Why Writers Don’t Write

Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators,” writes Megan McArdle in The Atantic, and it’s not the reason you’d think, though she’s almost certainly right, judging from my own experience.

We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Writers were the kids who read easily and had no problem writing well when their classmates struggled. This, McArdle continues,

teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not — indeed, probably won’t — be the best anymore.

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

It’s not laziness, it’s fear. Reading this article helped me kill a few minutes before I could knock off for lunch.

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Wrong Ideas, Once Implanted in a Young Mind

Irving Kristol offers a sobering insight into the difficulty of changing minds. He writes:

Wrong ideas, once implanted in a young person’s mind, become so plausible, so self-evident as it were, that change is hard. . . . It is a “progressive” illusion to think that, in the marketplace of ideas, truth will always win out over error. It is truth that needs help, while error usually manages to make its own way very nicely.

His example is a political one but still useful for those who don’t share his politics.

I remember a course I once taught at New York University on urban problems, in which we took up the issue of rent control. After a few weeks, the students had grasped what is apparent to most people who study the problem: That, except under emergency conditions, rent control is a bad idea in both theory and practice. Nevertheless, by the time the students took their examinations at the end of the term, it became clear that at least half the class had simply forgotten what they had learned about rent control; and once again, it seemed to them to be a perfectly good idea.

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Dealing With Editors (or Writers, Depending on Your Point of View)

An very amusing piece from my friend Randy Boyagoda: More Soon: A Sampling of Electronic Correspondence with Magazine Editors. It’s not the kind of thing you can excerpt, so just read it.

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Stalin the Editor

From the the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Micah Mattix’s Prufrock mailing: Joseph Stalin “was a ruthless person and a serious editor.”

The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched ‘for traces of those horrible things in the book.’ He found none. What he saw instead was ‘reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”

Stalin edited out references to himself, which may be taken to indicate humility but doesn’t:

[W]e should not confuse Stalin’s self-effacement with modesty. Though we tend to associate invisibility with the meek, there is a flip side that the graffiti artist Banksy understands better than most: “invisibility is a superpower. . . .

Being an author is well and good, and Stalin wrote several books — the word “author” does after all share a root with the word “authority” — but he knew that editing was a higher power. 

We should all work to suppress this story. People might make comparisons.

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Being Seriously Funny, or Amusingly Serious

A reader of First Things‘ “While We’re At It” section when I wrote it — who liked it — said that it wasn’t “serious” in the way other parts of the magazine were serious. I knew what he meant and was not miffed, but I’d want to say that I was just as serious as the other writer he mentioned, and even more so, because I’d given more thought to how to get our readers to read in the first place and then to see what I was saying, and worked harder at doing it.

That was one reason for writing like that, the other being I enjoyed doing it. It’s a kind of game. I was trying for a voice that sounded natural and informal yet stylized, which one can’t create naturally and informally. It has to be constructed.

The better you construct it, however, the more people respond to the style and miss the arguments or assume you’re not making any argument or point at all. It doesn’t sound “serious.”

Any number of times in my editorial career I’ve been editing an academic who was saying slowly and laboriously, like a man sounding out words after three classes in the language, what I or any other writer could have said in a sentence or two or three, and often said amusingly. But I knew that the writer himself wouldn’t see that the short version said what he’d said and that many of his readers would only take his point seriously if they had to slog their way to it.

And before you say something about complexity or nuance, I’m thinking of examples which offered no increase in complexity or nuance, only more words.

All this reminds me a quote from Chesterton’s Autobiography I’ve always appreciated.

I have never understood, from that day to this, any more than he did, why a solid argument is any less solid because you make the illustrations as entertaining as you can. What [Henry Scott] Holland was saying was perfectly sensible and philosophical. It was that the State exists to provide lamp-posts and schools, as well as gibbets and jails. But I strongly suspect that many, who were sufficiently intelligent not to imagine that he was mad, did imagine that he was flippant.

And I myself have made in the course of a less useful life the same curious discovery. If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently — like sheep. But if you say it of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to imagine that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic.

And though they would actually know that what you say is sense, if they thought about it sensibly, they cannot believe that anything decorated by an incidental joke can be sensible. Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull — or why so many dull men are successful.

Similar is his comment in his early book Heretics, in the chapter “On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity.” Joseph McCabe was a rationalist leader (and ex-priest) vexed with Chesterton’s way of arguing with him, and to be fair to McCabe Chesterton doesn’t answer his charge. But what he says in not answering the charge is useful:

I am quite certain that they mean every word they say. I also mean every word I say. But why is it that Mr. McCabe has some sort of mysterious hesitation about admitting that I mean every word I say; why is it that he is not quite as certain of my mental responsibility as I am of his mental responsibility? If we attempt to answer the question directly and well, we shall, I think, have come to the root of the matter by the shortest cut.

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else. The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse.

The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny “Gulliver” is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular. Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

Which leads me to Chesterton’s defense of his writing in the first chapter of Orthodoxy, the book he wrote after Heretics:

Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.

I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though, of course, I have had ordinary human vain-glory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths.

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Welcome Prufrock Readers

Micah Mattix, author of the very, very useful daily survey of interesting writing, Prufrock (subscribe here), and generally interesting writer himself, mentioned this weblog in today’s mailing. This was unexpected but also encouraging.

Here’s Micah’s Prufrock weblog from the American conservative, which I commend. Here’s an item titled The Art of Writing Well, in which he explains and criticizes Remy de Gourmont’s thoughts on style. For example:

Throughout Problème, Gourmont refuses to distinguish between style and thought—one is the other. Again, there is something to this. Good writing, he states, is “irrefutable.” At the same time, “Nothing perishes more quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigorous thought.”

But, again, he goes too far when he writes that “style and thought are the same.” This wrongly elevates originality (which is almost always what Gourmont means by “style”) to a degree that in practice diminishes the importance of truth and emotion in a work of art. Gourmont could care less about truth. “Truth tyrannizes,” he writes, “doubt liberates.” But, contra Gourmont’s self-defeating praise of it, doubt has proven just as tyrannical in art and literature as any number of other false truths. Nothing, it sometimes seems, can be expressed today in certain circles with authentic feeling without the risk of being labeled simplistic or naïve.

And here is an item Micah wrote on my writing of the “While We’re At It” section of First Things, for which I’m grateful. You can find the ones I wrote here, or rather those I’ve managed to post.

The items in his weblog begin as messages sent to friends interested in writing. If you’d like to be added to the mailing list, write me at dmills / the at symbol / lapidarycraft.com.

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The Writer & the Journalist’s Vocations

Continuing the discussion of the writer’s calling and vocation in Reading Good Writing and Did She Think She Could Do That?, here are some thoughts on how you can figure out what you’re called to do. Last month I spoke to some young journalists (in college and just out of college) sponsored by ISI’s Collegiate Network — a very worthy and helpful enterprise should you know a college student with thoughts of becoming a journalist — and tried to lay out the difference between the writer’s and the journalist’s vocation.

I started with the Austrian writer Karl Kraus’s remark about journalists: “A journalist is someone who, when he has time to write, writes worse,” or more aphoristically, a journalist is “a writer whose skill is improved by a deadline”. Here’s part of the beginning of the talk (written, I should note, to be read out loud):

* * * * *

Krauss was insulting journalists but the quality he insults is in a way a summary of the gifts of which the journalist should be most proud. The particular skill set of the journalist is not that of the writer. There’s not a rigid distinction between the two but they really are different. The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, is often called a journalist but he seems to me to have been a writer who liked to find stories to tell from his own experience, but I don’t think he’d really care to do the kind of digging and searching the real journalist does.

Saying the journalist is not a writer is not to insult the journalist. He just does something different. Something just as important, and in some ways more important, and closely related to the writer’s work, but different. The journalist’s gifts include the ability to recognize the story, and to figure what is the essential part of story and how to find it, and to find the people he needs to talk to and get them to talk, and to write it up in a compelling way in the number of words he has and for the publication that’s assigned the story.

We saw that last night in the first part of Rich Miniter’s talk. The idea of using ex-wives and disgruntled employees to find information that’s still unknown that’ll make your story — I don’t think I would ever have thought of it. Same with the idea of asking the insurance copy for a real estimate of the costs of cleaning up New Orleans. Same with his stories of how he framed the stories so an editor wanted them. As I say, I couldn’t do that naturally. I could learn the list of sources to pursue but for me it would be running down a checklist. For him finding sources is something his mind does naturally.

Here’s an example from Tom Wolfe, from an interview in the American Spectator:

I started writing the same sort of pieces for Esquire. Its editor, Harold Hayes, wanted a piece done on Muhammad Ali, and Ali wanted to be paid for it. . . .

When I joined him on Monday, to every question I asked him, I would get an answer that I had read in the clippings beforehand. I was trying to ask him questions where he was bound to have some new material, but I couldn’t get anywhere. But I could be with him all day. So the whole story ended up being about the people he ran into and the incidents that would come up. . . .

Most of his hangers-on had nothing to do with boxing. One night we went to a nightclub. There must have been a dozen people at a big table and everybody was ordering drinks and every kind of food. When the waiter brought the desserts, Ali got up and stretched, said it was a little stuffy in the restaurant, and left. I was pretty quick to get out too. That was the kind of thing that that story was full of. Ali just didn’t want to pay the bill.

Were I in Wolfe’s place I might given up in despair. But the real journalist just thinks of another way to get the story, or in this case to get the story he could get.

. . . One way to figure out your vocation is: It’s the subject about which you’re a nerd. And being a nerd shows up early. Writers, I think, find themselves interested in words from a very early age. They like reading dictionaries because they like knowing exactly what words mean. They get pleasure from learning the fine distinctions between words and using each of them right. They read things not just for the content but to figure out how the writer does what he does. They compose essays in the shower.

I’m not sure what the journalist’s experience would be. But it must include always wanting to know what’s going on and wanting to know the story behind the story. Future journalists ask grownups the questions other children would never dare ask or even think of asking.

Another way of discerning your vocation: It’s the work you take pains to do, even when it’s a huge pain. By that I mean the kind of things you just have to do if you’re to do what you’re called to as well as possible, which are usually the things you don’t want to do — what “Human Resources” departments like to call your “growing edge.” Sometimes it means calling one more source when you’re 97% sure of the story and just want to get it done. Sometimes it means going through the story it one more time because you have ten minutes before the editor needs it and you know you can make a few tweaks to improve it. It may mean bigger things, like learning another language. Someone said genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains and that’s one of the things that distinguishes the person’s who’s really good at what he does. He goes above and beyond.

So that’s the place of vocation in writing well. Let me add a final sign of your vocation: It’s also the thing whose limitations please you. It’s the game you most enjoy playing. As I wrote in the “While We’re At It” section of First Things a couple years ago, complaining about writers:

Writers, being writers, often insist that they need to do what the editor will not let them do—write a 1,500-word essay in 4,000 words, for example. I tell them that the challenge and pleasures of the craft come in doing what you need to do within the restrictions—in saying in 1,500 words what you’d like to say in 4,000. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

It’s one of the things that separates the writer from the person who writes. The former thinks of how he is going to say what he wants to say in the form given him and sits down to it the way a chess player sits down to play with the pieces and board in front of him. The latter thinks of what he wants to say and accepts the limitations because he wants to get published, and wonders how he can smuggle an extra queen or two onto the board.

For the journalist, part of the pleasure and indeed joy of the work is figuring out how to get the story in the three days you have, and how to write it up in the 800 words the editor has given you, and how to make its importance clear to the bored information over-loaded reader who picked up your publication. If you’re really a journalist, you don’t complain about the limitations, you try to beat them.

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Did She Think She Could Do That?

My friend Judy Warner sends a story that nicely illustrates the nature of vocation or calling, which came up in Reading Good Writing:

Your description of what a writer does when reading made me laugh, because it made me realize what I had done that was comparable. When in my late 30s I decided I wanted to write, I didn’t know exactly what or how, but didn’t want to write fiction.  Then when I was talking to someone at Vermont Castings about an unrelated job, he said they were planning to start an owners’ newspaper and did I think I could do that?

I immediately know exactly what it would be like and how I would do it.  I set about making a mockup right away even though I didn’t know what a mockup was. Then when I got the chance to actually do it, I learned about every piece of the process and did it, and wrote, edited, supervised art, and produced a nice and much-admired tabloid-type newsletter.  It was the most fun I ever had in a job.

So thinking about that, I realize that I had always looked at the structure of the books and magazines I read since I was very young — things like page numbers, copyrights, tables of contents, typefaces, columns and features, and so on. I made all the birthday and other cards for my family and put a little “Kaplan Press” logo on the back of each. I created newsletters all the time.  What a funny thing to have developed a knowledge of.

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Reading Good Writing

My friend Richard Smith and I have been discussing academic writing, he as an academic who writes and me as someone who edits people like him. Richard teaches classics at the Franciscan University. Here’s the latest exchange.


On the subject of good academic writing, Christopher B. Krebs, a classics professor at Stanford, concluded his review of Dying Every Day by James Romm, also a classicist, in the following way (WSJ, 4/19-20, C7):

Mr. Romm is a fluent writer, and “Dying Every Day” is a fast-paced read. Regrettably, this means that necessary complications are often left by the wayside or shunted to the endnotes. The absence of a proper discussion of Stoicism seems most problematic. There are also some noticeable inaccuracies. . . . An ancient historian by training who left his mark on classical studies early on with his “The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought” (1992), Mr. Romm is also an admired author. These two vocations are not necessarily at odds; but neither are they easily united. In “Dying Every Day” the latter carries the day over the former. I find this problematic; others, and maybe Mr. Romm himself, will beg to differ.

It emerges in the body of the review that Krebs judges Romm’s book to be sensationalistic in a Tacitean manner, and that this distracts from the stated aim of the book: to reconcile the Stoic Seneca and the statesman Seneca.

Two thoughts occur to me. First, the scholarly author has to be clear about his audience. Old series such as “Our Debt to Greece and Rome” contained books written for a non-specialist audience in attractive prose with brief endnotes and bibliography. Here is an example from John C. Rolfe’s Cicero and His Influence (1963):

As to his invective, it has already been said that Cicero was a man of strong feeling, intensely human, a good friend and a good hater. The amenities of Roman politics and of the Roman courts were not such as to oblige an orator to hold his personal feelings in check. The most outrageous charges against personal and political morality were freely made, and Cicero’s vituperation falls far short of Mark Antony

Such writing is possible today, and you have helped any number of scholars to achieve it. From what I can gather from Krebs’ review, Romm was not clear about his audience, and so wrote a book that serves neither audience, popular or academic.

Second, bad thinking is bad thinking, whether for a popular audience or for an academic audience. Mistakes in facts, failure to address essential background information, oversimplification, all can be found in all types of writing. However, what constitutes oversimplification, or for that matter over-elaboration, will differ with the audience. Thus, the elements of experience and practical judgement become part of the problem.

Which leads me to note something that I have observed in my Honors classes over the years: only those who have made a practice of reading good prose and poetry in their leisure time over their lifetime are really capable of becoming good writers. They have become habituated to good writing, they have formed good taste, they have developed practical wisdom. Such people would understand Cicero’s remarks about the joy of liberal studies, i.e., of reading good books:

For the rest of the things that give delight are not appropriate to all times or all ages or all places; but liberal studies nourish adolescence, make old age pleasant, adorn successful enterprises, offer solace and escape in adverse circumstances, give delight at home, do not get in the way in public life, stay awake at night with us, go abroad with us, rest in the country with us. (Pro Archia).


You are right about the need to read good writing, and right to add “in their leisure time,” which most people who make that point don’t do. I think it’s the reading for pleasure that makes the good writing effective in forming one’s own writing, maybe — this is a guess — because one is naturally receptive and at a deep level in the way one isn’t when reading for instruction. People who read good writing because they feel they ought to read it don’t learn nearly as much from it. At least that’s my theory.

My one modification is that the thing that separates the person who writes well from the writer is that the latter not only reads good writing for pleasure but reads it for the pleasure of the writing — which the first may do, of course, but I think not in the same way  — and on top of that consciously examines how the writer did what he did. It’s a small difference but an important one, at least from the writer’s point of view. It’s one of the sources of his particular skills, the skills peculiar to his craft, like being able to write in different voices and pull off certain look-ma-no-hands effects.

The difference is like that between the person who spends time in museums enjoying good and great painting who (I am describing myself) picks up a lot about the use of color, the way to compose scenes, and the like, but mostly absorbs it and can’t explain what he’s absorbed well to anyone else, and the painter who enjoys the paintings in the same way as the first person but also looks at the brush strokes and all the aspects of the craft the first person doesn’t even know about.

This way of looking at other people’s work in one’s craft is, I suspect, inborn. One finds oneself thinking “How did he do that?” when other people looking at the same painting or reading the same writer say just “Wow, that’s really good” or “I like that a lot.” They’re happy with that degree of insight because they’re not trying to do the same work. I had the experience as a youth, and a youth with very smart friends, of wanting to discuss in that way a book we all loved and watching my friend’s faces go slack.

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How Are They Supposed to Know That?

An academic friend of some distinction responded to the comments about readers’ limitations in Vocabulary (i.e., Big) Words with a report from his university.

During the past twenty years I have had to stop in the middle of lectures and ask — and this means singling out various random individuals — whether they have understood what I have been saying.  In every instance I shall have used half a dozen words that no one in the class can define or even give a close approximation to.  Most of these words occur in the reading assignment for the day.  Even if they have “read” the assignment, they have not bothered to look up the words they don’t know.

In a class for upper-level English majors, he said, he taught John Donne’s “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” and very students knew the word or looked it up.

It never occurred to them that reading an assignment means looking up the words you don’t know — even words in the title.  Over the last five to ten years, I have been including in my syllabus a warning that reading means looking up the meanings of unfamiliar words.

In the ’70s and ’80s anthologies and student texts of Donne did not gloss “Valediction”; now they do (see recent editions of The Norton Anthology).  But this hardly does any good.  A few years ago I gave a quiz on the reading assignment on Herrick’s poetry (remember, this is an upper-level course for English majors).  My first question was, “What is the meaning of Herrick’s title, Hesperides?”

Most students missed this question, and I expressed surprise and disappointment.  “How were we supposed to know that?” one indignant young lady complained.  “It’s in the note at the beginning of the selection,” I pointed out, now without some exasperation.  “You didn’t tell us to read the notes,” was her indignant reply.  No one laughed.  I now include in my syllabus the warning that “reading” the assignment includes reading the introductory material and footnotes.

Words they don’t know, “big words,” are “vocabulary words,” because that is how they cram for standardized tests, with lists of words rather than learning them the natural way by reading.

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