Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Brutal Truth: The so-what factor matters. A lot.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 01•13

      Recently I got into a kerfuffle with a writer about an essay she’d written. It was a heartfelt chronology about a loss that was mostly a step-by-step medical report. Before I go further, you need to know that this person is lovely, intelligent, and tender. But she forgot about the so-what factor and I called her on it, which is when things got ugly.

The so-what factor (also known as who-cares?) means that whatever topic you choose to write about has relevance to readers and makes the reader care about your story. Readers are time-pinched, media-overloaded, and ruthless. They’re your customer and the customer is damn-near always right.  Readers demand a fair exchange: if they invest precious minutes or hours in your story, then you’ll reciprocate by making that experience meaningful. It’s especially important in nonfiction, particularly in memoir unless you’re famous.  If you’re famous, your readership is already invested in your life story. But I’ve read far too many memoir manuscripts written by people with an ax to grind, a hurt to air, a grievance to vent. But just because you’ve experienced pain doesn’t mean other people want to read about it.

The so-what factor is also a great measuring stick for fiction writers. When they don’t use it their chapters start like this: Megan woke up to sunshine streaming in through her bedroom window. She looked at the clock. 6 a.m. She’d woken before the alarm went off. Her day was off to a good start. Without a backwards glance at her inviting bed, she left the bedroom while pulling on her robe. Trouble was, she’d need to reset the timer on her coffee pot since it was set for 7 in the morning. Megan was already looking forward to the smells of fresh-brewed coffee filling the apartment and her first delicious sip of her favorite beverage.

You get the picture.

 In fiction, every scene must keep threading back to the central dramatic question that shapes the story. No connection? Then dump it.

 In memoir or essay, every sentence threads back to your themes. It’s all about your reader, my dears. Not your heartbreak, bad breaks, sad aches.

Now carry on and write true.

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  1. Mary Meredith Drew says:

    This is essential advice. We must strive to avoid being narcissistic, which can be tricky without the perspective of other readers. The telling of the story is the art. It’s not about me. Jonathan Evison described it well at Summer in Words; always keep the reader in mind. Thanks for saying it so true, Jessica.

  2. Ha ha! Thanks Jessica. The kick in the pants I needed this morning. I just had a run-in with a woman who asked to be a guest on my blog. She’s a good writer, so I said yes, but then the post she sent was not very good. What to do? What followed was a series of misunderstandings, the kind only e-mail can intensify in its own particularly excruciating and embarrassing way —

    But SO WHAT? The bitter truth is that it’s not a big deal, even though it feels like it is. Carry on! Write true!

    Really enjoyed Summer in Words by the way. I’d say it changed my life, but I should probably wait longer than a week to prove that my new resolve, habits and insights are here to stay.

    Best wishes from a Rude and Ungrateful Blog Hostess (no! I’m not! honest!),

    Julie W.

  3. M. Rebecca White says:

    I don’t know how you do it, but you make the art and craft of writing SO much easier. — My only trouble is that I end up going back for another revision every time I read some of your advice (especially from your Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us).

    Your clarity and humor keep us sane and objective about our work. Thank you for that, and for–well, for just being there.

  4. Gold Price says:

    You wouldn’t waste the editor’s time rhapsodizing about the quality of the writing or what a major bestseller it was destined to be, would you? No, that would be a waste of energy: pretty much every agent thinks his own clients’ work is well-written and marketable. Instead, you would relate the story or argument in the terms most likely to appeal to readers who already buy similar books.

  5. Obed Medina says:

    Great advice. It’s something that new writers struggle with, but once they “get it” it’s like… “How did I not understand this before?”

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