Longtime readers know that, while I’m a man who gives a lot of advice about being a writer (and put together a little ebook of such advice), I am generally against writing advice. By that I mean that while I think there are many ways to write better or worse, static lists of writing advice are often unhelpful when they are broken down into particulars - avoid the passive voice, no adverbs, shorter is always better, etc. I could share many specifics about why I think these things are unhelpful, such as the endless number of exceptions that always attach to such advice. (Ask someone when they were born and see if you really want people to avoid the passive voice at all times.) We’d be here all day.
I think there can be no substitute for simply reading a wide variety of styles, and letting them soak into your internal voice.
Perhaps I have a more imitative personality than average (which might explain why I'm easily persuaded by new ideas, and also why I code-switch my speech to match my interlocutors so strongly that it annoys my wife), but when I read a writer with a distinctive style, I always find that their voice affects my writing quite strongly. And I don't just mean writers like Tom Wolfe or Cormac McCarthy, with styles so flashy that they border on schtick. I mean all types of writers, from Richard John Neuhaus to Terry Eagleton to randos on Reddit. And Freddie deBoer, of course.
Over time, I've accumulated these voices into something like a stable of styles, or toolbox of stylistic elements. I deploy them as it seems appropriate, or as the whim strikes me. To me, writing is a bit like voice-acting: when I write a sentence I'm not just saying a line, I'm conveying a character of some sort.
That's not to say that I don't think that I have my own personal style; I certainly do. But it's a synthesis of these voices, and it often involves flitting between different affectations and playing up the juxtapositions.
But it's *reading* that enables all of this. Those voices have to get inside my head somehow. The craftsman has to buy his tools from somewhere before he can start practicing with them. And I think that goes for every writer, not just those with my type of brain.
Freddie, as usual, gets it right, which is unusual in the writing world. (Great commentary about Lincoln btw.) And, oh, my, this section is just delicious: “The beauty lies in setting the rules as you go and seeing how far you can take them. Sometimes, when called for, I will reach into an archaic vocabulary and stay there awhile, try out the furniture, decorating my sentences with ancient constructions so recklessly that they take the shape of rusted cities, antique and corroded . . . Sometimes I work the words until they’re as brown as Winston Churchill’s scotch and as supple as a grandmother’s couch, beating them relentlessly until they yield to my inscrutable desires.” And that last paragraph, yes. Wonderful.
As a writer of 35 years who actually lives on his royalties, here are what I have found to be the best writing books to begin with: John Gardner, On Moral Fiction; William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl; Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer; Ray Bradbury, Zen In the Art of Writing; William Gass, Reading Rilke; Ensouling Language, Stephen Harrod Buhner. (Yes, I believe in my own work.)
The Iowa writers workshop and all the MFA programs have nearly ruined writing in this country. As Elif Batuman once put it (from memory): Never in the history of writing have so many books been so well written that no one in their right mind would want to read. Or as a senior editor in NY once put it: All the MFA graduate submissions, they are all the same. There’s no unique personality or style to any of them.
This is because it is easy to teach technique, hard to teach the essence of the craft, which is why it is rarely taught. The books I have listed are focused on the essence of the craft and the state of mind that allows the fictional dream, as Gardner calls it (the nonfictional dream as well) to flow through the writer and onto the page. Writing is a communication, not a technique. Done well, something comes in from somewhere else and the words come alive. Good writing can’t be done with the brain but happens with some other part of the self, the brain/mind edits later on. But for true writing to occur the watcher must be absent from the gates. Unfortunately, most writing books and programs teach technique to the brain/mind. They have nothing to say to the part that dreams story into being. And dreaming story into being is an art form, a skill. It can be intentionally developed until the writer can drop into that state at will. That is when the magic happens, when typing becomes writing.
Thank you Freddie, great column.
I recently read Mary Oliver's "A Poetry Handbook" and found it beautiful writing advice. An approach that comes from poetry avoids treating simplicity as an implicit good; Oliver understands simplicity and complexity of language as tools, the same way rhyme and meter are tools. She takes the time to explain what sounds and rhythms create lower or higher registers, and how the mind tends to emotionally interpret different structures and breaks from structure. It's well-trodden wisdom that you have to know the rules in order to effectively break them, but I find Oliver puts more faith in her audience than most guides for beginners; her view of the rules treats them as a scaffold that gives coherency to playfulness and experimentation. She's generous enough to believe that her audience already understands what makes good poetry pleasurable to experience, that what they need is the ability to bring intention to their instincts. And her prose is just gorgeous.
I find most of her instruction equally applicable to writing beautiful prose with intention. I thought of her because she also insists that her learning audience take themselves seriously as poets and as readers of poetry. Coming from any source, I think it's one of the best pieces of advice.
I do think there’s a difference in what constitutes writing advice depending on who your audience is, speaking as someone who has edited high schoolers’ writing. Young writers simply don’t understand what good writing is, so they often mistake complicated writing for complicated thought. But once you reach a certain level of competency you need new advice to get to the next level.
This is a similar phenomenon to grammatical advice. For example, it’s not grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with “and” or “because”, but it’s good advice to give young writers or else they’ll start every other sentence with them (I did this. And then I did that. And then I did that. Because it was fun.) But once you gain a certain level of understanding about clause structure you need to move on from this simplistic advice.
I love when good writers write about writing. (Also: "Freddie on Lincoln, as a stylist" would be top 10 request, thank you for that.)
Relatedly: It was really cool to read Emily Wilson's "Translator's Note" as part of her introduction to *The Odyssey.* She writes:
"My version is the same length as the original with exactly the same number of lines. I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop. Moreover, in reading the original, one is constantly aware of the rhythms and the units that make up elements of every line, as well as the ongoing movement of the narrative -- like a large, elaborate piece of embroidery made of tiny, still visible stitches. I wanted my translation to mark its own nature as a web of poetic language, with a sentence structure that is, like that of Homer, audibly built up out of smaller units of sense."
So much beauty and texture is evident in that description. "Elaborate piece of embroidery with tiny, still visible stitches." I realized when reading she's "built different," so to speak, operating on a different plane.
But she's also versatile. Consider how she CLOSES her translator's note with this genuinely haunting paragraph:
"There is a stranger outside your house. He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he is finished, he will tell you his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect."
One weeps. Simple writing done perfectly, and perhaps because it occurred in the context of a longer, more elaborate series of arguments.
If you can keep it simple like that, keep it simple!
"That’s one of my foremost pieces of life advice for anyone, actually, to take yourself seriously in a culture full of people trying to build self-defensive shields by trivializing their own lives: take yourself seriously, because no one else is going to do it for you."
Thank you for saying this.
I think there's probably a couple things going on with Thompson that also alter (potentially) alter his view:
1. He has never really written in a situation where his audience wasn't "provided" by a large publication
2. He's likely aware of what I call the "expert exception".
The first example is true of an awful lot of journalists. Even if they later develop a following, their initial audiences are provided by some big established machine; their minimum acceptable performance level is just not to lose or alienate those audiences. Somewhere in the organization there's a "voice cheat sheet" type document that explains the general way people writing for that organization are allowed to sound, within a certain range.
There's thousands and thousands of first-example journalists right now who, were they to get fired and were they not able to leech onto another traffic provider, would just fail absolutely and immediately to ever be read again. Derek might not know any other world exists.
In the second example, there's people like Hanania, History writers and Scott Alexander who bring something else to the table besides writing. A person who brings valuable data of a specific kind very often can be successful without being an exceptionally good writer; there's tons of guys in, say, bitcoin who are successful because they know the right thing to talk about rather than having exceptional prose. That's not to say there aren't a bunch of data-bringing writers who are exceptional; there are. And there's still some minimum level of skill, but the bar is very much lowered.
Thompson's interestingness = novelty + importance makes perfect sense when seen from his viewpoint as a person who has always been in a stable of kept journalists. When you pitch your article to the publication, they care about the formula in the sense that you are describing *what you are going to write*, but not *how you are going to write it*; you can't say "I'm going to write about something boring, but don't worry about it since I have an idiosyncratic voice."
This is less true once someone is really established with the publication at which point they let you take more flights of fancy with the voice, but Thompson's mindset is very likely dyed in the colors of "giving young writers of the kind who show up as junior staff members to places like The Atlantic advice". It's probably good advice for the target market and "write boring, pitch interesting" probably does help them in the phase they are in. But I agree that it's a recipe for generally boring work.
I have trouble jumping the hurdle of importance: I feel that what’s important to me won’t be important to anyone else. So insecurity or maybe fear of derision keeps me on the ground.
It always struck me as suspicious that the style that's the easiest to hide behind (minimalism) is the most popular. After all, if you write in a maximalist style, and you fail, you fail very obviously. But everyone appears smart when they're terse. So as a style minimalism is most amenable to academia, like in an MFA, which is all about creating a sort of package takeway for students, and minimalism is the easiest box to fit your prose into.
"Easy reading is damn hard writing."
I tend to think the war for American Letters between Faulkner and Hemingway was the start of so much of this. Sadly, Hemingway and minimalism didn't just win. They shattered the maximalist experimentation of Faulkner. Since then, you have the occasional writer writing long, winding, breathless sentences that transcend you to a new plane, but most pare back their sentences to the bone.
Also, it didn't hurt the minimalists that popular fiction really picked up that banner and waved it wildly for generations. Especially the science fiction and noir crowds. Noir, especially, with their idiosyncratic use of metaphors that sear into your memory. I mean, when people are effortlessly surprising you with laughter and unusual similes, it's hard to think writing gets better:
"He looked rather pleasant, like a blond satan." - Dashiell Hammett
"I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake." - James M Cain
"From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away." - Raymond Chandler
But I've always loved Faulkner, and even many of the bombastic maximalists of the 60s and 70s, who had a real go at unseating American minimalism, but then Bukowski became one of the most famous authors in the world and he pointed people to Hamsun and Fante and so on.
But if anyone wants to read an author whose lineage is decidedly Faulknerian, I strongly recommend Robert Kloss. Specifically his novels The Alligators of Abraham and especially The Revelator.
The first time I read it I thought you said "...as supple as my grandmother's crotch."
“The point is that you cannot take recourse in simplicity while you’re young and inexperienced, hoping to hide there, until you become a good writer. It’s like trying to hide out on land until you become a good swimmer.”
Of course! It takes an experienced swimmer to swim on land. Hemingway swam on land from early on, of course, but he was quite an athlete and outdoorsman.
Re. Strunk and White: I always think, do I want everything I read or write to sound like E.B White? I love Charlotte’s Web as much as the next person, probably have read it and his other kids books 10 times, between my childhood and reading it to my kids. And while I find his simple descriptions stirring and fitting for what he was aiming for, I would be extremely sad in a world of books where every description read like this:
“ The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.”
Conversely, I don’t want every writer to use as many adverbs as Rowling but I do think it works in her books, and you certainly can’t argue with her results.
You can’t have universal rules for an infinite number of purposes in writing. Decide what your aim is, who your audience is, and what your own voice is and then keep going until you get it right or until you die.
I primarily read craft for fiction writers, but we have many of the same rules (cut adverbs, less is more) in addition to fiction-specific rules: No prologue, no info dumps / exposition, limit backstory and slip it in during action or dialogue. Employ tactics to keep readers turning the pages (hooks). Essentially, they teach you to write for readers who have zero attention span and will quit reading if the action stops for five seconds.
I find a lot of this valuable, don’t get me wrong. Readers will not slog through boring descriptions of the setting, or an unremarkable backstory that goes on for pages. But I’m also drawn to narration with a strong voice, and you can’t develop a voice without some freedom. Sometimes it’s better to slap down two paragraphs of exposition, written exactly how you want, than to limit reveals to dialogue for the sake of keeping it active.
Freddie, I'm curious why you don't like Strunk & White? is it mainly because they call for a more restrained prose style? Or do you have other criticisms, too?
Surely you are correct that skilled writers can often get away with flouting the conventional guidelines you describe.
I teach college students, however, and most of them do not write well. Verbosity and imprecision are their main problems. The most common advice I give undergrads is to write shorter sentences, and to labor over every word. "Say what you mean, and mean what you say."
A related problem, I'm sorry to say, is that many students do not care about writing well. They don't understand why it is important, or put great effort into it. It is nearly impossible to succeed as a writer if you are not a bit neurotic about it.
Occasionally, I tell students about a friend (who is also my landlord). He runs a company and is rather wealthy. He hires lots of people. One day I was lamenting the fact that so many people are graduating college these days without having learned to write. "I think that's great," he quipped. "It means I get to be their boss!"
“To me trying to write with self-conscious simplicity is like going from playing the guitar with an immense amount of distortion to playing with nothing but the barest unaltered tone: you find there is nowhere to hide.”
I tend to bristle at music metaphors bc they often feel forced but this was a gem. Exactly right.