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“Read Like a Writer,” They Say. But How? Here’s a Practical Example.

Analysing and learning from an 8-sentence paragraph by one of my favourite writers.

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I’ve never seen an article where the reader analyses a paragraph with the eyes of a writer. So I decided to write one. I dissected and looked closely at a short paragraph by one of my favourite authors.

Here it is. It comes from “Linchpin,” a book by Seth Godin. Read it and then I’ll take you through 7 writing lessons I learned from it.

“I’m sitting next to Zeke on the plane. Well, I’m sitting but Zeke isn’t. Zeke is two. He spends the entire flight standing, walking around, poking, smiling, asking, touching, responding, reacting, testing, and exploring. Is it possible that you were like Zeke? What happened? Somewhere along the way, we baked it out of you. And that’s a shame, because what Zeke has (and what so many have lost) is exactly what we need.”

It’s 8 sentences, but long enough to teach me so much about writing and what it means to be a great writer.

Lesson #1: Introducing Stories and Characters

I’m sitting next to Zeke on the plane.

These 9 words make a perfect introductory sentence for a story. They present location, action and, most importantly, they make me wonder. In 9 words we’re thrown onto that plane next to the author. One sentence and we’re already into the story.

It’s in present tense, a clever storytelling device that makes everything feel  real. This reduces the distance in terms of time and space and makes us feel as if we were “there”.

Then comes Zeke. 

“Who is Zeke?” I wondered. This name wasn’t mentioned anywhere else in the book so I wanted to know. I was compelled to read the next sentence to find out. And this is the result I want my writing to achieve, too: ideally, every sentence I write nudges you towards the next. 

Well, I’m sitting but Zeke isn’t.

More wonder. “Is Zeke a dog?” I thought for a nanosecond. Again, I wanted to read on. 

Zeke is two.

Aaah, finally! Zeke is a kid! 

What a clever way to introduce a character.

Lesson #2: Leveraging Both Content and Form

He spends the entire flight standing, walking around, poking, smiling, asking, touching, responding, reacting, testing, and exploring.

Why did the author use a long list of ten verbs and not just three? 

I think a long list is intentional here as this sentence shows in great detail what being curious looks like in practice. This is central to building the author’s argument. Also, almost every word on the list ends in “ing,” which creates a continuous hammering sound that three verbs only wouldn’t be able to achieve.

Great writing skillfully combines both content and form to deliver a message.

Lesson #3: Silent Dialogue

Is it possible that you were like Zeke? What happened?

Two questions that add variety to the structure of the sentences in the paragraph and, above all, invite the reader to reflect.

They indicate that the author is not talking to himself. He’s talking to his audience. He’s writing for them. These questions are here to say, “My writing is for you.” They draw the reader in and invite them to think with him.

Great writing is a seamless, silent dialogue between two minds: that of the person who writes and that of the person who reads.

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Lesson #4: Moral at the End

Somewhere along the way, we baked it out of you. And that’s a shame, because what Zeke has (and what so many have lost) is exactly what we need.

This is the core message of the passage, the main reason why the author told us about the plane and the kid. But if this is important, why does it come at the end of the paragraph and not at the beginning? 

Let’s edit a bit, switch things around, and see what happens if we present the most important information first:

Somewhere along the way, you lost your curiosity. Once I was sitting next to Zeke on the plane. Well, I was sitting but Zeke wasn’t. Zeke was two. He spent the entire flight standing, walking around, poking, smiling, asking, touching, responding, reacting, testing, and exploring. Is it possible that you were like Zeke? What happened? What Zeke has (and what so many have lost) is exactly what we need.

Can you feel how this is different? 

The thesis statement at the start strips away the surprise from the story and lessens the impact of the message. It doesn’t work. This reminds me of what best-selling novelist and award-winning storytelling champion Matthew Dicks says in “Storyworthy”:

“People feel the need to open their stories with thesis statements […] because this is how they were taught to write in school: thesis statement, followed by supporting evidence and details. But storytelling is the reverse of the five-paragraph essays. Instead of opening with a thesis statement and then supporting it with evidence, storytellers provide evidence first and then sometimes offer the thesis statement later on only when necessary. This how we allow for surprise.” — Matthew Dicks, Storyworthy, P.229

Now I understand why the moral of a story usually comes at the end.

Lesson #5: Trusting the Mind of the Reader

Somewhere along the way, we baked it out of you.

What does “it” refer to exactly? That’s not explicit. But it doesn’t have to be. The reader is given the freedom to decide what “it” is. To me, it’s curiosity, but to you, it may be something else.

Great writing lets the reader imagine, infer, hypothesise, and draw his or her own conclusions.

Lesson #6: Musicality

If we replace every word in each sentence with an asterisk, this is what the 8 sentences in the paragraph look like:

**************
*********
****
**********************
************
****
************
**********************

There’s a variety of long, short, and medium-length sentences. This makes the text flow. It makes it musical and enjoyable to read. It creates a melody in the reader’s mind.

Great writers are skilled artists who make music by alternating sentence length. Gary Provost said this best.

Lesson #7: No Need for Extraordinary Ideas

“As we become adults, we lose our curiosity, our willingness to dare, and take risks. What a shame.” This is essentially what the paragraph says. But how many times have you heard that? Probably millions. Nothing new, nothing special. 

What’s special about it is the way the idea is delivered. The personal anecdote plays a crucial role here as it makes the idea become new and original.

It’s very hard to come up with some completely new ideas that no one has ever had before. But the good news is that you, as a writer, don’t need to. Great writers deliver old ideas by telling their readers how they experience the world and what they notice in it. That’s what the author did here. 

And he did it very well. 

Conclusion

If you like writing, you also like reading. So from time to time, stop reading to analyse your favourite writers. Why did they use that word? Why this and not that? Why is this sentence not working? Be curious. Be like Zeke. There are so many writing lessons to learn from all the reading you do.


Thanks for stopping by. I hope this was useful.

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