CHICKEN POT PIE: The Discipline of Writing Persuasively
Writing competently is a valuable skill
Looking back, I realize that I had very good English teachers who taught me how to write clear sentences, form coherent paragraphs and link it all together into a unified theme. I took that gift for granted for a very long time.
I shouldn’t have, because the skill of competent writing has made the rest of my life easier. College for obvious reasons, but also in the workplace. Unless you have been one, you would not expect writing to be important for an Infantry officer—and yet it was. We wrote a lot, from operations orders to evaluations of subordinates. The fact that I was a competent writer covered up for a lot of my shortcomings as a soldier and a leader.
Writing persuasively requires both science and art
Although I could write competently, competent was all I was. I could write quickly, clearly and informatively, but I was not capable of writing persuasively. But I didn’t know that until the first time I was compelled to try, which was in my legal writing class in law school. It was then that I learned the truth: my writing was flat and forgettable. Although I knew and could apply the science of writing, I knew nothing of its artistry—and writing persuasively requires both.
Writing with art (but without science) distracts the reader from the essence of the piece. If this guy can’t be bothered to properly conjugate his verbs (the reader thinks) why should I take the time understand what he is saying? Very few people will wade through the junk in a writer’s mental attic in search of something useful, no matter how brilliant that something might be.
Likewise, writing with science (but without art) fails to disrupt the mind of the reader. It leaves him where the writer found him rather than taking him to a new place, a place defined by the substance of his ideas. It’s like reading a precise set of instructions on how to make a chicken pot pie from scratch. Sure, that sounds right (the reader thinks), but why should I go through the trouble of making one rather than just buying it frozen from the store?
If you lack one, you need to get the other
Whether you have the science and lack the art (like I did) or the other way around, you are going to need get the other if you want to persuade. And there is only one way to do that—you have to first, write (a lot) and second, expose what you write to criticism. Both of those things require discipline.
Writing a lot means writing every day. If you have a day job, you have to carve some time out from whatever else it is you do when you are not working and dedicate it to writing, rather than using it to do something that is easy. It’s a rare person who can voluntarily do something difficult every day, but you have to be that rare person if you want to learn how to write persuasively. That takes discipline.
Then comes the criticism. For me, that was harder than acquiring a daily writing habit. When I began writing I generally hated what I wrote and was loathe to share it with anyone else. Ultimately, after about a year, I finally did—which produced three reactions.
A few people liked what I wrote and told me so. A few others didn’t like it and were not shy about their reasons. But the third group, the vast majority, didn’t say anything at all.
Most people criticize your writing with their silence
Initially, I concentrated on the vocal dis-liker group, because their reaction seemed the most obvious thing for me to address. But gradually I began to understand that it was the silent majority that was delivering the more poignant criticism. For them, my writing was like a recipe for a meal they weren’t interested in preparing—it was chicken pot pie. That realization led me to look deeply into the artistry (or lack of it) in my writing to find a way to break into the consciousness of the silent majority and persuade them to care enough to try making the dish for themselves.
It was only then, and only through discipline, that I started to write persuasively.