How to Write Well: The World's Simplest Formula - Part I - Common Sense Living Newsletter
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How to Write Well: The World's Simplest Formula - Part I

Apr 28, 2015


Dear Reader,

PD left me a comment last week: "Your articles and style of communication is fantastic. Can u tell us how you manage to write simple, articulate but excellent articles?"

It's not the first time I've received a request for ideas on how to write well, I've written on the subject before, but today I've decided to bring you the formula that I actually use in my writing - a formula created by my own mentor Mark Ford. Anyone can write well ... absolutely anyone. All you need is to understand and implement this two-part formula... so read on...

Anisa Virji,
Managing Editor, Common Sense Living


My income is based almost entirely on writing. And it has given me a very rich life  - rich in every sense of the word. It can do the same for you.

I spend half of my working time coaching copywriters on how to write better marketing copy. I spend the other half writing memos.

The purpose of most of my memos is to persuade my clients to make business and marketing decisions that will make them more profitable. If I fail to persuade them, my ideas don't get tested. If they don't get tested, I can't help them make money. If I can't help them make money, they will stop paying me. To date, I have never lost a client. (Knock on wood.) I attribute my track record to the effectiveness of my memos.

Over the 30-odd years I've been doing this, I've developed many complicated theories about what good writing is. But now I've jettisoned them all in favor of a very brief, straightforward definition.

Use common words to say uncommon things - Arthur Schopenhauer
Source: Gajus / Shutterstock
My definition of good writing applies to every sort of non-fiction writing that I can think of. It applies to writing books, magazine articles, and direct-mail sales letters. It applies to business correspondence, telemarketing scripts, and speeches.

Here it is:

Good writing is the skill of expressing compelling thoughts clearly.

That's it.

When I say this to copywriters, I get incredulous looks. "How could it be that simple?" I can hear them thinking.

And then I explain. And re-explain. And eventually some of them get it. And when they do, their writing gets much, much better. Their incomes get better too.

Let's go over that definition in detail. It has two parts:

(1) Compelling Thoughts and (2) Clear Expression

By compelling thoughts, I mean ideas that make the reader think, "Boy, that's interesting!" Or, "I never thought of that before!" Or, "I've got to remember this!"

Good writing, then, has nothing to do with correctness. It doesn't matter if the idea you are expressing is well reasoned or even factual. What does matter is that your writing engages your readers intellectually and emotionally and then motivates them to do or think what you want them to do or think.

Notice I said intellectually as well as emotionally. I have Don Hauptman, a living legend in the advertising business, to thank for that additional word.

After a speech I made to a group of 300 marketers and copywriters, in which I emphasized the point that advertising had to be engaging on an emotional level because people buy for emotional reasons, he strongly objected.

"This lie," he said, "just invites the critics of advertising and capitalism to charge that consumers are being 'manipulated' by evil businesspeople who exploit their emotions and irrationality. So we're cutting our own throats if we perpetuate the 'it's all emotion' fallacy. I know you don't want to encourage that, any more than I do."

He is absolutely correct. Not including the intellect in this discussion is incorrect and potentially harmful. It invites critics of advertising to accuse persuasive writers of pandering. And it encourages writers to believe that if they pander, they are writing well.

The most successful marketers and copywriters know that good writing requires  us to engage our readers on both levels simultaneously. Ezra Pound had the same theory about writing poetic images. He called them "emotional and intellectual complexes in an instant of time."

The Aha! Effect

And that is what I mean by a compelling thought: an emotionally and intellectually engaging idea expressed clearly and succinctly so the reader "gets" it in a moment. That is what produces the Aha! effect.

Malcolm Gladwell is an expert at this - which is why he has become a multimillionaire by writing books about obscure and academic subjects. His detractors naively knock him, arguing that some of his ideas are incorrect. But as I've already said, correctness is not what makes for good writing. It is the effect it has on the mind and the heart  of the reader.

If you want to be a wealthy marketer, copywriter, or businessperson, you must be able to come up with compelling ideas. You must be able to recognize ideas that are intellectually and emotionally engaging, ideas that will arrest and charge up your readers and make them think, "That's good! I never thought of that before!"

How do you find intellectually and emotionally compelling ideas?

In all the years I've been struggling to answer this question, I've found only one answer: You must read.

Successful writers are all voracious readers. Their ideas don't spring fully formed from the thigh of Zeus, they come from hours of reading - reading vertically and horizontally about the subject at hand. They read and read until they come across something that gives them an Aha! experience.

I'd like to tell you there is an easier way. Some copywriting gurus will tell you that you can swipe good ideas from successful advertisements, past and present. This is horseshit, plain and simple. Stolen ideas are like luxury cars. They lose 40 percent of their value the moment you take them out of the showroom

The reason my number one client is the dominant publisher in the information publishing industry is precisely because their 100+ writers have had my definition of good writing drummed into their heads. They know that they can't expect to write blockbuster promotions consistently without compelling ideas. And they know how to find those ideas.

Ask them how they come up with their great ideas and they will tell you: "I read and read until I find one."

Where to Place the Compelling Idea

The compelling idea must be in the lead. It cannot be lingering on page three or 33. It must be up front so the reader can have his Aha! moment before he tosses the copy away.

It is the same for writing essays or memos. Present your most compelling idea very early in the piece and your readers (prospects, clients, whatever) will be excited. If they are excited, they will read on with enthusiasm. If not, you will lose them.

If you have the good fortune to discover several compelling ideas, put the best one first and let the others follow as soon as possible.

Don't make the mistake of "leaving the best for last." You don't have the liberty to do that. Hit 'em quick and hit 'em hard with your best stuff and spend the rest of the ad/essay/memo proving your points.

You must prove your points, because people tend to be skeptical of new ideas  - no matter how compelling they may be. Your reader's subconscious tells him: "You have just been seduced by an intellectually and emotionally compelling idea. Before you act on it, make sure it makes sense."

So the good writer knows he must support his compelling ideas rationally by providing compelling proof that they are "true."

Truth, of course, comes in many shapes and sizes. And so does proof.

The Three Faces of Proof

There is factual proof. There is anecdotal proof. And there is social proof.

  • Factual proof is easy to come by if your idea has been well researched. Anyone with an Internet connection can find all the factual proof he needs on almost any topic.

  • Anecdotal proof includes stories - factual and non-factual - that support an idea by "showing it" instead of "telling it." Anecdotal proof is very powerful, because it appeals so immediately to the emotions. People are not skeptical when they are reading a story. Their purpose is to be entertained. This gives the writer a strong advantage.

  • Social proof refers to the influence that other people have on our opinions and behavior. A good way for a writer to support ideas with social proof is to use testimonials and expert endorsements.

So that's how you incorporate "good thinking" into your writing. In the next part of this essay coming up soon I will talk about the second part of my definition of good writing...


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9 Responses to "How to Write Well: The World's Simplest Formula - Part I"


02 Oct, 2015

Very good article...enlightening with good ideas !


01 Jul, 2015


Like (1)

A Ramkumar

03 May, 2015

Thanks a lot Mark. This is brilliant stuff.

Ajit Bangera

29 Apr, 2015

Very crisp and simple with good insights on communication


29 Apr, 2015

Hi.... Being a Marketing Management Professor I always tell my participants to THINK LIKE THE RECIPIENT while communicating anything...this works..

Like (1)

Namita Sinha

28 Apr, 2015

Very nice, informative and to the point...., with wonderful insights on effective writing skills....eagerly looking forward to the next part of this essay.


28 Apr, 2015

very good tips

Inderjit Singh

28 Apr, 2015

Thanks a lot for the suggestion on good writing, looking forward for the nest article on the subject.

Bharat Thakrar

28 Apr, 2015

Very useful tips on arts of good writing


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