Writing for impact
- Research and innovation
Consider these two opening sentences:
1. In the 1950s, the contraceptive drug mestranol/noretynodrel was developed with help from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and, under the name Enovid, in the 1960s was offered to the public through the Food and Drug Administration.
2. For western women, the 1960s brought life-changing opportunity: with one small pill, they could control their fertility.
Sentence 1 contains much excellent information. It’s measured and factual. Sentence 2 hits the gut by focussing on what the information in 1 means for real people. Now, you could say that sentence 1 is ‘academic’ writing, and sentence 2 ‘journalism’ but that’s only really true if 2 is left hanging as an assertion without evidence. With evidence attached, 2 turns academic:
2. For western women, the 1960s brought life-changing opportunity: with one small pill, they could control their fertility. X argues that for women, controlling fertility was essential in the battle for equality and when, with help from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the contraceptive drug mestranol/noretynodrel was released to the public through the Food and Drug Administration, a ‘Rubicon was passed’ (X, date). According to Y, the pill changed the dynamics in relationships by allowing women the same sexual freedom as men have traditionally enjoyed (Y, date).
For rich impact, writing needs to hit both gut and brain, and often, hitting the gut first clears the pathway to the brain. Look at your own reaction. Doesn’t a stark statement usually provoke the response why? or how? or what? And aren’t we then looking for the authoritative measured information that will explain and confirm? Not just looking, we’re hungry for it. But put that information first, and instead of appreciating your research, the reader is asking ‘why does this matter?’.
Aristotle offered an excellent guide to writing for impact. Three things, he said, are needed: ethos, pathos, logos: in plain language, authority/credibility, empathy/emotion, and reasoned persuasion. In our example, the writer’s authority is underpinned by cited evidence; the reader’s emotions are engaged by the idea of women’s empowerment; and the logical progression of the idea (women’s subordination, pill, sexual equality) buttresses the argument.
Reading is another way of learning how to write for impact, and that doesn’t just mean reading in your academic field. Novels are great places for discovering writers’ techniques.
How, for example, in Wolf Hall, does Hilary Mantel elicit immediate sympathy for Thomas Cromwell? He’s being beaten almost to death by his father, but that’s not it. He’s in pain, but that’s not it. It’s when the boy Cromwell hears his dog barking. Mantel gives the dog a name, Bella. She gives Cromwell four words: “I’ll miss my dog.” And with the dog’s name and four ordinary words she’s got us. How? Because the name is emotionally familiar – lots of dogs are still called Bella – and Cromwell’s thought grabs us on so many levels: the unselfish ‘I’ll miss my dog’ and not ‘my dog will miss me’; the sweetness of a child’s belief in heaven as a place where a boy can miss his dog; the lack of grudge against his father. Hilary Mantel is an inspired writer, but it doesn’t undermine her brilliance one jot to dissect exactly how she achieves the impact she’s after.
For academics, it’s helpful to dissect in a similar way a piece of writing in your field. In a passage you admire, underline the words or phrases that strike home. Analyse exactly why they’ve struck home. Is it ethos, logos or pathos? All three? Is it because the author has avoided cliché and jargon and used lively words that spring off the page? Understanding how writing works is half way to making writing work for you.
Of course, different types of writing require different tones, structures and voices. Impact itself is varied and variable depending on context. But all writing should aim for impact of some kind. If there’s no impact, why write at all?
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