Writing Should Open a Vein

Young writers want to be liked. They text and tweet with fervor about their lives — but in their writing, most won’t bare themselves. They lack grit. Here’s my pep talk.

The New Yorker, October 2014

As an editor, I come across way too many poorly written articles by young communication students and journalism graduates who should know better. They rely on lazy fact checking and shallow research, an unquestioned reliance on spell checkers. They cover mostly generic and predictable topics. But most unnerving: many writers have no unique voice. The articles are complacent and timid, a boring, conform rehashing of predigested and safe thoughts that live in a vacuum. No history, no presence, no looking ahead. Too many stones left unturned. An easy read with no commitment asked. Like. Share. Done.

This made me wonder whether young writers are afraid to speak out and give it their all. They want to be liked, thumbs up and a happy emoji attached. And even though they text and tweet with fervor about every conceivable aspect of their personal lives — in their writing, most won’t bare themselves. They lack the guts to tackle substantial, sometimes controversial and uncomfortable content.

And yet, they quickly find decent jobs and employment after they graduate. Professional journalists, on the other hand, editors and writers with years of editorial experience and pedigree, who have to clean up their copy, are shed aside. What does that say about our profession?

I never spoke at a graduation ceremony, but this is what I would say to this young, eager crowd.

Dear graduates, fellow journalists and young writers,

Welcome to the world of media. You’ve got the tools to be a writer — but good writing cannot be taught. You either have an inner voice and write from your gut or you haven’t found it yet and are still searching. The rest of you will never look for that spark, and that is inexcusable. I believe that there are no good writers or bad writers but boring, predictable, stiff and conformist writers — or writers who can sing.

You have pledged to yourself that you are not a “content-creator” who churns out tepid copy or click bait. Good. Your goal is to produce engaging, highly researched and original thoughts, written from a unique perspective. Good writers offer what hasn’t been offered before. You owe that to your readers.

You need a niche to stand out. Find what makes your blood boil. That is what you should cover, while also taking a step back: You don’t want to preach to the converted and you don’t want to rant. Find the middle ground. Get going and take a stand. You need to sweat over your copy. If it comes too easy, you didn’t dig deep enough.

The most honest writing comes from a personal experience or a simmering inkling, not by rehashing generic how-to content, neatly indented as you’ve been instructed to do in school. No, your word limit is not always set in stone. Long-form is back — but make every word count. Sometimes, less is more.

Once the topic is fleshed out, start digging. There is a wealth of information that can be dusted off and taken into account (and not all is necessarily online!). That said, you’re not googling in order to copy/paste. You are curating content, putting it in context, adding, subtracting, cross-checking, analyzing, refuting, cheering, deflating, while always acknowledging your sources. Good quotes matter and much has been said before that is still relevant. Inform yourself, question everything and dig deeper.

Find all the facts, unearth hidden facets and discover colorful anecdotes. Your coveted topic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Mostly you are not going to reinvent the wheel, but your role is to add your own spice and unique flavor. Be aware of what is out there already and reveal its history and timeline. Then add fresh insights, raise a discussion and circle back to how the topic relates to you or your peers. Be critical and analyze trends! Acknowledge the past and then run with it further. There are no bad opinions, only opinions that lack knowledge, context and substance.

Find a news peg for the topic. But since you know your niche blindfolded, you should be a step ahead. Expose controversies, predict outcomes, sound alarms. You might find yourself alone, a pariah. Most young writers tend to be too academic and too generic to be on the safe side. That’s fine — for now. But a real writer doesn’t want to stay in the safe space but will step out of the comfort zone. Take risks and ruffle feathers that need to be ruffled.

Change the rules, play with words and make every word stick. Edit, edit and then edit again. Don’t fall in love with your writing. Create a unique voice and let it all pour out. Be honest and genuine. Mold the content to stay with the reader. Like Red Smith once said: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down […], open your veins and bleed.” It’s got to be painful, exhausting and draining and then you’re halfway there.

You, the writer, enters into a frank dialog with the reader and offers a cohesive line of thought. You are the eyes and ears and senses. Good writers find a narrative that weaves through the piece, raises questions, astonishes and is passionate. The tone sets expectations that are met. Be investigative and critical. Be funny, sad, enraged, exasperated and genuine; sniff out all aspects of the story and then give your readers the space to react. Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer. Only when the reader picks up the torch and starts running with it have you succeeded.

Good topics invite a discussion, have an impact and stir reactions. I believe a good article should either lift the fog or create a spark. Better yet, it should do both and shine, sparkle and stand above the disposable and interchangeable “content” that is floating out there. Keep in mind what Nora Ephron once admitted: “The hardest thing about writing is writing.” It says it all: Not everyone is a writer, but someone’s got to do it — and it better be worth our while.

Good luck! Now go and find yourself work that pays the bills while you write and make us proud.