It’s What You Say, Not How You Say It: 3 Keys to Impactful Environmental Writing

Katherine Lenkiewicz

What makes riveting environmental writing?
What makes riveting environmental writing?

The recipe for truly influential writing contains three simple ingredients:

1) Narrative

2) Relatable characters

3) Powerful themes

If a piece is lacking in these areas and there isn’t much substance behind it, it truly doesn’t matter how talented an author is. We are unlikely to be influenced by writing or change our course of action unless the story is true, relatable, and applicable. A powerful theme and empathetic characters do much more to provoke a reader’s thoughts than vocabulary, satire, or voice especially with authors that are trying to bring some kind of meaning to their works (which most are). While many of us claim certain authors to be our favorites for their quirkiness, eccentricities, loquaciousness, etc., these qualities without a moving story will leave readers essentially unchanged and unmoved.

Bill McKibben's bio
Bill McKibben, environmental
author and activist

Many environmental activist writers have mastered these essential keys for promoting their cause and impacting readers. Contemporary environmental authors are becoming increasingly prevalent and a small handful have excelled at creating truly impactful pieces. Here are a few at the top:

  1. Bill McKibben: Relieving non-fiction of its “boringness”

McKibben is the master of the golden tool of non-fiction: case studies. Amidst all the numbers, he provides us with real, emotional narrative and first-hand accounts. This is essential to the three keys to influential writing for the following reasons:

  1. Case studies = narrative. Stories are more interesting to read than paragraph after paragraph of statistics and models.
  2. Powerful themes. When reading about people suffering from infectious disease and starving from water depletion, one cannot help but realize the gravity of our current environmental situation.
  3. Relatable characters. As a non-fiction writer, McKibben doesn’t have to create characters, because all of his are real. Nothing gets readers quite like true stories. It’s a lot easier to empathize when something has actually happened.   


Some of the works of TC Boyle
Some of the works of TC Boyle

  1. T.C. Boyle: A study in dramatization

Boyle’s biggest difference from McKibben is that he is a fiction writer, and he is a master at hitting these three points:

  1. The works of T.C. Boyle’s narrative is gripping, as evidenced by hundreds of reviews. His tales deal in extraordinary, out-of-this-world drama and suspense and pivot around crucial environmental topics. Readers simply won’t be able to put down his stories.
  2. While his stories are outrageous, they are still relatable. Boyle does extensive research on topics and many of his tall tales and characters are based off actual events. In readers’ opinions, “based on a true story” is almost as good as the real thing.
  3. With such drama, it’s impossible to call Boyle’s themes anything but powerful. Often in his stories, caring for the environment is a matter of life or death, which effectively forces readers to treat them as so.

  3.  Margaret Atwood: Disbanding bias in a sneaky way

Unlike Boyle, Atwood writes with a casual tone that can border on apathy. Witty and sarcastic, she treats even the darkest moments with humor. By now you are familiar with the three keys so let’s get to it:

  1. Margaret Atwood speaks at Notre Dame
    Margaret Atwood speaking
    at Notre Dame

    Atwood tells beautiful stories of love and loss that are simultaneously humorous and dark, much like human nature. She plays with the exciting and fantastical to keep her readers guessing.
  2. Atwood has a sneaky way of poking fun at every society – the technologically advanced, the environment-loving God’s Gardeners, and the super-human specimen “Crakers.” Each society is deeply flawed in ways that are distinctly human, and because of this, we cannot help but to see our own flaws reflected in them. Her generally casual tone creates an overall impartiality, so that no “good guy” dominates and we must choose those that appeal to us most.
  3. Atwood is perhaps the best representation of how powerful themes can overwhelm writing style. Even the most casual tone cannot make light of the world’s population being wiped out, executions as live entertainment, and commercialized organ harvesting. In fact, Atwood’s tone becomes the epitome of irony and stands only to emphasize the gravity of these events.

Katherine Lenkiewicz with Margaret Atwood