Eloquence. What a beautiful word. Here’s how to achieve it as a writer.
The problem most novice writers have is as follows. You’re a hive of ideas and energy, you want to write about what you love. Who doesn’t? But you’re failing at something because the readers aren’t arriving. Your hard work, your great idea, and, most importantly, your passion isn’t being received. Nobody reads, nobody comments, nobody seems to care.
What’s happening? Well, the question should be “What’s not happening?” The answer is usually “eloquence.”
Steve Martin joked, “Some people have a way with words, other people not have way.”
What makes you eloquent? Fluidity, persuasiveness, no verbiage, no um-ing, and ah-ing.
Eloquent people also tend to speak in a clipped and slow manner. They paint with words. We mere mortals insecurely over-talk to try to get our point across. The eloquent have confidence in brevity, and their brevity is confidence. The essence of eloquence is conveying a lot with few words.
One of the most important lessons I learned as a writer is to keep sentences simple. I came up with a motto for writing — “simplicity is poetry”. What I mean by this is that the more simple writing is, the more beautiful it is. So it’s in my interest to keep it simple.
I used to think long words and complicated sentences would impress people. But they don’t. I now parse through my sentences looking for difficult words that could be substituted for simpler ones.
This is not to say sentences should always be short. It’s important for pacing that sentences should vary in length and rhythm to keep the reader engaged in the same way they would be if they were listening to you. See, that was a thirty-word sentence. It didn’t read like one because it came at the right time.
I learned simplicity from reading Brianna Wiest. One of Medium’s top self-improvement and poetry authors. Anybody who knows my writing may be surprised by that. My writing is mostly about philosophy, yet I’ve never really found a philosopher that I’d like to call my inspiration for style. Wiest inspired me to think differently about how ideas are conveyed.
It takes a lot of skill to write as you speak. It takes even more skill to write like you’re speaking directly to the reader.
Wiest has this uncanny way of writing like she’s speaking directly to you. It’s mesmerizing. Her opening lines are masterly. They have the qualities of great novel first lines. They summarise the story to come in painted, emotive tones.
“At the heart of discomfort is the potential for great wisdom.”
The near-symmetry of this sentence is satisfying — 8 syllables on either side of the space between “is” and “the”. It’s as crisp as a proverb.
Here are the first two lines of another article:
“Ideas are like visitors.
At least, that’s the way Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.”
That line break — a mere tap of the return key — does so much work. It lets us pause to ponder that heady four-word sentence, then leads us back to explain it. Compare this is to an alternate opening with the same point: “Ideas are like visitors, according to Elizabeth Gilbert.” It doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
You Don’t Need More Vision, You Need More Consistency
The world is brimming with ideas, but few act as vessels.
Wiest is right. Ideas are like visitors.
Ideas come and go. If we’re ready for an idea we can seize it and put the work into honing it. If you struggle as a writer (I do), you probably don’t need more ideas, you just need more eloquence.
That’s where the craft comes in — the hard work of making the idea tangible to others. Eloquence is worn in by habit and repetition. It’s the result of putting the work into the way you convey ideas. It’s forged from the discipline of craft. That graceful ice skater you see gliding carelessly along the ice has bruised knees under their leggings.
Wiest writes: “Creating is not simply laying out the concept, but adapting through implementation as many times as needed until it finally works.”
Sentences should build your story like bricks. What novices tend to do is heap points up on top of one another, and the result is an unstructured mess. This is why shorter sentences are so essential to the beginning writer — they force you to construct your story instead of dumping ideas into a pile. Simple is hard, but it gets easier with practice.
Try forcing yourself to write more short sentences in a story than you’re comfortable with. Scan through the article to find commas that you can turn into periods. Doing so cuts sentences in two, it’ll make you more eloquent as a writer, but also allow you to move sentences more easily in the editing process. If the pace isn’t right, you can add longer sentences to help the flow. You can do this with well-placed adjectives.
Novelists like Don Delilo and Cormac McCarthy often talk about how writing looks on the page — its visual appeal. They avoid ugly punctuation and will break the rules to do so. If you keep your writing simple and clean, you make it not only visually appealing to your reader but also give it clarity that’s easy to edit. That’s how you become more eloquent. That’s how you hold the reader’s attention.