3 laws of physics for writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Does the act of writing have its own rules? Yes! In fact, I think there are three laws of physics for writing…

Do you remember Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion?

If a body is at rest it remains at rest or if it is in motion it remains in motion until an external force acts it on.

I’m no physicist so Newton’s first law more or less sums up my entire knowledge of the topic. Except I also know that some people (e.g.: Stephen Hawking) believe in what they call string theory, and others (e.g.: Richard Feynman) disagree(d) with it.

Thank goodness I’m not writing a blog about physics is all I can say. But I can give you three rules related to writing. I’m not going to pretend that my rules are as groundbreaking as Newton’s, Hawking’s or Feynman’s. But I know them to be true. Immodestly, I’m going to call them the three laws of physics for writing.

1) The longer, more abstract your sentences, the fewer people will read them. Yes, I know that Russian novelists write long sentences. And I know that some of your favourite literary authors likely have complex — perhaps even deeply convoluted — passages. But here’s the deal: reading is voluntary. Few people, apart from schoolteachers and professional book reviewers are paid to read what anyone else writes. Instead, most people choose what they want to read.

If you want people to choose your work, make your writing as accessible as possible. This means using short sentences. I usually try to have an average of no more 14-18 words per sentence. But attend to the word average. I mix up sentence length. A lot. I use some one-to-five words sentences (like the two previously) to balance the 40-word ones. This kind of strategy is particularly important if you’re working as a corporate communicator on, say, an employee publication. Employees might have little interest in what you have to write about. So, attract them with your short, concise sentences. (And instead of counting words yourself, use Online Utility.Org  to do the figuring.) Here is some more info on readability stats.  And don’t forget to try the Hemingway app.

2) To write a good article — and, particularly a speech — you need stories more than facts. Often, this is less of a writing problem and more of an interviewing challenge. Did you ask the right questions? Did you ask about feelings and opinions? Did you ask, explicitly, for stories, anecdotes and examples?  Did you ask the person to speak to you in Plain English, as if you were a 10-year-old? Here’s the advice I always give clients: for every factual question you ask, be sure to ask a feeling or opinion one. Make your interview balanced and interesting, more like a conversation than a cross-examination. Of course, some people are easier to interview than others (in my experience, millwrights and engineers are the most challenging) but be persistent. Don’t let an interview end until you have at least one usable story.

3) You need to write a little bit every day, as if your writing was a musical instrument, an exercise or a meditation practice. Recently, I was negotiating with a potential client about helping her with her book. We exchanged several dozen emails but things ground to a halt when she refused to even consider the idea of writing for five minutes a day. “That’s like telling me I need to eat red meat when I want to eat chicken,” she said. While I admired her metaphor, I knew it was wrong-headed and I turned down the job.

The amount of time this writer was prepared to commit was an hour, once a week. Writing a book means producing about 65,000 words. Even very fast writers can’t usually write more than 750 words in 60 minutes. Do the math! That means it will take my would-have-been client 87 weeks — or more than a year and a half — to produce a rough first draft. And that’s if everything goes swimmingly, which I suspect it won’t. My best guess is that she’s going to need to hire a ghostwriter.

Writing is not hard. But it’s hard work. Expecting it to happen without effort is like expecting that pen on your desk to go flying into the air without your even touching it. It defies Newton’s first law.

Don’t try to defy the laws of motion. Or the laws of writing.

On a separate but related topic: If you want some help mastering these rules and starting or completing a long-term writing project, such as a book or a thesis, you might want to consider my Get it Done! program. Applications for the first three-month program close on Friday, Oct 3 at 6 pm Pacific. Go here to apply.

What laws have you discerned for your writing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by September 30/14 (tonight!) I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the uplifting read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

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