My guide to writing an essay that doesn't suck
Muay Thai but for words
A perennial question: “Do you have any advice on how to be a better writer?”
My usual answer: “Don’t be a writer at all! Don’t do it unless you can’t do anything else, unless you’re terribly in love with language, and unless you don’t care if you’re replaced by AI in five years.”
That’s an obviously bad answer. So the purpose of this post is to give a less facetious and pessimistic answer and offer a more practical and hopeful one, which is primarily that what we call “good writing” is more about avoiding predictable mistakes than it is about aiming for a particular target. Being a good writer is multiply-realizable: there are a ton of ways to be a good writer. Some writers are succinct and to-the-point and minimalistic, others create sentences that thunder down the tree line like avalanches. But all bad writers are alike, in that missing subtleties immediately scream “amateur,” even to readers who are not themselves writers, and even if the reader can’t say why they dislike the piece—and so I think this guide is actually interesting for readers as well, if only so that they can articulate why they prefer certain writers to begin with.
So here are five of what I think are the most common mistakes that give off the aura of amateur when it comes to writing, particularly writing online (blogging, newsletters, etc), and direct ways to improve on them.
1. You’re not thinking about the reader.
What I mean is that the writing is for you. Now, I’ll follow this up with the acknowledgement that all writing is sneakily for the writer. If anyone says otherwise, they just aren’t being honest. But this inevitably self-obsession that drives writing (and perhaps all creative endeavors, if we are being honest) must be curbed. It is a bad habit, and it must be combated. You, a writer, an artist, are an addict of the self—but the whole point of writing is to communicate with others! So like any addict you must make your addiction explicit, go through the equivalent of a 12-step program, and then continue to fight fight fight it with every line until your fingers type your last word.
Refusing to do this, refusing to step outside yourself, is one of the main producers of bad writing. You may be interested in a topic, but why is the reader? What does the reader know, right now, at this point in the piece? Sometimes writers, even good ones, create atemporal paradoxes with their work—their argument is piecemeal and spread out, and assumes you already know the conclusion in order to understand why any of this is worth paying attention to. And sure, there are some popular authors who don’t think much about the reader, and yet have large audiences. But it’s still a flaw—they just make up for it by being very good at other stuff.
Here’s a technique for fighting this bad habit: unless the piece is extremely topical and needs to go out right away, when you finish a draft, don’t publish it. Just. . . sit on it. Sit on it for like a week (a month is ideal, but the world isn’t ideal). Then re-read it and make edits. What this does is actually put you in the position of being the reader, rather than the writer, because you literally no longer remember the exact mental context in which you penned each sentence, and you’re left with the text itself. By waiting to edit a draft, you come to it fresh, because the “you” a week later is different than whoever wrote it. Use the power of your stupid forgetful human brain to your advantage.