What Separates Good Writers from Great Writers
Hint: It ain’t Buzzfeed-formatted lists
I do not consider myself a great writer. Peter Hessler is a great writer. The slam poetry guy across the street is a great writer. I’m not that guy. I’m also no Hessler – though if he ever takes applications to find a replacement for himself I will gladly put my name in the hat.
Even local journalists would laugh at my AP style. I am out of practice in formal tricks, falling back on clichés, slang, and phrases-with-dashes-for-colloquial-effect. So when I say “Good” to “Great”, dispel the notion that I have claimed to already summit that mountain. I am far from the mark.
However, I just received advice that changed how I approach writing. It came from a man who passed away last year right after I graduated college. He dressed like a Doctor Who character from the 70’s, so I’m inclined to trust his advice.
William Zinsser was a career writer and journalist. His book On Writing Well has shaped three generations of writers. If I had gone to a large PR firm in New York like I thought I was going to 2.5 years ago, I’m pretty sure I would have found this book on my boss’s desk, her boss’s desk, and probably on the desk of the person whose name is on the doors. Zinsser, basically, is the bomb.net (bomb.com already registered).
I took a handful of technical writing classes in college. I now generally snub books on writing. Even in my out-of-shape prose, I know when to use “which” instead of “that” and would never willingly end a sentence on a preposition. It’s sloppy, but I can bang out something punchy when I am rolling (This mentality is probably part of the reason I still classify as only “Good” at writing).
Zinsser is someone I heard about for a couple years. In the writing world, Zinsser and On Writing Well is like Dale Carnegie and How to Win Friends & Influence People. So a couple weeks ago, after finishing a dreadfully slow 700-page novel, I decided life needed variety. I bought three books, and Zinsser was first up to pitch.
And then Zinsser slugged me in the face. He hit me with some truth that is undoing how I was trained to write. I’m still a little concussed by the impact.
"Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: "Who am I writing for?" It's a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself... and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don't want them anyway."
- William Zinsser
Zinsser, I’m not sure if slow claps were gratifying for you, but let’s get a round going.
Just imagine yourself on top of the toboggan, Will-Z.
I was bred to believe the target audience mattered more than me: in my writing, in my videos, in my graphic design, in my first impressions, in my choice of hobbies, in how I talk, in what I talk about, and in my overall presentation of myself. Seven years of theater and four years in journalism school will do that to you.
It is a question that invades career and casual, professional and personal – and it is profound. It is not “What am I doing?” but rather “Who am I doing it for?”
Google stock photo of "target audience". Do you want to spend your time throwing darts at peoples' heads or actually writing?
Zinsser, the man who raised three generations of writers, who taught writing to Yale, Columbia, and Syracuse scholars, who wore scarves as colorful as Tom Baker, basically swats down the question like Kobe Bryant would swat down a Utah Jazz player (I was never much of a basketball fan, but I can respect the fact that KB just ended a 20 year career – go sports ball).
You are not writing to squeeze an audience out of a demographic pie chart. You are not sleazily frontloading articles with vague, deceptive click bait titles. You are not constantly falling back on safe, easy topics for writing. You are not (this one I’m speaking to myself) nervously wondering how many people will like or even read what you are going to say. As Zinsser said, “lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”
You are not writing to pander to the interests of others. You are writing to satisfy your own creative angst – to explore a controversial issue, to advertise a silly adventure, to build a fictional fantasy world, to research a scientific phenomenon.
Write for yourself. Write to exercise your mind. Write to shed light to your thoughts. Write to break from the pattern of information consumption and try to hack together a bunch of words that possess meaning. Write to challenge yourself and others. Write to take a risk. Write to create something that you can look back at and say, “I made this. This has value.”
Writing is like sports – an inspirational speech doesn’t automatically improve your game. There are technical skills. But a shift in mindset can change your focus from how to be “Good” to how to be “Great”.
Good writers excel at writing what others want to hear. Great writers write whatever they want, and do it so well that the audience is drawn in like a moth to a bonfire.
Don’t be good. Be the bonfire. Thanks for the inspiration, Zinsser.
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