What Makes Writing Sticky?

I’m glad I’m taking feature writing this semester at the same time as I’m completing my concentration in entrepreneurial journalism. Because they draw on such completely different skills that one is always a refreshing break from the other. Rarely do they intersect.

Writing feature stories feels like a right-brained enterprise, intuitive, holistic and creative, while entrepreneurial work, once you’re past the ideation stage, anyway, feels more left-brained: logical, analytical, sequential.

So, imagine my delight this past Monday when Jeremy Caplan introduced our entrepreneurial class to Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, an engaging fun-to-read book that ditches the usual biz-babble to examine the characteristics that make ideas “sticky.”

On the surface, the list seems simple. It forms the acronym SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. But the concept is given depth and richness both by the examples the Heaths deploy and by the conversational, storytelling style they use.

As an example, the simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness and narrative quality of any of the best urban folktales – the microwaved poodle, the choking Doberman, the kidney harvest – all explain why these tales, each patently untrue, are so persistent in our culture.

But as I read and listened, my right brain and left brain converged and presented me with an apercu – not to be confused with a stroke. I realized that these attributes could also function as a set of rules for the kind of great writing we’d been studying in feature writing and trying to imitate.:

Simplicity: Whether it’s the plot of Maupassant’s short stories or the leanness of Hemingway’s prose, simple is sticky when it comes to writing.

Unexpectedness: Has anyone who has ever read “The Little Match Girl” or “Gift of the Magi” ever forgotten the final plot twists? They are stickiness defined.

Concreteness: The first lesson every reporter/writer learns or should learn. Details are the soul of good writing. From the Hemingway’s opening scene-setter in A Farewell to Arms to the environmental description that strikes the tone for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, it’s detail that sticks.

Credibility: Whether your narrator is reliable or not, if your story isn’t believable at the gut level, it will not stick.

Emotions: What is it we remember most about a piece of writing? Usually it’s the either the emotions expressed or those we are made to feel. Returning to A Farewell to Arms, who can ever forget the terse yet miserably lonely, rain-soaked concluding paragraph?

Stories: “Stories within stories” is what Charles Leerhsen, our features instructor, is always telling us makes for a good, long-form story. But even on a more basic level, the first question anyone asks about a novel or a movie is, “What’s it about?” There’s a good reason for this: Stories stick.

So, please excuse me. I have to go try to pry the left and right sides of my brain apart.