What Is Power? Guest Post By Jim Murdoch

Joanna has defined powerful writing as:

Writing with clear, simple language and powerful words. Recognising the power of the written word. Writing that gives power back to your readers. Trusting your instinct and intuition. Writing that flows from your own power source – and knowing what and where that is.

All this makes me ask a simple question: what is power?

Sociologists, physicists, theologians, mathematicians and even opticians all have different ideas about power. And that is typical of the English language. It veers towards vagueness at every given opportunity. It’s like a powerful horse that wants to go its way and you have to rein it in and make it obey you. (Horsepower is of course a universal benchmark for power).

That is another definition of power, the ability to control others. Of course there are ways to exert that power; in equine terms that would amount to the carrot or the stick. Personally I don’t respond to bribes or coercion and I don’t think I’m alone there. A writer of course is omnipotent as far as his characters are concerned and all that power can go to ones head.

Power is a concept that writers need to come to grip with on many levels.

Let’s take a physicist’s definition of power: power equals work divided by time.

It sounds simple enough but what is ‘work’ from a physicist’s point of view. There are three key ingredients to work – force, displacement, and cause. Let me explain: sitting with your head in your hands staring at a blank screen is not work. For it to be work you have to expend energy purposefully. Something has to move – that’s what displacement basically means – it could be a pen scratching away on a scrap of paper or your fingers rattling away at you keyboard. Work takes time. The longer you work the more power you build up. But if you don’t have a cause, a reason to write, then are you working or wasting your time.

Right, Jim, so if I spend twenty years on the one book it’ll be the greatest book ever written? Possibly, but I wouldn’t count on it. Think about a book as a battery. It can contain energy but only so much; there are physical constraints. To go all hyperbolic for a moment: a car battery isn’t capable of harnessing the power of our sun. Words are little storage cells of energy. They have the potential to affect people in a very real way.

This brings us to a more general definition of power:

The more or less unilateral ability (real or perceived) or potential to bring about significant change, usually in people’s lives, through the actions of oneself or of others.

What keeps you reading? Is it not the control that a book exerts over you? How many times have you sat there bleary-eyed because you simply have to find out what happens next? If that isn’t a perfect example of the power of writing then I’m not sure what is.

Energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. A book has mass. Mass is a form of energy. If you burn a book it transforms before you into heat and light. But if you burn a book you lose a lot more than a good book. I believe that words can be considered as a form for energy, metaphysical energy for want of a better expression.

Words can revitalise you, motivate you, stimulate you or drive you on. Words can work seemingly work magic. But that power only gets there through time and effort. Writing is not magic. It is science.

One thing power is not is brute force. You can’t bully your readers into submission. (Well you can but they’ll be unlikely to come back for more). As Balzac put it:

Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.

Hopefully what will come out of Joanna’s blogs this month is just how we can do that.

Let me introduce you to Jim, a regular reader and commenter here.

Jim Murdoch is a 48 year old Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. His poetry appeared regularly in small press magazines during the seventies and eighties. In the nineties he turned to prose-writing completing four novels and a collection of short stories and has now established an on-line presence with his blog, The Truth About Lies. His first novel, Living with the Truth, will be available this summer and the rest “at respectable intervals” after that.

My thanks go to Jim for kicking off this exploration of powerful writing: through a series of guest posts here, through contributions on your own blogs, or my sending me your one line answer (30 words max) to the question: what does powerful writing mean to you?

You’ll find out more about what’s going on and how to take part on this post: What Does Powerful Writing Mean To You?

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach

Because our words count

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9 Responses to “What Is Power? Guest Post By Jim Murdoch”

  1. On April 7, 2008 at 10:02 am amypalko responded with... #

    Such a great post, Jim. Our thoughts on the power of words are very similar, but the scientific approach you take here is so different from the way I usually think of things. I’m going to enjoy rereading this!

  2. On April 7, 2008 at 10:23 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Jim, thanks again for kicking things off with your thoughts on the nature of power and how that applies to writing.

    I think that words have/are energy too and there are so many times you can see the sparks flying in their wake (in a good way) from the connection with the person who reads them.

    I particularly liked the Balzac quote you included

    “Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.”

    It’s what I’d aim for in my own writing.

    Thanks again


  3. On April 7, 2008 at 9:43 pm Ken responded with... #

    The Law of Conservation of Energy also tells us that Energy cannot be created. So if we write some words, and they have energy, that energy has come from us.

    Hmmm… I wonder if all words carry the same energy? The more letters the more energy, perhaps? I don’t think so. I think the word ‘maybe’ can have considerably less energy that, say, the word, ‘no’ depending on how it is written.

  4. On April 7, 2008 at 10:27 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Ken, it’s good to hear from you and thanks for stopping by.

    9 times out of 10 I’d say that less letters = more energy.

    Maybe the work we do to cut them down, to shape them, to keep them simple, to get them to ring true is what gives them the power?

    (But physics was never my strong suit…)


  5. On April 8, 2008 at 8:48 am Rachel Fox responded with... #

    I’m not usually one for throwing about words like ‘magic’ but I’d have to say that for me good writing has to be science and magic, not one or the other. Somehow they mix together - in a way both scientific and magical. Otherwise it’s either too flat or too fluffy…for me, anyway.

  6. On April 8, 2008 at 9:44 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hello Rachel

    It’s good to meet you

    I think the element of ‘magic’ for me comes when you write from the source - whether that’s some place deep inside you, or a place that gives you that sense of connection, or a piece of music - it’s you drawing from your own well. If that makes any sense at all!


  7. On April 8, 2008 at 1:01 pm Jim Murdoch responded with... #

    Joanna, yes, the Balzac quote is a good one. I know we use metaphors like ‘hammering’ the text into submission and I suppose that works fine when it comes to an outline but then we need to pull back. Having power and using power are too different things. There used to be a comic book character called, if memory serves me, Karnak. Karnak has the ability to find the weak point in any person, plan or object so it only ever took one blow placed in the right place whereas a character like the Hulk would attack with fist flailing.

    Ken, good point. I don’t know much about chemistry but I know about maths. A small number like 2 is given power by its placement. Turn it into a superscript and stick it to the right of a number and it increases its power by that factor. It’s the same with words. I’ll sometimes include a tiny sentence and let it be a whole paragraph focusing attention on it and magnifying its importance. In fact a word could be a whole paragraph.

    Rachel, ‘magic’ has lost its edge in this modern world, it has become far more secular in its definition. The same could be said about a word like ‘surreal’ which most people use instead of ‘unreal’ these days. Magical things seem inexplicable. They’re not but that’s not the point. The point is that we don’t want them explained. We’re happy to leave a bit of the mystery there. That’s not a bad thing.

  8. On April 8, 2008 at 2:33 pm Rachel Fox responded with... #

    I have a poem on that very subject (retaining mystery that is, not bad things…though I have lots of those too).
    How about you?

  9. On April 8, 2008 at 10:01 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Sadly Rachel I have no poems I can share with you. Maybe one day :-)



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