One of things I wish I was better at doing is answering questions sent by readers and now listeners. I have an e-mail address tied to this site, but I don’t look it often enough, so I tend to be late in getting back to people. Then there are the questions that come through the comment section of YouTube and through social media. In an effort to clean up my act I have been trying to catch up on all of it and I noticed I get a lot of questions about writing and the task of writing. It’s a popular topic, apparently, so I thought I’d make a post of it.
It’s good timing, as I have started to go through my posts here looking for ones to pin to a greatest hits link on the site. This is a very common suggestion, so I’m working on that now. That means re-reading five year old posts, which has been edifying. I started this blog with the idea of doing no editing, just a stream of consciousness sort of thing, but that did not come out well. Looking back, I appreciate the terribleness of the effort even more, as I have evolved a style that seems to work pretty well for me and my audience.
That brings me to the question I get a lot and that is, how to be a good writer. I don’t know the answer to that as I’m not sure you can be a good writer in the objective sense. I like certain styles more than others, but that does not mean the styles I don’t like are the result of bad form. I could have weird tastes. My hunch is “good writers” are those who have figured out a style that works for them. It allows them to efficiently get across to the reader, the points they are trying to make on the subjects they find interesting.
Most likely, the only way to do that is write a lot. Looking over this blog, I see that I have slowly, through trial and error, developed a style that I like reading. It took a while and some of my ideas turned out to be wacky, but for the last couple of years I have stuck to a form and method that I find easy. This has corresponded with a rapid growth in readership, suggesting that I have found a style that works for me. I find it easier to write now than at any time in my life, so I suspect getting “good” means finding what works for you.
On the other hand, I’m a different reader than I was five years ago. Until I started posting every day, I never thought too much about writing styles. When I did start thinking about it, I became a different reader. I also started reading much more and much more variety. I have read books and articles on a much broader range of topics that in the past, mostly because I’ve become curious about writing styles. Writing a movie review is a different task from writing a short story. Different jobs mean different skills.
If I were giving advice to a young person, who wanted to make a career writing, I’d probably tell them to read for a few hours each day, but never read the same type of material two days in row. The thing I’ve come to notice about the popular writers I don’t like is they are blinkered. I get the sense that they are not very curious about the world. Maybe that’s the key to being an enjoyable writer, a healthy curiosity. Or, maybe it is just something I enjoy. It’s hard to know, but reading is always its own reward.
A related question I get a lot, concerns the writers I mock from time to time. The reason I make sport of people like Kevin Williamson is not the content, so much as the lack of candor. I like opinion writers who write their own opinions. For me, the best writers are those who are smart, honest and clear. Over the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Williamson is none of those things. I never liked George Will for much the same reason. Will is a ridiculous phony and I have no tolerance for phonies.
On the other hand, one of my favorite writers ever was the late Christopher Hitchens. I doubt I agreed with any of his opinions, but he always struck me as someone who said what he thought and did so in a way that made it easy to understand. He was also a well read and smart guy. He just happened to believe a lot of insane things about the world, but he was a extraordinarily good writer. I never read a Hitchens piece and thought he was trying to fool me or he was simply writing for a paycheck. That counts for a lot.
Clarity is probably the rarest thing in writing, so I really appreciate that in writers. I’m re-reading Greg Cochran’s The 10,000 Year Explosion and I marvel at the clarity. These are hard topics, yet Cochran has a way of getting to the point that makes the material easy to understand. Getting to the point is the key. I’ve never understood why anyone wants to be a windbag. My advice to any writer is make your point and move on to the next point. If you need to keep returning to the point, maybe you don’t know the material.
Finally, a question that comes up often is why I pick the topics I pick every day. Maybe there is some pattern here that I don’t see, but my selection criteria is quite elaborate and complex. I sit down and whatever comes to my head at the moment, is the topic for the day. I like writing in the morning, so whatever I woke up thinking about that day is the topic of the day. Basically, I write about what I feel like reading about at the moment. Usually, I don’t find much out there, so I write what I wish I could be reading.
Until just now, that’s not something I thought about much, but my bet is the really good writers stick to a style and focus on subjects they like reading. I’m a Faulkner fan, having read everything he wrote, and that’s what always struck me about him. He wrote with himself as the target audience. Hemingway wrote to impress people, but Faulkner wrote to entertain himself. In the fullness of time, Faulkner will be remembered as one of our greatest writers and Hemingway will be remembered as a boorish clown.