Holiday on Writing

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Best-selling author Ryan Holiday, who calls wanting to be a writer "mistake #1", nevertheless offers some very good advice on ... how to become a writer.

Holiday clearly doesn't mean that nobody should want to be a writer, but he plainly wants to counter what he sees as a flood of bad advice on writing. I don't agree with everything he says -- for example, he sounds like he undervalues the formal study of writing -- but he draws attention to something more writers could stand to hear: the relationship between good writing and motivation.

Holiday rightly rejects a tendency among writers of an academic bent to focus too much on writing as a craft, and not enough on experiencing life:

Write all the time, they'll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer's groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.
Holiday goes on to show us why this is important:
What matters more now than any other single thing is that what you're saying is different-that it's interesting, that it provokes some response from people. You'll only accomplish this if you've got something you have to say. Better yet, you need to have something that you can't NOT say.  If what you're writing is a compulsion rather than a vehicle for your display how smart and well practiced you are.

So think about it one more time. Is it that you want to be a writer? Or it's that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?

Getting the answer to that question right is the day you really become a writer
How can one know what one must talk about without experience? How can one relate what he learns about to others without developing some sense of how to relate to others? How can a reader become interested in prim, well-crafted verbiage that never really goes anywhere? That's all "writing" is when it is not a vessel for passion.

Those are vital considerations for anyone afflicted with the desire to write.

-- CAV


10-31-13: Corrected several misspellings of "Holiday". 


Gus Van Horn said...

[The following comment from Steve G is eposted from elsewhere. -- ed]

I’d take it one step further. Even more important than doing interesting things is thinking interesting things. One reason I like to write; I got tired of the same old cliché personalities doing the same old cliché things in books, television and movies. Eventually all the characters seem to merge into one (or small number of) amorphous blob personalities. Better to create something different, fresh – a new type of hero, new types of situations or twists on standard ones - and I get to read it afterwards :). Let the characters do the unexpected. If others want to read it as well, that’s a bonus but not the main purpose.

If you have a really good plot – a little excessive wordiness and/or awkwardness will probably not be noticed. In my opinion a good example of this is James Dickey (Deliverance), even Victor Hugo to a degree. Style and grammar are more easily fixed.

Many of the aspiring writers I’ve worked with seem to drill over the same standard situations or have difficulty laying out an interesting plot or if they do have a decent main plot no subplots or twists. Often they hammer too closely on what they know well, thereby boring the reader.

In my opinion, the secret to good writing is good thinking. You can’t tell a story well until you’ve come up with a good story to begin with. That’s the hard part. I see the same types of issues with non-fiction. You need to have an opinion and be clear why you have that opinion before communicating it to others.

Writing is a conversation between the writer and the reader. If the reader is yelling into his book at the character; ‘Hey, don’t do that!’ you’re off to a good start. On the other hand, rather than the reader screaming at the page, he could write one himself, and make sure his character; ‘doesn’t do that.’

Gus Van Horn said...

" Even more important than doing interesting things is thinking interesting things."

That's important, and I think it might help explain aspects of the piece I wasn't thrilled about, such as the dismissal of practice and analysis I mentioned and a certain modernistic "edginess" that it shares with lots of other writing that tries to sound tough.

This is in part a reaction to bad philosophy manifest in ivory tower approaches to writing and in part a reflection of the need to replace a deficient study of writing with a proper one. Unfortunately, so much bad advice from people who should know gives formal study as such a bad name. And so the whole idea of formal study is ridiculed, as if it and developing a reserve of experience and some intuition are mutually exclusive.

Gus Van Horn said...


(1) The commenter is Steve D, not Steve G.

(2) I REposted his comment.

Steve D said...

Whoops, I must have dropped it in the wrong spot. Thanks for moving it.

I agree with everything you say. Formal study, experience and intuition should be compatible, each bringing something useful to the table. That’s the way they are in other fields, why would writing be any different? Your point about needing to replace a deficient study of writing with a proper one because of bad philosophy is also well taken – this same point also could be made about many other subjects.

A couple further items: (1) the topic is crucial, which is kind of what Holiday was saying but in a different way; that you had to have something to talk about; but also it has to be a topic, which motivates the author. (2) speaking of formal study of writing; this would be valuable not just for writers but for anyone interested in culture, history, philosophy, heck even avid readers. (3) in the last post, I forgot to mention the importance of reading and reading carefully, taking note of how other authors handle their subject all the way from word choice to plot structure and worldview.

Gus Van Horn said...


I'd add that one needn't, if pressed for time, even be especially careful or systematic about reading good authors, although that can add value to the experience. One's subconscious is always forming associations -- which I would imagine is much of the basis for intuition -- and this will happen even if one quickly reads a favorite author, say, during a train commute or a wait at the doctor's office.

Something similar would apply to writing, as Thomas Sowell might agree.


Steve D said...

Yes. I think reading things that interest you is a good way to form useful associations and reading a number of different authors with different styles and approaches helps as well. Another crucial ingredient is time.

It is also true that just like in golf, in writing, practice might not always make perfect. Reading/experiencing/thinking may in fact be more useful to improve writing ability than writing itself. Like golf if there is a systemic error or a missing element, additional writing will not fix the problem and in fact could do the opposite; reinforce it.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Like golf if there is a systemic error or a missing element, additional writing will not fix the problem and in fact could do the opposite; reinforce it."

Geed point.

Snedcat said...

I remember many years ago when most of my coworkers were Baptist clergymen-in-training. One of them asked me what I thought would be the best practice and source for improving his sermons--an interesting question even to an atheist. My response was to get at least the second volume of the Norton anthology (the Brit lit one, not Yank lit, for the greater variety) and read it carefully. Enjoy the pieces you like, of course, but above all pay attention to everything you read, like or dislike. If you want to be good, learn from the best. Then, I said, find a good older textbook on rhetoric and get down the basics--though for a seminarian I expect that would be old hat compared to most vocations. Finally, I said, look for collections of the best older lectures and essays--Holmes' Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, maybe some of T.H. Huxley's scientific essays (heh, subversive me, but they ARE very good), William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, or John Morley's, or anyone else who interests you (curiously, all of those guys bored me to tears in high school, but I can enjoy and appreciate them now) and, above all, who was able to write well and with clear structure on a large scale--30 pages minimum.

I hadn't discovered the Internet yet, so I didn't add that you need to find something larger scale and with much better structure and lasting value than the usual blog nattering. The Internet is not good for perseverance in reading and writing, never mind the failings superadded to that of our age: snark, sarcasm, and a facile focus on partisan, range of the moment irks. It's another reason I really spend little time any more surfing the 'Net: I've gotten sick of drips and nibbles.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hah! Your comment caused me to see my reply to the previous. "Geed point"? Add "lack of editing time" to the list of reasons not to take blogs as exemplars of good prose.