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The Power of Substance Over Style

By March 3, 2020Writing

Once upon a time, I was asked the following question:

I write as well as an average person. Can I drive a lot of traffic to my blog without being that good of a writer?

My answer? I said I suppose that depends on what they meant by “average person.”

And I’ll say the same to you.

If you truly are as good as writing as the average person, then your blogs will be a jumble of half-words, nonsense slang, and incomprehensible nonsense. If that’s the case, then your situation is truly hopeless and I probably can’t help you…

However, if you say you write as well as the average amateur writer or have a half-competent grasp of grammar and fairly respectable vocabulary, then I would say “yes!” Definitely, you can drive lots of traffic to your blog.

Here’s the thing, once you reach a point of sufficient clarity in your writing, it doesn’t matter how good you are (unless you’re competing with actual writers a la the New Yorker or something along those lines, and not some other market, i.e., marketing, business, entrepreneurship, etc.) as much as how good your ideas are.

In other words, if you are a competent writer, what you write about is more important than how you write it.

Intelligent people will recognize good content, good ideas, and good thinking when they see it, whether that’s on a personal blog, a LinkedIn post, or a Medium article. They won’t waste time nitpicking grammar or spelling mistakes because they understand that unless you’re trying to be a professional writer, it doesn’t matter.

If your blog is about engineering, engineers won’t care if you miss a comma.

If your blog is about business, CEOs won’t mind if you misspell the “Adirondack Mountains.” (Trust me)

And so on.

Do you have beautiful prose, flowing paragraphs, a high-brow vocabulary, and a meticulous eye for syntax and grammar? Great. If you have bad ideas it all means nothing.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
—Elmore Leonard

How many short stories, poems, or online articles have we read where, after receiving negative criticism, the author complained that their writing was “too nuanced,” “too complex,” for the masses to appreciate, or that the readers didn’t “understand the genius of the writing?”

I’ve seen and read a few. You can stroke your own ego all day long, you can tell people your skills are beyond the comprehension of the plebs who read your work, but if you treat people like that, don’t be surprised when they treat your writing like the empty calories it is.

Anybody can open a thesaurus and pick the biggest words to make themselves sound smart, you’re not fooling anyone.

On the other hand, in advertising and marketing, I have worked with many people who just were not good writers. Plain and simple. They used phrases and clichés that simply made me cringe whenever I read them. I did not like their writing, and would often laugh at them in private.

But you know what? They’re successful. Incredibly successful. It often blew my mind at first, that these people I called “hacks” are wining and dining with the social elite, the wealthy influencers, restaurateurs, and actors.

They are able to do it because they actually have great ideas, great lessons to give, and interesting methods of doing X or Y. They spend more time working on themselves, their content, and what they actually offer, instead of sweating over the perfect blog post.

People know what they’re looking for, and they can find it regardless of how you write it (as long as the message is clear, obviously). In fact, most of them appreciate the genuine feel of someone who is passionate about their work and doesn’t come off as fake with over-engineered, perfect writing.

How does this apply to fiction?

I anticipate this would be the very next question many of my readers would ask. This is all well and good for blogs, articles, and other non-fiction writing, but what about when telling a story? Could the same be said for writing a book?

In a way, yes, but we need to clarify what we mean by “substance” and “style.”

“Style means the right word. The rest matters little.”
—Jules Renard

To boil it down to the most basic parts, I think it’s safe (for the sake of argument) to say that the “story” of your book is the substance, and the “voice” of your book is the “style.”

The story would include things like world, characters, plot, events, arcs, and more.

The voice includes things like pacing, exposition, word choice, and all the things we can’t quantify, yet define the style of a writer’s art.

“Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.”
Pawan Mishra

I could (but I won’t) list books that have the most cliché stories, boring characters, and predictable character arcs, yet they were told in such an artful and clever way that it ended up being successful, or an enjoyable read.

Likewise, I have read other books with fantastically original ideas, lush worlds I could lose myself in, and marvelously complex characters, but they were told in a boring, inauthentic, or lazy way that I lost interest despite my best efforts. Many a storyteller, like comedians, has shot themselves in the foot because of bad delivery.

Apparently, both are important, so does the idea of “substance over style” still apply to fiction?

Before I answer, I feel the need to say that while I am a professional writer, and I try to focus my content toward other industry experts, I know that a lot of amateur writers read these posts as well. I say this because veterans will already have found their “voice” or “writing style” while new writers are still trying to figure that out for themselves.

That being said, yes, substance is still more important than style.

Or, rather, story is still more important than voice.

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
—William S. Burroughs

I think this is where a lot of writers get discouraged, disappointed, and frustrated. It happened to me, as well. You might have written something back in grade school, whether an assignment or just for fun, and someone told you, “Wow, you’re such a good writer!” And you believed, them, foolish as you were! So you take up the crazy idea of wanting to write a book or a poem.

Now, be honest, was your first creation any good? Or are you like Neil Gaiman, with an attic full of books and notebooks full of thousands of ideas and first chapters that will never see the light of day?

You might have had a good handle on writing as a science. You probably could write an A+ essay, free of errors and easy to read. You might have, possibly, even found your writer’s voice. But you didn’t yet have substance.

We realize very quickly after this initial disappointment that the truly hard work of writing is everything that takes place off the page: the research, the reading, the learning, the character creation, the worldbuilding. The pages and pages of notes and scribbles and doodles that nobody will ever see.

But they will feel it. They will touch your characters and your world and feel that there is depth to them.

Too many of us sit in front of a computer, or a typewriter, or a pad of paper and worry too much about how we’re going to write that particular idea that is bouncing around in our heads. Do you start with dialogue or exposition? Should I make this scene fast-paced or slow and emotional?

Oh, how many good ideas and beautiful daydreams have been forgotten because we spent too long thinking about how to write them instead of just putting pen to paper and letting it flow out naturally!

There’s an editing process for a reason.

As Neil Gaiman says, “Editing is making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”

Now, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. There will be bestseller books with bad substance, there will be blockbuster movies with terrible style. But, in the end, we are storytellers. When you put the hard work into creating the meat and potatoes of your story, you can focus on the garnish and the seasoning and the sauces.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers who have a fantastic style or enthralling voice. You will never have that voice, you need to find your own, and if you don’t sit down to create something of substance, then you never will.

“I do not over-intellectualise the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
—Tom Clancy, WD


Don’t spend time so much on how you’re writing, focus more on what you’re writing about and the people, and your voice and style, will come. That’s how the world works.

Aaron J. Webber

Author Aaron J. Webber

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