I’ve been having conversations around what makes good writing over the past few days. We’ve talked about whether the issue is that people just want to check off a box, if there is a failure in intellectual curiosity, if people are intimidated by the process, afraid of getting it wrong, emotional about having their thoughts critiqued…
At one point, I made the observation that I thought people take writing personally because taking your thoughts and putting them on a page is vulnerable and definitive in a way that speaking just isn’t. You can always dispute that you said something. If its on the page, you’re on the record, not just for the thought you wrote down, but for how that thought followed the last one. Writing feels like a map to the brain and to have someone critique how you write feels like being told that you’re not good enough at thinking. Who wants to be told that they are a rotten thinker?
In the meeting, this theory was shot down, but I’m hanging on to it because I didn’t buy the alternative, which is that people don’t brave the process of learning to write better because they don’t want to work that hard. Of course, we all want easy answers. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
Writing is an egotistical act. Let’s call the spade a spade here. To sit down and write is to assert that I have something to say that is valuable enough to read (alternately, it’s the introvert’s answer to diarrhea of the mouth). Paradoxically, ego is the enemy of good writing. The hallmark of a good writer is navigating ego and humility… You have to have the ego to show up with pen in hand. After that, it had better be all humility. Here’s why: writing means nothing if it isn’t read by someone. If you bring a need to demonstrate to the whole world how smart you are to the table, the audience isn’t going to like your attempt to make them feel stupid.
Who you are and how your ego gets fed is at least as good of a predictor of good writing as knowing Strunk and White inside and out. (I just made that up. It might not be true, but I think it is.) Writing reveals character. A passionate person is going to write passionately. A misanthropic SOB is going to write misanthropic stuff. No one asked Bukowski to write a romantic comedy, it wouldn’t have sold. The writer tells you exactly who they are, not in the subject matter, not by writing an autobiography, but in word choices, style, rhythm, organization, and all of the other small choices that an Author makes that add up over sentences, paragraphs, and pages.
If you can derive pleasure, not from trying to make sure everyone knows how smart you are, but from understanding the audience, being able to see the world from their point of view, and telling the story that they need to hear, you’re already several steps ahead of everyone else.
Finding passive voice can be taught. Grammar can be taught. Authentic identification with your audience… if anyone has good ideas about how to teach someone to set their ego aside in service to an audience, please let me know. I could teach what it looks like, but the outward appearance isn’t sufficient and I’ve yet to crack the code on transferring values from one person to the next.