The only good tip on writing: Don't read tips on writing

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Ben Yagoda
  • Jared and Corin
  • Ben Yagoda
"Should We Write What We Know?" is an essay written by English professor Ben Yagoda and posted on the New York Times Opinionator blog. I spotted it being touted on Facebook by my friend Henry Kisor.

"Wisest ideas about writing I've seen in a long time," said Kisor. He's a novelist and former book editor, and he likes Yagoda's answer to the headline's question. The answer is yes, of course, Yagoda observing that a "mediocre writer who knows his stuff to the very depths of his soul" will write a better piece on that stuff than an "accomplished writer" whose grip on the subject is tenuous. (The Reader was launched in 1971 on the premise that inexperienced writers tackling subjects close to their hearts would not only write about them well, but often be willing to write about them for nothing.)

Yagoda says the skilled writer with the shaky grip isn't helpless; he or she can firm it up through the process known as "reporting" or "research." This is true enough; but here Yagoda gets carried away. Although some writers set out to master their subject no matter how long it takes because they've made a commitment to it, other writers have an unerring sense of just how much they need to know about their topic in order to write the piece and sell it and be done with it. Yagoda overstates these writers' devotion to mastery.

"The idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority," he writes. "Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn 'em and leave 'em." But it isn't "complete authority" that these writers achieve—it's an illusion of complete authority. In-flight magazines don't pay enough for the real thing.

I am wary of exercises that purport to offer wisdom about writing. I read plenty of those exercises when I was young and looking for tips. None worked their magic, and I finally decided the only intelligent line ever uttered about the craft of writing was Red Smith's "Open a vein and bleed." Those how-to exercises were no different from the books and articles that tell yearning mopes how to get rich in the stock market and how to become the kind of guy rich men immediately like, offer to bankroll, and hope will marry their daughter.

When, on Kisor's say so, I read Yagoda's essay, I admit I was looking for reasons to be annoyed by it. I found a good one.

"Know-their-stuff writers," writes Yagoda, "are Nate Silver on probability, Bill James on baseball, David Thomson on film, or The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on television."

Or? It's just a list, not a choice.

It doesn't take much to discredit a useful discussion on writing well in the eyes of someone who finally decided there was no such thing.

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