About the Actual Writing Part

I don’t know why you’d want to be a writer other than to pensively scratch your chin as you stare out the window of a chic café


All kidding aside don’t write in coffee shops. Yes, it feels romantic, access to bottomless coffee seems ideal, maybe someone will see you looking gorgeous in your writerly intensity and you’ll get laid. It’s not worth it. You will spend 7% of your time there actually writing, at a maximum. Write in your bathtub like a normal person. (You are gorgeous though.)

I was really chuffed about the positive response I got to my post on being a professional short-form nonfiction writer in the 21st century. It’s nice to write something of practical use, particularly for people at the beginning of their journey, and even nicer to get so much good feedback. Sorry if I didn’t email you back.

A lot of people asked a sensible question: why didn’t I say anything about the actual writing? That is, why didn’t I give advice about the writing process, rather than just broad thoughts about how to go about building a writing career? Aside from not assuming my writing is something people want to emulate, I didn’t provide that kind of advice because I’m actually deeply opposed to it on principle. I don’t think static writing advice (that is, lists of tips and tricks that are meant to apply to everyone) is any good; in fact I think it’s usually actively harmful. I believe in editing, or just the influence of a sympathetic reader who is willing to provide honest feedback. I think some people get better in writing classes or writing programs. I think it may be worthwhile to hire a writing coach, for some. But I think the lists of things you should and shouldn’t do in your writing that you see out there ruin a lot of writers.

In the abstract, it’s simply this: static writing advice is dangerous for the same reason that WebMD is dangerous. It fails to see that a patient is not a list of symptoms; your problems in writing are never reducible to “ah, too many commas.” Worse, it treats as fixed and universal that which is ever-changing and particular. Writing has to conform to its subject, which means it has to be malleable and soft, and rules are neither. Editing is so valuable (if sometimes wrong and always painful) because the editor can see the ways in which you have been inflexible and how that has hurt the piece. (You write something and you grow attached to it and, at their best, editors are the one to gently advise you to let it go.) The writing rules that get reblogged on Tumblr or represented as scientific fact on Quora are an expression of inflexibility itself. Should you write shorter sentences? Should you write longer? I don’t know. What does the situation call for? How do you want to represent yourself to the world? It depends. It all depends. Should you avoid the passive voice? If someone asks you, “where were you born?” I certainly hope that you don’t. It’s all just tools in a toolbelt, and if you say “I’m never going to use a spanner wrench because I saw on a list that real writers don’t do that,” I think that’s foolish and not a good sign for your future.

Besides I truly, deeply believe that most of the specific writing tips you see are worthless horseshit.

I shudder to think of how many writers have been wrecked by the cult of American minimalism. If you want to define everything wrong with 21st century American writing, think of some self-impressed brodude gazing down at you in mock concern and saying “uh, have you tried writing less?” Minimalism is a virus that infected American writing in the early 20th century and which has flared back up for seasonal outbreaks again and again ever since. Minimalism says that there is nothing a writer can say that would not be better left unsaid. Minimalism lusts after a blank page. Five word sentence? Couldn’t it have been three? There’s a profoundly regressive spirit to this shit, and it teaches young writers that words are something they are confined by rather than something that empowers them. (Why write if you’re scared to write lustily and out loud?) Over and over again, “couldn’t you have said this more concisely” (OK), “less is more” (sometimes yes, sometimes no), “nobody wants to know what’s in your heart, just give us the facts” (says who?), “what, are they paying you by the word?” (fuck you). I have never known any of these crabby ass old men to be capable of writing anything that moves anyone, so I don’t know why we’re supposed to bow to their monastic wisdom. Write as much as you have to.

In our tradition minimalism is something like the mutant child of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, James Wood, and Strunk and White. Bastards, all of them. Talented! But bastards. Strunk & White ruined a generation and I for one am glad that The Elements of Style is steadily fading into the mists of history. (For an interesting look at Strunk & White’s connection to political and social conservatism, I recommend this article by Catherine Prendergast. Favorite line: “Though a terrorist, Kaczynski is also Strunk and White's target audience: an amateur writer who hates to be wrong.”) Woods has been parodied so effectively that I feel nothing more about him needs to be said, though he has written many great book reviews. Orwell was a shitty novelist but a sublimely talented essayist who frequently used those skills to say things that didn’t need to be said. Hemingway is like Glenn Danzig in that he was a walking talking self-parody and yet at times that parody matches the moment so perfectly you don’t really care. Where was I? Oh, right - don’t let an older generation lay a curse on you just because they labored underneath it themselves. Write the way that you would like, including expansively if it suits you. The world is complicated and sometimes writing has to be too.

For a fuller exploration of these themes by a better writer than I am, please read this essay by Francine Prose, who brilliantly discusses what brevity and length do - and do not - have to do with clarity. (If this essay gives you nothing else but a recommendation for Francine Prose’s work it will still be well worth your time. She is my true north as a nonfiction writer.)

Many people find my work overwrought or overwritten, and that’s cool. Your writing will never be for everyone. And in shouldn’t be. My piece “the lee of the stone” last week attracted a fair share of critics, who felt it was too personal, exploitative of myself and my family, “not what I signed up for,” etc. Which is fine. But many more people seem to have loved it deeply. Now consider the world in which I predicted the criticism and decided to make that piece less personal, less stylized, less intense…. In that world maybe the critics would go from disliking the piece intensely to liking it mildly. But those people who loved it would also now merely like it, and what would be gained? In this world, those who don’t like that piece can just not read it again; those who loved it can return to it as many times as they would like. The OK-for-everybody version of that piece gets read once and slips into the memory hole. Which is better?

There may be writers talented enough that they can write in a way that all people will love. But I’m certainly not one of them. I have to make hard choices in my writing that will please some readers and repel others. And so will you.

More specific advice, I don’t know. “Adverbs are bad,” or whatever the hell Stephen King says? Depends. Do you mean J.K. Rowling describing an elf making its way down a staircase, or F. Scott Fitzgerald describing a woman getting out of a car? Saying “get rid of adverbs” is as irrational to me as looking at a symphony orchestra and saying “get rid of all the oboes, they’re worthless.” Surely the question is not “are oboes good or bad” but “does my composing style make effective use of oboes?” If not, don’t use them. And maybe oboes are a particularly hard instrument to make use of, I don’t know. I do know that if you had a situation as a composer where inserting an oboe part made sense, but you felt peer pressure from other composers not to write oboe parts so you didn’t, that would be truly stupid. As a reader I have sometimes been weirded out by a particularly painful expression of an action, tried to understand why the writer wrote it that way, then came to the realization that they had been confronted with a situation where they had to say “he walked quickly” or “he walked slowly,” decided that Serious Writers don’t use adverbs, and arrived at some laborious and disorienting way to say that while avoiding them. I feel tired just thinking about it. I promise you that an adverb can at times be better than your clumsy attempt to avoid one.

What else goes on those lists? The passive voice is sometimes appropriate, I promise. “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time” is not a bad sentence. If I wrote a sentence that good I would grow wings and fly away to a better place. No rules. No rules.

Is all writing rewriting, like they say? I mean, sure. Why not. That’s not wrong. Yes, you should revise. And in particular you should revise reflexively and continuously. When I’m writing line 7 I promise you I’m deeply annoyed about something going on in line 4 and that it will be changed before I finish line 10. Constant endless iterative change. If I could grant you one gift as a writer it would be a sense of permanent dissatisfaction. The idea of a “first draft” or “second draft” is bizarre to me, a totally artificial construct, so of course that’s something we insist on teaching our young people. But the concept that it’s never finished, you just run out of time, I’m on board with that. So no, “all writing is rewriting” isn’t wrong. I just don’t know if there are really any writers out there whose problem is that they write down an essay completely linearly from start to finish and don’t know that they can change it and sit on their hands staring at it like “why isn’t my writing better?” That’s not an actual thing.

I have much more general, less prescriptive advice than that which you usually hear, if you would like it. Whether I’m worth listening to I leave up to you.

Please think of the money. I’ve already said this in multiple places and it bums people out so I don’t want to belabor it. But the financial picture in this world is significantly worse than it was even 10 years ago. Many newspapers and magazines employ literally half as many people as they once did. The major publications you dream of writing for pay their median writer significantly worse than you assume. Book advances have collapsed. It’s tough. I really, truly think you should consider having a day job, and not just in the obvious sense that you need one starting out but as a permanent condition. Octavia Butler was a capital-G Genius but wrote professionally for 10 years before she was able to quit her day jobs. (Including potato chip inspector, which I would never have quit.) Wallace Stevens was the greatest American poet ever and he was happily employed in insurance his entire career, as he treasured the independence it afforded him. I know it’s not sexy but think it over as a legitimate artistic choice.

Talent is real, but who cares. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to act like there’s no such thing as natural talent in writing, given my perspectives on education. I’m sure there is and I’m sure it matters; I think there are things early period Susan Sontag did that can’t be taught. But we’re all working within the constraints of our talents and I certainly don’t consider myself particularly talented. Cultivate your craft to the best of your ability. It’s all you can ask of yourself.

Listen to your teachers. I’m sorry to admit that I’m one of those annoying people who self-consciously “works on his prose”; I read a lot; I get a lot of feedback on my writing, some of it sincere; I try to develop a style that is distinct from the default style of my era while also absorbing what’s best in that style. But the three biggest influences on my writing will always be Leigh Shearer (fifth grade), Sandy Tucci (sophomore and junior year of high school), and Mary Anne Nunn (sophomore year of undergrad). They taught me to write. Everything else is built on the foundation of what they taught me. And what each gave me was not a list of rules (although each had very particular ideas about how they wanted us to format our papers) but an appreciation that prose writing is the steady procession of small changes that create an overall impression. You can’t decide “this essay will have gravitas.” You successfully create it with innumerable small choices or you don’t. Good writing instruction is invaluable and we should all be humbled to remember that someone once held our hand. Unfortunately college writing pedagogy has been broken by the obsession with multimodality and the recent attitude on American campuses that giving students any negative feedback at all is somehow the hand of oppression, but I’ll grouse about that some other time.

Write a lot. This is easy for me to say. I write pathologically; that is, I write so much that it has become a detriment to my life, and the amount of writing I’m doing is frequently inversely correlated with my overall health. I have tracked how much I write in a given week fairly obsessively for about 9 years now. Since I lost my job last June I have been averaging a bit more than 35,000 words a week in various files and folders. I know this sounds like virtue signaling or that I’m humblebragging but I want to stress again that my compulsive-in-the-psychiatric-sense writing is not good for me or my life. Writing less has been a goal several therapists have given me in the past decade. (Yes, as you would expect, the amount that I write is frequently a reflection of my bipolar cycle, though the amount I have been writing for the past 10 months or so is high even for me and I am receiving effective treatment now.) Some of these words go into drafts here that I don’t intend to publish; some into Word docs that have no purpose and which I do nothing with. There are more than a thousand of those files now, dating back to shortly after the turn of the millennium. (They serve no purpose, they clutter my drives, I have not opened 99.9% of them in years, and yet I will diligently copy them over when I buy my next computer.) Do not write a lot like me.

But do write a lot. Writing is like playing an instrument: it’s all about reps. I know that this is as banal as advice gets. But I think we live in an age of distraction where there are so many other things fighting for your time; I think it’s easy to tell yourself that composing social media posts improves your longform writing when it does not; and I think there remains some unfortunate impression, perhaps left over from the Beats, that great writers produce writing the way a bird produces song. The latter may be true, but we mortals create good prose by trying and trying and trying again. Which leads directly to the next point.

The internet is your advantage. Use it. One thing I hated about academia was that every professor wanted to be the cool professor and they would all constantly try to show how they were down with the kids and so essays with titles like “Down with the Yik-Yak: Why the Internet is Not Destroying Writing” wallpaper our colleges. But it’s true, the internet is not destroying writing. I think the internet’s impact on writing has been mixed, but I actually think that the overall level of prose style out there now is way better than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Genuinely. The average professional writer, from where I’m sitting, is so much sharper now in pure craft. I have many, many problems with the economy of short-form digital nonfiction, not the least of which is the economic exploitation of early-career writers. But one complaint I don’t have is that these kids can’t write. I think, frankly, that people say that because it just kind of sounds true. It isn’t. I may not respect Buzzfeed but I recognize that the average 22 year old there can produce effective and graceful prose. (I stress, can.)

And I think there’s a clear reason: the internet allows for constant feedback and iterative response. You write a piece, you make stylistic and formal choices, you put it out into the world, within a couple of hours you have feedback, you adjust, you put out your next piece, repeat. It’s a machine for developing a voice. I don’t hold myself up as some kind of exemplar but I do have a distinct writing voice, for good or for bad, and that’s because I’ve published considerably more words on the internet in the past 13 years than Shakespeare published in his life - and at every stage people told me “this is good” or “this is shitty.” You can’t really help but get better, or at least more distinctly yourself, when you have that much opportunity for feedback. But everybody else has been getting better too, so the bar has been raised.

So I think if you’re young (or just early in your career) the essential question is how you can establish a feedback loop that really works for you. I wish I had a clearer idea about how best to do that currently but I don’t; the internet is a different place than in my formative years. Blogs that were in constant conversation with other blogs and came packaged with comments sections had a raft of problems, but they allowed for a ruthless efficiency in finding out what you did well and what you didn’t. (When I started blogging it was perfectly common for entirely unpaid bloggers like myself to post three or four times a day.) It was like an MFA program that didn’t cost $30k a year and where you didn’t have to put up with Cale, the white guy with dreadlocks who endlessly tinkers with his play about how we’re all living in the Matrix.

How should you do it in 2021? I’m not 100% sure. As I said before, you need to own your own space on the internet at your own URL under your own name. People pushed back on this but I really do feel strongly about it. Austin Kleon, who gives more good advice to creative types than anybody, stresses this as well. If I get canceled again tomorrow and Substack takes me out behind the barn like Old Yeller I’ll still have my site, with my URL, and can move all my stuff back over there, where anyone can find me. (And, for the record, because my subscription fees run through Stripe I don’t need to ask my subscribers to recommit if that happens, which I don’t think a lot of critics of Substack grasp.) If nothing else you need a splash page to direct to other parts of your digital presence.

And to answer an emailer’s question publicly, if someone else already has that URL that means you need to write under an altered name anyway - using your middle name as your first name or First Middle Last if it doesn’t sound unbearably pretentious. Or First Middle, like some actors do, although make sure you sort this out with publications before they cut your checks. You have to be Googleable, which means you can’t have an identical pen name as another writer. (My given name is Ursula Le Guin, most people don’t know that.)

Anyway people who are more savvy about the digital networks of 2021 might have better ideas about how to share your work and get comments on it. The most straightforward part is publishing on your website. When you figure out the best way and place to share your work, share it. The hard part is getting honest feedback. You might have to solicit it from people who aren’t close enough to you to spare your feelings. Share, receive feedback, adjust, repeat for the rest of your life.

Have fun! Get serious. But have fun! On the list of topics I am overwrought about (that is to say, all of them), on the top is writing itself.

In college I was angry. I was sure that I didn’t matter and that nothing made sense. (Perhaps I can be excused for those feelings.) But I had a teacher, Dr. Eleanor Godway, who was brilliant and who had that special type of kindness that comes only from being very hard on everyone, from asking the most of them. She broke me out of my self-pity precisely by taking my pain seriously. She helped me let go of God in a way that was so gracious and so understanding, not remotely pushy, just a sympathetic ear that affirmed the legitimacy of my feelings as God slipped out of my life like someone quietly leaving a party. And she introduced me to Sartre and the French existentialists. And they said, of course you’re angry; the world is broken. Of course your life seems pointless; all life is pointless. Of course you can’t find purpose; there is no purpose. And they were correct, and there was a certain kind of cold comfort there, but it still left you wondering why you’d bother to get out of bed in the morning.

the most formidable woman who ever lived


But then we read The Ethics of Ambiguity, and everything changed. Simone de Beauvoir also said “all of this is without inherent meaning,” but where her partner put a period, she added a “But.” And in that book, after that “but,” she explained how to live. And it saved my life. Literally, it saved my life. That’s what writing can do. I can’t be Simone de Beauvoir, of course, and you probably can’t be either. (I have very rarely referenced de Beauvoir in my work because, to be frank with you, I don’t think I am up to the challenge. I have been immensely intimidated by her for 20 years.) But what I can do is take writing as seriously as I can, out of respect and gratitude for saving my life. If I have been at times overly harsh as a writer I don’t want to be absolved for it, but I do want to be understood: I am harsh out of a fierce dedication to reading people as closely as I possibly can. Because I believe in this shit. I really do. Somehow, this has all become my profession, and since that’s the case I may as well take the task itself seriously. And if you’re going to do this too, if you want to take on a job that is romantic but financially uncertain at best, one that brings with it all manner of indignities and which has tragically adopted a self-defensive culture of triviality, you might as well take your work seriously too.

Yes, I’m pretentious. But unapologetically believing in these values has gotten me through some really tough stuff. I don’t know what not being pretentious does for you. I’ve said it before but - I don’t understand why so many in journalism/media/writing have so thoroughly ironized and ridiculed their own vocations, rejecting ideas like craft and inspiration as too embarrassing to embrace publicly. I mean I do; it’s self-defensive, obviously. But the stance of “I don’t take what I do seriously and I think caring about it is funny” is no defense against anything. This world is a tough place, we’re all struggling for meaning, we have to pay the bills and we’d like to find some way to do it that feels like it matters. So if you find something you think you’re good at and you enjoy, why not admit that it’s important to you, that you very much do care?

Figure out what you are and what your writing is. Try to understand what draws people to it or pushes people away. And what you find that you are, you should embrace. This is corny as hell, but it really is a journey of self-discovery, finding out who you are as a writer. You’ll surprise yourself. And it’s immensely fulfilling if you’re willing to really, unapologetically take it on as your life’s work. So do, and have fun.