Gee, I’ve been educated a lot this week about what writing is for — about what writers ought to be able to get away with, because they’re crafting an underappreciated genre called a persuasive essay; or because we gots to fight against the Twitterification of America with its puny, shrunken 140-character-wide brainspan; or because sometimes meandering and hemming and hawing are illustrative of a human experience and are therefore not only excusable but relevant, even unto 9,000+ words.
Hey, you know what? I never liked Montaigne, either. I read enough to get my college degree
and then I donated all my Montaigne to the library book sale some other poor liberal arts sophomore can admire ol’ Michele’s finger sniffing ways. As for me and my house, I will take notes on the first sixteen pages and then fake the rest. I’m the reader; I get to decide what I want to read. I push the boundaries of my tastes often enough that I can trust myself to occasionally say, “This stinks” — and I can still sleep at night.
Have you ever read anything by Elmore Leonard? I haven’t. Whether it’s any good or not doesn’t actually matter, because his rules for writing are fan-effing-tastic.
Best of all, I like #10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Think about that for a second. It seems so obvious; and yet it’s so obvious that so many writers simply don’t do this. They don’t think about the audience at all. They don’t worry about being engaging. They just worry about this exquisite river of ideas which pours forth from their precious mindspring.
Well, guess what, Mr. Tappy Tappy? Nobody owes you a reading. You’re not writing for myself. You already know what you think, and you already care about you ideas. Everybody else? Why should they? You have to earn it.
I don’t always work hard, God knows. But when I think have something important to say, I do work really hard to be clear, to make my writing engaging, to make my points easy to understand, and to pay the reader back handsomely if he has to make an effort to follow what I’m saying. He’s the reader; he gets to decide what he wants to read. And the minute I forget that, that’s when my writing gets shitty.
So I work. And then, if people still don’t like what I wrote, I have three choices:
1. I can say, “The hell with you. I did my best, and if you don’t like it, then goodbye to you and farewell to thee.”
2. I can say, “Uh oh, a lot of people didn’t understand what I meant, either because I dropped the ball, or because this is a tricky topic.” And then I write a follow up piece. (This seems to be what Joseph Bottum is saying.)
Or, 3. I can whine and moan about how dim everyone is, and how brave I am, and how hard it is to put myself out there day after day, booey hooey hoo, and now they’re even saying mean things about me, even though I said something that I knew would upset people! (Oh look, it’s my paycheck in the mail, and it’s really big this month, because I was Controversial!) What was I saying? Oh, yeah, booey hooey hooooo . . .
(Sometimes I indulge in #3. But at least I feel bad about it.)
Every so often, someone writes to me asking for advice about writing. I used to try to be helpful, but now I just try to talk them out of it. Why? Because they seem to think it’s just a matter of finding the right door, behind which there are throngs of people just waiting and wishing and hoping that their savior writer will come to tell them what to think.
That’s not how it goes. How it goes is, you probably have nothing new to say. Nothing. The best you can possibly hope for is that you can find a slightly new way to present something that will remind a few people of what they already know.
And most of the people who read what you say will miss your point entirely, or read what they want or expect to read. Or they won’t care, and won’t even read it, but they will insult you anyway. They will demand that you explain yourself, even though you already did. They will be, in a word, stupid.
And you know what? That’s their problem. It’s not yours. You have two jobs: to try as hard as you can to make people want to read what you have to say, and then to forget all about it once you’re done.
Think you can hack it? Think you can tear hours out of your schedule and pour it into the keyboard, press “publish,” and then just get on with the rest of your life, dealing with dinner and diapers and bad drivers and no milk for breakfast and a million other things that are really important, and yet have nothing to do with you and your precious idea butterflies? Okay, then have at it!
But for crying out loud, unless you really are Montaigne (or Gay Talese, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert Louis Stevenson, or Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain– or if, at very least, you understand why these guys are great), do it in fewer than 9,000 words.