The two most powerful words in nonfiction and business writing: “So What?”

One of the quickest and most efficient ways of checking whether what you have just written is effective is quite simply to ask yourself, once you’ve read the sentence or paragraph, “so what?” If your answer to that is “not much,” then you know you need some re-writing.

Recently I’ve been researching about essay writing for my student readers (post on that to come soon!) and was intrigued to see that in one book, the author strongly advises the use of “so what” to check back on what you’ve written in a university essay. If your answer to “so what” is something other than what your tutor expects to see, you’d better change it.

So … the “so what” test works pretty well everywhere

As you probably know, I’ve been advocating the “so what” test for a long time now and use it myself with almost everything I write. Harsh though it may seem when you’ve just spent half an hour polishing some beautifully alliterative words that ring bells in your heart, if their answer to “so what” is zip, you still have more work to do. This assumes, of course, that your piece of writing is for business or other nonfiction purpose.

But having written several fictional short stories (published) I found myself using the “so what” test for them, too. I believe that it works just as effectively in most genres of fiction with perhaps the exception of literary fiction and some poetry. But I’m not an expert there, so shouldn’t comment.

Let’s look at some examples of how applying the “so what” test can make a big difference to the power and memorability of your writing…

Letter of complaint

Dear Sir,

I feel very strongly that I must write to you to bring to your attention a matter which my family and I have found rather disturbing and which has disappointed us in the way your restaurant is run.

So what? So you found it disturbing. I’m very busy. I want to know what went wrong, not just how you felt about it. How about..

Dear Sir,

My family and I were very upset at your restaurant last night when your server, (name,) left us without menus or attention for 25 minutes and when she eventually appeared, she was extremely rude to us.

So what? Oh-oh, I wonder how many other customers she has alienated. Better do something about this…

Speech introducing guest speaker

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining us today. I want to point out to you how delighted I am to be here and addressing you, albeit briefly, as it brings back many happy memories for me going back to the early days of this club when I was just a young man.

So what? Never mind all that, you’re not there to tell us your life history. Can we get on with the business in hand please? Let’s try…

Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, it’s great to welcome you and I know you’ll be fascinated by our guest speaker today – (Name), the first woman ever to climb Mount Everest single-handed. In all my years of association with this club I have never felt so much in awe of an incredibly brave and inspiring person….etc.

So what? So this guest speaker sounds interesting…

Abstract/summary on a CV/résumé

(Name) is a personable young man with a strong work ethic in retail and is passionate about ensuring that his efforts are consistently worthwhile. He is an excellent time-keeper, loyal employee and is willing to give his all….

So what? Never mind all that. What can he contribute to my company?

(Name) is dedicated and consistent worker whose experience in retail will add knowledge and efficiency to his employers’ business and their customers’ satisfaction. His strong work ethic and disciplined performance offers 100 percent reliability both within his team, and for his line managers…

So what? Sounds like he might make a useful contribution…

So … try the “so what” test on your writing and see how it can make it more powerful! Any comments or questions, put them right here …

Let’s make sure your writing is “so-what” proof!

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Excellent advice. I apply that to my own writing and it works. So what? If it works for a professional writer, it should work for less experienced writers, right? Keep up the good work.


  1. […] some time now I have been preaching the benefits of my SO WHAT? test which, in its nose-thumbing rudeness, has helped me and many others to really raise the game of our […]