13 Ways to Write with Urgency

Chad AllenGuest Blogger: Chad R. Allen (Editorial Director, Baker Books) @chadrallen

We’ve all been there. You start reading a non-fiction book or a blog, and all is right with the world. But then as you get into it, something changes. It’s not holding your attention. In fact, the word “boring” comes to mind.

One way to reduce boredom among your readers is to write with a sense of urgency. After all, if what you’re saying is not important, why write it?

As I read your blog post or non-fiction book, I want to know that you want my attention. I want your writing to be like hands on my shoulders as you look me in the eyes and speak. It’s about taking my time seriously. It’s about believing what you say matters.

Following are 13 ways to produce a sense of urgency in your non-fiction or blog writing:

1. “Omit needless words.” Nuff said? This one comes from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

2. Trim the first part. Often as we begin writing we need a few sentences or a few paragraphs (sometimes whole chapters!) to build up to what we really want to say. Nothing wrong with that, but then go back and trim the first part off. If we can read the rest without being lost, the first part should go.

3. Tell a story. If what you’re saying is important, there’s no better way for me to remember it than if you wrap a story around it.

4. “If you see an adjective, kill it.” –Mark Twain. (Okay, you don’t have to kill ALL of them. But reconsider each one.)

5. Move quickly. Don’t stay with any one idea for too long.

6. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. This gives readers a sense of progress as they read.

7. Get someone else to read it. Then ask, “Did it hold your attention?”

8. Give yourself a limited amount of time to write. This will force you to get to the point quickly, even if you have to go back later and fill in a few gaps.

9. Use word pictures, metaphors, and illustrations. The right one can do a lot of work for you.

10. Break it up with sub-headings. They are to readers what handholds are to climbers. They keep the reader moving forward while anchored in your topic.

11. Get practical. Turn the corner and tell readers how to apply the principles you’ve just given them.

12. Trust that you have enough content. Sometimes writers make the mistake of dwelling on one topic because they are afraid they will have nowhere to go afterwards. This just isn’t true! Say it. Then see what comes. I promise something will.

13. Read great writing. The more you do, the more you’ll learn, consciously and subconsciously, the tricks of the trade.

I’ll bet you have a few other ways to write with urgency. What other ways come to mind?

***

Chad Allen is editorial director for Baker Books (www.bakerbooks.com), whose honor and animating passion is serving the church—from the pulpit to the pew. He, his wife, Alyssa, and two children are all redheads, which looks freakish at first glance but then you warm up to it . . . eventually. They make their home in the Fulton Heights neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Connect with him at www.chadrallen.com and via Twitter @chadrallen.

  1. Frederick Anderson says:

    I wrote about some aspects of this in a past blog post https://frederickanderson.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/eyes-half-closed/ and while I agree with much of the above, there are some issues too. Maybe because I am not too concerned whether I get published or not, I am able to make these comments. The prevailing desire to put impact into a work’s first paragraph, thereby altering the shape of the entire piece seems to me to be a thin excuse for agents who would prefer not to read further than page two. I want to reserve the freedom to paint a scene which will seduce the reader without feeling the necessity to populate it with a blood-soaked corpse and two chimpanzees in a knife fight.

    Short paragraphs, yes. But also, good spacing between paragraphs – why is it only the editor who gets so annoyed with double spacing here? Is she afraid of wasting paper? Short sentences? No, not always. Sentences which flow add to rather than detract from the narrative, although clauses can become too complex at times, and, after all, it is the short staccato sentence which winds up the sense of impending climax. Finish a thought with a short sentence – that is good advice. So, better to say ‘break up the text’; break up the chapters, too, while you are at it.

    I know I have no friends with this one, so I won’t even offer it as advice; but when I started writing I stopped reading ‘great literature’, whatever that is. That is because I want my style, such as is, to be mine, not a shadow of Chesterton’s or Hardy’s or Austen’s. And I do find myself ‘taking tone’ if I read someone else’s work while I am writing my own.

    Good advice, though: edit, edit, edit and when you are finally satisfied with your MS, edit again.

    Lastly (I promise!) go to university reading Arts. Not because you will learn anything, particularly, but because the chances are one of your fellow students will become a publisher, and later on…

  2. dianestephenson says:

    It may be a little different for fiction, but overall good advice. I love #9 and have often been told that my descriptions are really good. I like to paint scenes with words as I used to paint pictures in oils and acrylics. I want my readers to see and feel the places and people I write about. I know the final point is valid as reading good literature has definitely helped me to improve my writing skills.

  3. sherpeace says:

    I am surprised there are no comments! This is a great post! Did Rachelle stop blogging? Darn, I finally got my novel published and Rachelle has disappeared?!
    I would like to re-post this on my wordpress blog, but there isn’t a link for WP. Can someone help me figure out how to do that?
    Sherrie
    A young American woman goes to war-torn El Salvador:tinyurl.com/klxbt4y

    • dianestephenson says:

      I think the best way for you to re-blog would simply be to copy and paste the web address and perhaps make a couple of comments on what the article is about.

  4. pattisj says:

    Thanks for the writing tips.

  5. I kinda feel like the guy who asked Jesus what it would take to inherit eternal life. He’d kept all the commandments, so Jesus told him to sell all he had. I’ve done all that you’ve suggested (except #8, the limited amount of time to write thing. Workin’ on that one, but editing this reply to include that fact added more time to writing it.). Maybe I have to sell all I have and give it to the poor to get my book published?!

    By the way, you should re-think using the Mark Twain thing about killing all adjectives just before you call yourself a “red” head. Nobody wants to kill Red!

  6. Andrew Doty says:

    Love the post! Nice writing, Mr. Allen. I’ve linked your list on my own editing blog. Hope it brings you the site some hits, Rachelle! You can find it at http://editwright.blogspot.com/2012/08/sweepify-sweepify.html

  7. Jack Dowden says:

    I just wrapped up a story where I was having this same problem. I was worried there were slow sections where I wouldn’t capture the reader’s attention. I got rid of them. In the end, they’re not important, and I can’t expect people to read them if even I find them boring. Good post.

    • Chad Allen says:

      Well said, Jack. Stephen King refers to this as “killing our darlings.” Not fun, but necessary! Your writing will be the better for it.

  8. amber says:

    These tips are such practical help for right where I am. I would have never thought of giving myself a time limit but will definitely be trying that. I think it might force me to think through things a little more before I begin writing.

    Thanks for the tips and the example of “urgency” in writing. I’ll be coming back to it!

  9. Chad Allen says:

    Just wanted to chime in here and say it was a blast to be a guest on Rachelle’s blog. This is a great space for conversation and mutual support. Thank you, Rachelle, and thanks to everyone who commented. My grade for the post itself: C+. My grade for the post WITH all the comments: A++++++++.

    Cheers.

  10. Lisa Tener says:

    My tip for writing with urgency is to picture a specific reader and write to them conversationally. If you do this, you will never make the mistake of writing “Many of you…”
    Great list, Chad. Thanks.

    • Chad Allen says:

      You’re right, this is a great tool, and then it’s not a bad idea to seat in a different person your imagination and read the piece again with that person in mind. Sometimes this method leads to adding a useful nuance here and there without sacrificing a sense of urgency.

  11. Omit needless words. Read great writing.
    Actually, nothing else comes to mind, except perhaps a gasp at the thought of killing adjectives. I love adjectives.

  12. Having a limited amount of time to write helps me, period. If I know I have to do something else in an hour, my brain goes into concentration mode and I’m less apt to peruse the Internet or find some other distraction. I think the writing is usually tighter and better as well, although I haven’t done a formal study to make sure.

    I’m still working on omitting needless words (or just not writing them in the first place, because my first drafts, like this comment, tend to be rambly). I do notice a marked decrease in sentence length when I’m writing a tense scene, and think I do alright with those! It’s just making sure the whole novel is like that and I’m not dithering about too much between big events.

  13. As someone with several books under my belt and a new one under contract, but always eager to improve and learn– I LOVE these tips. Will be keeping it handy. THX!

  14. Michele Shaw says:

    These are all great tips, but I especially like #2. It takes me a bit to get rolling and I often find I don’t need the beginning. That’s when I’m still searching for the best way to make my point!

    • Chad Allen says:

      Right on, Michele. This also takes the pressure off of trying to get it perfect right out of the gate. If you know ahead of time that you might cut the first part, you’re free to just start writing.

  15. Lori says:

    I usually don’t like it when blogs use extensive quotes from other writers or authors. When I read a blog, I want to know what you have to say not what someone else is saying.

  16. Chad Allen says:

    Love the emphasis on humor. You’re absolutely right. And on a different but related note, did you know that humor can lead us to more creative epiphanies than we naturally have without humor in our lives. I read about this in Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. Subjects who watch a Robin Williams clip before taking an insight test perform significantly better than those who watch a boring or scary clip. Fascinating, eh? Thanks for the comment.

  17. Thank you, Chad, for this excellent list.

    I love your analogy that subheadings “are to readers what handholds are to climbers.” First, it’s just an effective image. Second, it gave me reassurance. On my blogs, I often use lists, as you did, with a sentence or two about each thing. This makes the page look so long though that I have worried it might scare readers off. I highlight the subtopics so that readers can glance down the list and know quickly what the content is about.

    One thing I would add to your list is humor. I know your title has to do with writing with urgency, but your main point seems to be to write in a way that holds the readers attention. Just as stories help, a little humor rarely hurts. 🙂

  18. Great tips, Chad. Thanks! Reminded me of Elmore Leonard:

    “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

    Brilliant.

  19. Chad! How fun to see you here this morning!

    Thanks for the list of great tips. I especially like #7. When I gave an early draft of my memoir to my best friend, she sheepishly admitted she put it down and “had trouble picking it back up.” (the Bible/instructional stuff really boggged her down). Yikes. It was tough love, hearing that, but in the end, she was right. I ended up taking out all the parts that weren’t actually story/narrative, and it flowed much better.

    Another tip: write short chapters. Leave the reader wanting to read “just one more.”

    • Chad Allen says:

      Good to see you too, Michelle!

      Ouch. That does sound like a hard lesson, but we all need friends like that!

      Yes, in general short chapters are the ticket. I loved reading 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman, for example, because of his short, punchy entries…

  20. If your manuscript was on fire and you could only save ONE aspect of it….

    That’s the most important part. That’s the part to build on, to pivot from. Take that ball and run with it.

  21. Jeanne says:

    Great thoughts here. As an “almost blogger,” this post will be very helpful as I get one up and running after ACFW. One of the tips you mentioned, about giving myself a limited time to write, resonated. This will create my own sense of urgency to write the posts quickly. I’m definitely keeping this post handy. Thanks!

    • And we have (almost) lift-off!! No pressure….WOOOO!!

    • Chad Allen says:

      Thankfully or not, most of us don’t have trouble coming with “limited time to write.” But I like Jeff Goins’ point that if we wait until everything is perfect (the room is perfect, the ambient noise is perfect, the amount of sleep is perfect, etc.) we’ll never make progress. We must write when we can because the setting will almost never be perfect. I’m a new blogger too! Remember: measure hustle up front, not page views.

  22. Dana McNeely says:

    “Trim the first part” – great advice! As a blog reader, I’ve noticed myself skipping the first part of many “how to” or self-improvement articles because they take too long getting to the central question that caught my interest. And “Get Practical” – yes! Often I’ve seen a great idea, engagingly presented, but I’m left thinking- “But how do I go about doing that?”

    • Chad Allen says:

      Yes, and if we temper “trim the first part” with “demonstrate need up front” per PJ’s insight above, i think what we end up with “BRIEFLY demonstrate need.”

  23. carol brill says:

    I recently hired a professional editor for my MS and one piece of feedback was that it was too trim, with hardly an adjective or adverb to be found. She actually added them in – guess I took #1 and #4 too literarlly!

  24. Jerry says:

    I can’t believe I had to look up adjective…sheesh. I write a lot of poetry and one concept that keeps repeating itself is the power of nouns. Someone told me to stomp on the nouns when referring to writing. Thanks for number 4. I needed another reminder.

  25. I’ve been writing non-fiction for twenty five years in the form of sermons. These principles could be posted on the Preaching 101 classroom wall. I taught that class and I’d put them up right next to the reminder that good preaching is orderly, direct and urgent.

    One element of urgency I’d add is demonstrate a need, then meet it. Perhaps this is covered under your practical application, but it bears reemphasizing. If the reader does not see some need that can be met by reading further, they’ll not immerse themselves in a quest.

    According to recent studies, writers have a thirty percent higher rate of heart attack and a forty-two percent chance of stroke. There are several ways to combat this. One being to not believe what I just wrote. Anyway, good post and thank you.

  26. Two ways I generate urgency is through the use of numbers and statistics, up front, and the use of questions:

    “99% of redheads are awesome, but redheads make up only 27% of the population

    “That leaves 73.3% of the population suffering from AD – Awesomeness Deficiency.

    “Can they be saved?”

  27. Love this. Noted, printed, appreciated.

    I trim the fat as much as possible, and always read with new eyes after putting a piece to bed for the night.

    It’s difficult for me to not edit as I go, but I try to lay it all out at first draft.

    By the time I feel comfortable posting/publishing, I’ve wiped away the froth, leaving just the dark-roasted goodness in the mug. Added bonus when the reader wants a refill.

    • Chad Allen says:

      Christine, yes! I easily could have added “Sleep on it” to the list. It really is amazing how a little rest and a little time CHANGES our perception of our own writing. There’s Night Christine and Morning Christine, Night Chad and Morning Chad, and we need to make sure our Morning selves approve of what our Night selves wrote.

  28. SolariC says:

    I find that points one and eleven are the most helpful for me. I tend to be wordy, so I have to edit carefully, or else I needlessly complicate my sentences. Also, I find that you have to do this for fiction, anyway, so you might as well practice in your blog!

    As for turning practical, the best way to conclude a blog post really seems to be a bit of advice or some food for thought. Once you start writing your practical points, it can be a good signal to tell you to stop.

    Anyway, thank you for the great post! I agreed with all points, and appreciated the caveat for Mark Twain’s ferocity towards adjectives.

    • Chad Allen says:

      She won’t tell you, so I will. That caveat comes courtesy of our Rachelle Gardner. My original version was happy to let Twain be ferocious, but I like Rachelle’s tweak there. Even editors need an editor!

      To your point about wordiness, sometimes you just have to be wordy in the first draft. It’s the only way to get the words down sometimes, but then (speaking of editing) I encourage writers to go back and whittle it down.

  29. Agade? Welcome to 12:30am Atlantic time….

  30. First, I am compelled to say, red heads ARE cooler than everybody else. And umm, redder, unless you use SPF 70, like moi.

    The agade, “write what you know” was discussed earlier this week. I would add “write with passion”. I write a column for a newspaper and am given my topics. Some are beyond DULL and some get the blood pressure up into DefCon 11. Or is it the amp that goes to 11?Anyway.
    For that newspaper job, I care about what I write, but with fiction, I can write what I care about.

    • Jeanne says:

      I like the differentiation–caring about what you write and writing what you care about. 🙂

      • Thanks Jeanne! I once had to write about culling geese. Really? Zzzzzz. It took everything I had to conjure up 450 words. I did get some pretty fowl feedback on that one though.

        My two faves were on Mandela and De Klerk and HRH Queen Elizabth The Second. My editor accused me of stealing the Mandela article from someone else. I was SO proud!!

    • Chad Allen says:

      Gingers unite! Thanks, Jennifer. I love that distinction between caring what you write about vs. writing what you care about. But yes, for heaven’s sake if you can’t muster some passion for the topic, why bother? Thanks again!

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