We can learn a lot from other writers. The techniques they use, the stories they tell—they’re all things we can bring into our own writing toolkit. In my new Write like a Writer series I’ll be looking at the styles and practices of successful authors to see what we can learn from the people who do it well.
First up, it’s bestselling author Cal Newport.
As a computer science professor at Georgetown University, you might not expect Cal Newport to be a good writer. But it turns out he’s a real all-rounder: as well as working on academic research he’s also written six bestselling books on technology, productivity and the way we work. His latest book, Digital Minimalism, was a New York Times bestseller.
So how did a computer scientist learn to write like a writer?
By telling stories
Like many successful non-fiction writers, Cal Newport knows that to get complex ideas across to a new audience you need a narrative. He uses stories—from history, everyday life and even academia—to communicate information in a way that resonates. This makes his books relatable and allows him to connect with the emotions of his readers. The more emotion he invokes, the more invested they feel.
Need an example? In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport uses a variety of stories to bring his writing alive. From personal anecdotes to the life of Steve Jobs, he weaves relevant examples into his narrative to express and expand his ideas.
By offering different perspectives
As you read Newport’s books, you’ll notice that he explains the same idea in different ways. These might be theoretical, or they might be practical. Mixing ideology and concrete examples makes for lively reading and creates content that feels rich and insightful.
Offering more than one perspective on an idea also makes it more likely to appeal to different kinds of reader. Different people have different learning styles, so the more ways you can explain yourself the better.
By structuring logically
In Deep Work, Newport allows the structure of the book to speak for itself. By dividing the content into two sections—the Idea (the why) and the Rules (the how)—he takes the reader on a journey from understanding to implementation, from theory to practical. I’m guessing this made the book easier to write, and I know it allows the reader to see what’s coming next.
The more we read, the more we know—not just in terms of ideas but about writing techniques too. If you’ve recently read an author whose writing style inspired you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. And if you’d like some help with your own writing, ask me about author coaching.