.C.E. in Ancient Greece, known mostly for his paradoxes, such as Achilles and the Tortoise, that to this day spark imaginations of those who come across them.
Like many ancient philosophers, Zeno taught his ideas to a group of students and, being a good teacher, encouraged them to ask questions. As the story goes, they once asked him why he was always humble, even though his knowledge was almost incomparable to theirs. Zeno, apparently being a strong believer in the power of visualization, drew a small circle in the sand. Then, he drew a bigger one around it. “This,” he said, pointing at the small circle, “is what you know. And this,” he pointed at the large circle, “is what I know. Everything outside each circle is the unknown. You are right, I do know much more than you do, but it also means that my exposure to the unknown is much bigger than yours.”
History doesn’t tell us whether Zeno’s students were motivated and humbled by his short speech or stood up and left, having decided to give up on studies altogether due to the hopelessness of ever learning enough. In any case, the circle analogy clearly made an impression on them, since they evidently conveyed it to others. And so, like many other stories, their account of that conversation has traveled through time to end up in countless texts, including this one.
Simple as it is, Zeno’s analogy is a perfect illustration of some key aspects of the journey we’re about to take, and for more than one reason. We will be coming back to it as we traverse the Land of Writing to use its simple, yet powerful visual to highlight some key ideas.
What makes it relevant at this particular point, is the notion of ever-expanding knowledge. Once we learn something new, it doesn’t take us long to realize that our newfound understanding comes with a fresh set of questions. For instance, the conclusion of the article that started this series was that the key ingredient of powerful writing is something — or rather someone — external to the text. That key ingredient is the reader, and powerful writing is the kind of writing that helps readers understand something new about themselves.
If you think about that conclusion, however, it becomes quite disheartening from a writer’s perspective. If it’s about the reader, how can we, as writers, make our writing more impactful? If that statement is true, we can try all we want, and yet at the end of the day, none of that would really matter if the reader doesn’t realize something new. Worse, every reader’s situation, past, present, tastes, interests, and mindset are different. And if it’s all about the reader, how is it even possible to write a book that would resonate with multiple people, let alone with thousands?
In fact, after giving this conclusion some thought, it’s easy to find it perhaps one of the most disempowering statements a writer can come across. And if there’s anything writers truly dislike, it’s the feeling that their writing efforts are pointless. In the hierarchy of writing discomforts, it sits somewhere between the writer’s block and the realization that your first draft needs a complete rewrite. It’s such feelings that make the immortal words of Hamlet ring true: “And enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action…”
But, as is often the case, asking the right question, even of the most uncomfortable nature, prompts us to look for a solution, and in the process, shines the light on the answer. Is there something writers can do to help readers realize something new about themselves? Actually there is. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible. And there is a simple irrefutable proof to that claim. That proof is your own experience as a reader.
There have been books that made you go “yes!” Books that made you question familiar truths, that helped you make connections you had been trying to make. Books that supported you and gave you strength when you needed it. Books that taught you important lessons and helped you find your definitions of right and wrong. Books that kept you awake at night until you finished reading the last page — only to find yourself tempted to start anew from the beginning. There have been books that helped you realize something new about yourself or confirmed — with a certainty of a loud gong — something you already believed in.
It’s those books that gave you the first impulse to write, and they inspire you to this day. You know what these books are. They are uniquely yours, even though their lines have been read by many other readers. They became yours when you read their pages and let their authors’ thoughts blend with your own. They are real examples of writing you find powerful.
So how the words on the pages of these books had such an effect on you? Their authors didn’t know about your worries and aspirations. They didn’t even know about your existence. And yet somehow their words resonated so much with you. Why? And how can you, as a writer, do the same as you bring to life the pages of your own books? What is the magic spell that makes such an effect possible? Is there some formula behind it? Some high-impact words to use?
No. There is no spell. No formula. No dozen of high-impact words that miraculously can make you text resonate. But there are a number of core principles and techniques that lie behind any powerful writing. And you know these principles must be real because they have worked on you.
These principles include establishing a connection with the right reader, showing that reader a compelling reason to keep reading your text, extending an invitation to a journey, and making the prospect of that journey irresistible. They include walking the path together with the reader, showing your reader the world as you see it, but in a way that doesn’t dismiss the reader’s point of view. They include not taking your reader for granted and offering something worthy of attention at every step of the journey. And finally, they include bringing your travel companion to the destination that you promised at the beginning — but not quite in the way the reader was predicting.
In order to use these principles in your writing, you have a number of tools at your possession, ranging from language to the structure of your text. But they are just that — tools. Even the best chisel in the world won’t make you a great sculptor unless you know how to use, understand what it takes to create a great sculpture, and have spent enough time practicing.
This book — or at, this point, the series of articles — will explain these principles in detail and, should you decide to apply them to craft your own texts, will show you the right tools to use.
And as we walk this road, occasionally stopping by to visit some famous or little-known books and texts, you will have one indispensable tool in your possession. You will use this tool to see that we are on the right path, whenever we talk about some principle or technique. And that tool is your own experience as a reader. Using it you would be able to verify any claim this book makes by comparing it to your own thoughts and emotions, created by the books and text that matter to you.
By the end of this journey, you will see that powerful writing is within any writer’s reach. Like any other skill, it comes more naturally to some — and can raise to the level of magic when used by truly gifted authors — but it’s definitely something that can be learned and improved.
Consider this book is another segment of the long road you found yourself on at the moment you decided to write your first story or an article. It’s a part of that enterprise of great pith and moment, which you have been undertaking. And as long as you stay on that road, it won’t lose its name, which is writing.
This article is part of the Powerful Writing series.