Books·Featured·Television·Writing

A Powerful Writing Lesson from House of Cards

3 minute read

While I’m convinced that Breaking Bad has forever ruined me in terms of serialized dramas, my wife and I have succumbed to the allure of Netflix’s House of Cards.

We finished the first 13-episode season last night, just in time for the Season 2 premiere on Valentine’s Day next week.

house-of-cards

In terms of scheming and manipulation, Francis J. Underwood certainly rivals Walter White. Like Walter, he tends to say what some of us may only think. Often, he frankly speaks his mind in order to see his will accomplished, regardless of the disastrous repercussions his wife and co-workers must endure.

This is not the writing lesson you should learn; however, there is a particular aspect of Frank’s character that every writer should emulate.

Strunk and White even say so, and not even Frank Underwood would undermine their authority.

[Tweet “”If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.” — William Strunk Jr.”]

While Frank Underwood may admit his doubts to the camera from time to time, he very seldom admits doubts to those around him. This is one of the many ways he exudes power and manipulates others to his point of view.

In regards to writing, one of my longstanding writing mistakes was including the phrase “I think” into far too many sentences.

I think it was from a lack of confidence in my writing.

See? Including “I think” robs a sentence of its vigor, to use a word favored by Strunk. “I suffered from a lack of confidence in my writing” is a much more solid sentence. By replacing “I think” with a strong verb, there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind as to the severity of my problem.

But, this is sometimes difficult for a writer because it means the writer has to be honest with themselves and courageous with their readers. “I think” admits to doubting what you really believe. There are a number of different ways to admit doubt in your writing, essentially undercutting your premise at every turn. Be on steady alert for such creeping lies.

In Strunkian terms: eschew doubt; write strong.

Don’t allow your final draft to admit to the doubts that have plagued you since your first sentence. Since you’re the author of your book, you’re the authority. Don’t allow a few doubtful words to usurp that power.

In other words, be Frank with your readers and speak boldly into their lives.

What “doubt-admitting” words creep into your writing?

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2 Replies

  1. I don’t write like you Blake, but I do have to communicate a lot (youth pastor). I’ve caught myself doing the same thing with “I think”. Even more ambiguous is “I feel”. I’m also trying to stick with statements (like Francis I guess) or if other opinions exist, “I believe”.

    I’m looking forward to season 2 of House of Cards…what’s with these shows about bad people? They’re so good!

  2. Great point Andy. I’m a terrible public speaker. Thankfully I rarely have to do that.

    Do you record yourself sometimes and listen back? Some of the preaching articles I’ve posted at FaithVillage suggest that practice so you can figure out what your crutch words are.

    I use Scrivener to write, and it includes a counter that will show you exactly how often you use a word. It can be depressing to look at, but helpful in the long run.

    As for your last point, it could be a post itself … if not a book!

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