You can evaluate every piece of writing with three variables: personal, observational, and playful.
The pillars of my POP Writing methodology contrast traditional business writing education. In the office, people think they should use a heap of buzzwords and machine-gun fire of statistics, and dress it all up in an academic tone to make them “sound smart.” But these tricks are hollow. They won’t lead to readers who want to engage with your ideas or share them with friends.
Find the balance of personal, observational, and playful writing instead. The proper weighting depends on what you’re trying to accomplish in your article. It’s like kitchen utensils where even though every home should have a spoon, you shouldn’t use it to cut a steak. In writing, what you need to graduate from Harvard Business School will be different from what you need to tell a funny story about your first startup.
Personal writing builds upon stories and emotions. It orbits around experiences you’ve seen with your own eyes or ones your readers have seen with theirs. Through shared feelings, it establishes an emotional connection between you and your readers. But too much personal writing can be intellectual junk food. It’s entertainment without wisdom just like tabloids and beach read fiction. Or, it can be like an unedited personal diary where the reader has to ask “Why should I care?”
Observational writing happens when you notice patterns other people miss. It leads to the “Aha” moments that only come when you read something you’ve always known, but have never been able to explain. In practice, sharp observations are born out of the Three B’s of Creativity and looking for things that don’t make sense. Adam Smith mastered the art of observational writing when he wrote about the “Invisible Hand” in 1776, which is made memorable by anecdotes and playful metaphors. But observational writing is dry without personalization or playfulness. Like Darwin’s field notes, even though it’s profound, it can be a slog to read.
Playful writing adds a shot of fun and enjoyment. It can come from analogies, thought experiments, or pop culture. Depending on the article, if you really want to be playful, you can use silly words like “slurp” or dad jokes like “Immanuel doesn’t pun—he Kant.” But too much playfulness will turn you into a clown. Richard Feynmann mastered the delicate balance in his physics lectures, where he lit up his students’ imaginations with concrete metaphors and examples that engaged all five senses. The playfulness of stick-figure drawings and goofy jokes is also why Tim Urban can make readers laugh while explaining artificial intelligence or the Fermi Paradox.
Unlike most writing frameworks, you don’t need to run to the keyboard to implement it. Instead, I suggest that you read your favorite writers through the POP Writing lens. Identify the balance of personalization, playfulness, and observation. Then keep the triad in the back of your mind whenever you write.
Thanks to Ellen Fishbein for developing this system with me, which we presented together for the first time in this YouTube video.
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