On Writing

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.

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Member

People just need to get to the point these days.
Even the most nuanced of subjects can be summarized followed by supporting information.
A kicker at the end that makes for an interesting turn, but does not contradict the initial premise makes things a little more interesting.

That’s the way people have to write in order to keep attention these days, and you’ve done it.

Clayton Barnett
Guest

Until I was 47, 4 yrs ago, I never wrote anything besides memos. Now I’ve three novels & a children’s book.

Sometimes, it just happens. It can be odd, to have these ideas come into my mind.

Member

Thank God you don’t write like Faulkner.

ArtHouseForOurHouse
Guest
ArtHouseForOurHouse

In over a year of reading, this is the first of your posts that doesn’t have a typo, missing word, repeated word, etc. You and Richard Fernandez need copy editors.

ArtHouseForOurHouse
Guest
ArtHouseForOurHouse

Providing examples of Williamson’s or Will’s flaws would be helpful.

DLS
Guest
DLS

I can’t cite specific examples because I stopped reading both after they went down the anti-Trump rabbit hole and starting writing ridiculous things to justify their view that he is not governing mostly as a traditional conservative. They have to bend themselves into pretzels of half truths and emotional reasoning to get there, but it boils down to the fact that they don’t like his style. Williamson, Goldberg, French, Cooke, Will, are virtually unreadable these days. They used to be my morning go-to, but now it’s Zman, Steyn, and Hanson.

DLS
Guest
DLS

Here is an example on Will. His article just this week is entitled “Could a Democrat be the best of both worlds in red-state America?” In it, he touts a Democrat house candidate as the better alternative because he said he would not endorse Pelosi as speaker, and the Republican identifies with Trump, who only “recently arrived at his current convictions and party allegiance.” To think a Democrat in today’s environment will not vote in lockstep with the far left that controls his party is the height of naivete. This is the same George Will, who in a major virtue… Read more »

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

I can’t understand why George Will still exists; he had his day in the 1980s. He’s a baseball fan, and he should understand the “unconditional release”. After all, athletes stop making money when they can no longer play; even Willie Mays at 42 couldn’t make the grade on a major league club.

But the aging and pointless lucubrations of George Will just keep on keepin’ on. The Say Hey Kid should have gone into the opinion game.

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Zman isn’t criticizing their sentence structure or improper grammar. He’s pointing out their fundamental insincerity. Their stuff is all out there; go see it for yourself. Read it with a view to consistency of message, and you’ll discover on your own that these men are corrupt and useless. My guess is that Will has never written an imbalanced sentence in his life, but the thing is, his written “thoughts” mean nothing in the aggregate. Read the works of an old liberal like Walter Lippmann, or H.L. Mencken, or the vast journalistic output of Orwell, or someone contemporary like Peter Hitchens… Read more »

ArtHouseForOurHouse
Guest
ArtHouseForOurHouse

Steyn is the most vibrant and crystalline writer I’ve ever come across. He riffs and freestyles like Robin Williams but it’s always in such a disciplined framework.

Member
James LePore

On clarity: Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away. Isaac Bashevis Singer

DLS
Guest
DLS

“Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.” Polonius

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Very good! Have “captured”. But “implicit” in “brevity” is . . . getting “to the bottom line” with both decorum and “mutually honorable consideration”. Does the Trumpster [really] have the “jazz” for “the deal”? Don’t know, but this is definitely NOT “par for the course” – stay tuned!

Member

Ditto on Hitch. Good writing can be worth reading even if it is contrary to one’s beliefs. Heck, I held on to National Review far too long due to a couple of their writers’ capability in this regard. Too long, really. The Derbfenestration was the last straw.

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Regarding NRO, I hung in there despite JD’s un-personing, until Steyn found himself locked out of the house by some homo named Steorts.

TomA
Guest
TomA

Some writing (largely fiction) is just recreational therapy and an escape from the demands of the real world. Other writing is geared toward tangible purpose and, in it’s essence, is a conveyance of wisdom. The latter is most effective when concise, clear, and meaningful.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

I have tried to read the current SF offerings, as my family devours them. So fat with words and on, and on, and on. As every current SF book seems to simply be a quest story (and dripping with PC attitudes), I can just reread Homer and be done with it all.

Sim1776
Guest
Sim1776

You’re just reading the wrong SF authors. Try John Ringo, David Weber, and Tom Kratman. Weber can get a little squishy on the girl power thing but then again having an Android avatar or being genetically engineered makes it work. Although I don’t always agree with everything he says, Vox Day’s Castalia House has quite a few good authors. Matt Bracken does good work too.

Unfortunately the “hero quest” is a formula that works so people have to pile on.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

Thanks. I need to sneak some “subversives” into the house. I am going to work on that.

Sim1776
Guest
Sim1776

You’re welcome. Kratman and Ringo require pre-reading if you have a younger audience. Kratman and Bracken are excellent for red-pilling about Mohammedans. I’ve also found a couple decent authors on Amazon. I peruse the reviews and occassionally you can read a sample on Kindle. Oh, I forgot to mention John C. Wright. I enjoyed the one book of his that I’ve read so far.

Usually you can sniff out a Prog author in the first couple pages. Scalzi’s allegiances jump right out at you.

Gregory Pierce
Guest
Gregory Pierce

Why not try the older SF. Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, Roger Zelazny, Ben Bova and Harlan Ellison to name a few.

Din C. Nuffin
Guest
Din C. Nuffin

Stanislaw Lem! And I put down a Kurt Vonnegut novel one late night to call him and talk him down from suicide, then realized his mood had probably passed by then.

Ganderson
Guest
Ganderson

Agree – even though I read (and pretty much enjoyed)all the GOT books and the Harry Potter series- as the man (Samuel Johnson?) once said “no one wished them longer”
Go back and check out Heinlein’s “Orphans of the Sky”- great read, 128 pages!

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

Harry Potter was OK early on and lost me later. I think Rowling got diarrhea of the word and no editor was willing to stand up to her. GOT fell into the “on and on” trap for me. LOTR, for me, was a classic long epic that still stayed true to a beginning, a middle, and an end, and almost every part seemed important to the telling of the story.

I “rediscover” Heinlein every decade or so.

Severian
Guest

Stephen King once diagnosed himself with “literary elephantiasis.” And that was back when his books only ran 500 pages in paperback! It’s the same deal with every successful author (e.g. Clancy, Grisham, etc.) – they’re successful, therefore they must know what they’re doing, therefore no editor will touch their stuff, therefore they can write any damn thing they please until they tire of hearing their own voices…

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Norman Mailer wrote trashcans full of prose after ‘The Naked and the Dead’ and all of it was promoted and published as “important new literature”. Mailer always struck me as a criminal who just lucked out and found he could make more money writing ‘Armies of the Night’ and ‘The Executioners Song’ than robbing banks or selling drugs.

That said, another writer – less pretentious than Mailer – Gore Vidal, who as a person was annoying, to say the least. wrote consistently and well, and I can’t think of a novel of his that isn’t worth reading.

Karl McHungus
Guest
Karl McHungus

I tried reading the early Potter books to my kids, but the writing was so crappy that I gave it up about 50 pages in. I guess people like the plots and characters, which aren’t small things to get right — but also aren’t enough to call a book well written. I would do JK though, as she is pretty good looking and has lots of money.

zreader
Guest
zreader

Read Greg Egan.

Mercutio
Guest
Mercutio

I am glad I found your website and writings approximately a year ago. I’ve read several of you older posts in the archives, but not enough to intelligently comment on how you have evolved as a writer. However, in your current posts you have an engaging and clear writing style that is lacking in many of the other sites I read. I’m reminded of the scene in “A River Runs Through It,” when Rev. Maclean is marking up his young son’s compositions. The Reverend sends him back two or three times with the remark: “Good. Now make it half as… Read more »

Matrix
Guest
Matrix

I think the time issue really is important. I read Unz review now and find with my schedule it is tough to commit to a 2 to 4 thousand word essay, no matter how interesting the topic. I think it’s The Saker that has mega-pieces? I can glance at the top of the article and calculate how much time I need to commit. Sailor is the best with what he does. I think that is why I appreciate this blog, because of the succinct brevity to each post. I was wondering what is the usual number of words? I’ve also… Read more »

Ganderson
Guest
Ganderson

As ‘Bob’ said in the ‘Major Star’ episode of Blackadder Goes Forth- “No George, always leave them hungry for more.”

Member

Bob? BOB?!?

ganderson
Guest
ganderson

“funny name for a girl…”

zreader
Guest
zreader

…Christopher Hitchens. I doubt I agreed with any of his opinions

Hitch wrote a whole book about the Clintons in which you could probably find some common ground.

Bold claim about Hemingway.

EMP
Guest
EMP

Hitch’s book on the Clintons is entitled No One Left To Lie To. Certainly Zman would find common ground there.

Can’t speak to all of Hemingway’s work, but For Whom The Bell Tolls remains one of the greatest works of literature I’ve read. Talk about brevity.

AJClement
Guest
AJClement

I have lately been reading several books about Hemingway. His behavior in the Spanish Civil war (along with his activities in revolutionary Cuba) and his treatment of his one time friend John Dos Pasos reveal him to be a petty jealous leftist that never lost faith in Communism. This speaks volumes about his character.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Hoo-wah! What the HELLo is it about most of the “artists” being “Lefty lib-turds”, anyway?!? Perhaps they never learned/understood the words: “creative, collaborative PRODUCTIVE enterprise” for the WHOLE.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Well, if you would have included serial murder, just like the Hildabeast, you could have included . . . Che!

marcus barry
Guest

I think you’re wrong about Hemingway. His writing exemplifies Singer’s maxim of taking away until only the essential remains or can be intimated by the reader. I don’t think he wrote to impress people but rather he lived to do so. His entire hairy-chested persona was an act partly designed to bolster his reputation as a writer and partly to cover up a wide range of insecurities and internal conflicts. In his time, that persona came to overshadow his writing. When people say they don’t like Hemingway, I suspect they mean the man more so than the work. But if… Read more »

Karl McHungus
Guest
Karl McHungus

In your opinion only

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Suspect that the “clarity” – in part at least – was attributed to his communications with Ezra Pound.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Good article! I suspect that Hemingway would be LESS than “boorish” if it wasn’t for the likes of Ezra Pound and his literary genius for word economy. Oh, and there will always be Chaucer and Tang Dynasty vagabond poet Li Po/Bai!

Member

I totally agree with the comparison of Faulkner and Hemingway. But some of Hemingway’s short stories – especially “After the Storm” and “Killers” – are very, very good. He had his moments.

Karl McHungus
Guest
Karl McHungus

Faulkner in my opinion is right up there with Melville and Clemens (and way above Hemingway and Fitzgerald) in the pantheon of American writers. Reading Faulkner you are transported into the fever dreams of the gothic South.

Zman, how do you find Williams’ plays (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, etc)? I find his work very entertaining, but not particularly significant.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Agreed, Clemens immediately come to mind.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Honorable mentions: Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut and, although not an American but just as relevant perhaps – Herman Hesse.

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Sex can also be “entertaining” until . . . the [temporary] “denouement” and then its . . . a cig, snacks, TV and a nap. NEXT.

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Christopher is my second favorite writer named Hitchens. His kid brother Peter possesses the same talent and education, but a sounder mind.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

All these questions about the talent or significance of one author or another. From my experience, they all fold, spindle and multilate the subject matter in the pursuit of a good story. So if you are looking for cultural cues or historical significance in someone’s writing, you are looking through the lens of the author, and reality be damned. Hemingway and Faulkner are two classic examples in that regard, though I guess a parlor game over their motivations can be played. Judge them on whether the gave you a story you enjoyed. That is the beginning and end of it.… Read more »

wholy1
Guest
wholy1

Surprised you didn’t mention Heilein.

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Thanks. I’ll check them out… and while here I’ll mention Frederick Exley’s ‘A Fan’s Notes’ as essential white guy reading.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

MacDonald is the template for TV’s Rockford Files, Magnum, and so on. There is John D. and also John Ross or Ross. Both are good but John D. gets you Florida’s Travis McGee. Dave Barry and Carl Hiassen do Travis McGee on steroids. Shulman is a cross of Midwestern & Jewish humor (Jim Lileks meets Mel Brooks), a template for major elements of all the 60s sitcoms you loved and hated. If you don’t like him a lot you will hate him, I promise. He is an acquired taste. Ellin does mystery and horror, as so many have done, but… Read more »

Member

What I find utterly strange about your writing is that your paragraphs are almost identical in length. 8 or 9 lines. No matter what the paragraph is about.

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

I noticed the same predictable cadence in Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s like he was attempting to hypnotize us, using some gnostic vibe to turn us all into zombies. There was this weird consistency in beats per line that made me suspicious.

And then I counted the lines – yep, 14 per sonnet. The paymasters – the controllers – were behind it.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

It’s a broadcaster’s discipline (among others, I’m sure). A defined structure gives you the consistency of one’s mental and verbal cadences and pace, to deliver a piece with a tight beginning, middle, and end, that properly fills the time or space allotted to the piece.

Tim
Guest
Tim

Not completely OT, but I’m curious about how many writers have been kicked off NR? Besides Derbyshire and Sobran. D I knew about, and though I’ve read Sobran on the Hive before, I didn’t realize he’d been DNR’d, so to speak. I mean, just those two names are the start of a great list. There have to be more, could practically be a great little university in and of itself. Tim

Pimpkin's Nephew
Guest
Pimpkin's Nephew

Going way back, you can add Peter Brimelow and Larry Auster – they were unpersoned in the 90s, when Buckley was still in charge.

The work of the unpersoned from NR, say 1980-2015, would make a terrific anthology of dissident right thinking.

Mike
Guest

I’ve maybe mentioned it to you before, but if not, you ought to check out Larry Brown, Z. One of the very best writers I’ve ever been fortunate enough to run across. He leaves Faulkner in the shade.

Brigadon
Member
Brigadon

You know, I am still pissed off at your idiotic ‘Not my president’ article. It’s a shame, because I held you in the highest esteem until the ‘sky is falling’ thoughtless hystrionics. Now I read your article each day wondering if, yet again, you are going to start screaming and weeping like a Hillary supporter after November. You know what? Trump IS your goddamned president. You are welcome to let him know if you feel he is messing up, but this screaming fit was WAY below your usual level of insight. If you are going to break down like a… Read more »

Richard
Guest

Down here in the Antipodes we dont have any problems understanding you. The grammer is concise and the message crystal clear.

Richard
Guest

Down here in Antipodes we dont have any problems with your posts. The writing is concise, to the point and the message crystal clear.

sirlancelot
Guest
sirlancelot

Enjoy your writing because despite your education and intellect you still choose a style that’s easily understood or as they say at in-service, “clear ,concise and to the point” Honestly some of the people posting sound like they’re speaking a different language and perhaps they are. Could be me and my bruised ego not being able to immediately comprehend what’s being written, but seems like some people are writing just to try impress. Didn’t notice the evenly spaced chapters, but your latest podcast seems to explain that and I too have become a little leery after that “not my president”… Read more »