David Foster Wallace was one of the writers who showed me just how great the essay form could be. His death by suicide in 2008 was a great loss, especially when so much of the best of his career was still to come.
In this 2004 interview Wallace, in characteristic iconoclastic style, identifies why creative writing can be a hard subject to teach. But not for the reasons we commonly hear.
“This whole creative writing thing. My opinion is that how good a teacher you are has very little to do with how good a writer you are, and a lot to do with how good a reader you are. And how well you are able to read the student and handle them.”
The huge success of writing guides by blockbuster authors like Stephen King suggests most of us think the best writer to learn from must be the bestselling writer. But Wallace suggests that the best writing teachers are the ones brave enough to challenge students with a hard truth.
“This is going to sound really nasty but when you’re teaching undergrads they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a model of writing that’s fundamentally expressive. That is we want you to write therefore anything you do is good, this is good because you did it.”
In a culture where “self expression” is applauded as a universal good, David Foster Wallace argument sounds counter intuitive. If writing is not self expression, what is it?
“It’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates, shifting them from a mode of expressive writing where it’s good because it came out of them, where every reader is your mom, right? To communicative writing where you assume this is a busy adult with her own interests and her own time commitments, how are you going to make it worth it for her to read your stuff. You have to start talking about that as early as you can freshman comp and my experience is it is a heavy headtrip for students.”
There’s no small irony of course that Wallace was often criticised as a self-indulgent writer of very long books filled with very long sentences. But Wallace’s books continue to grow in reputation over a decade after his death, an outcome few of us as writers will ever achieve. Maybe his nasty sounding truth about writing is one all students need to hear? Writing that doesn’t aim to communicate probably fed my struggle to read novels in the last year.
2019 was a rough year for me in many ways, with health problems that made reading much harder. I’ve also been in an existential conflict with scifi. I’ve read too much, and grown impatient with many books and their writers. So a lot of books got thrown at the wall. But not…
2019 – The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey.
Kadrey trades in his hardboiled gothic style for a New Weird epic that I really savoured.
I’m journalling my 30 day Attention Recovery program. You can follow my progress here.
This week my Facebook account was hacked. I can’t re-activate it without a code sent to a mobile phone number I haven’t owned for a decade.
Two days ago I de-activated my Twitter account. I’m using this as an opportunity to go social media “cold turkey” for 30 days.
This is day one of my month long effort to recover my shattered attention.
I wrote recently about my struggle to read novels over the past year. Part of that struggle is how my ability to concentrate has been affected by the internet.
2019 is the year we’ve learned the full nasty tale of how social media “hacks” our mind and body – exploiting dopamine responses and other biochemical triggers – to physically and psychologically addict us to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
I’ve been aware that my social media usage had gone from net positive to net problem for at least two years. After my summer travels in Europe, I’m back “home” in Bali planning my business for 2020. And in making those plans I’ve had to admit some things to myself.
I’m not reading fiction.
My meditation practice is dead in the water.
Writing is slower and less creative than a year ago.
My sleep is broken and poor.
I’m wasting vast amounts of time on social media.
Linking all of these issues is one factor – a factor I spent some time studying through Buddhist meditation – and a factor I guess we’re all struggling with.
I need to recover my attention.
Killing my social media usage is just step one.
My name is Damien. And I’m a Twitter addict.
I’m fortunate I have few addictions. I don’t drink, smoke, take narcotics of any kind.
But I have to be honest with myself – social media meets all the criteria for a real addiction that is negatively impacting my life.
And I get the feeling I’m not alone.
For the next 30 days I’m going to be journalling this process of Attention Recovery in this newsletter.
I don’t know exactly what the attention recovery process will be. But I suspect it will include:
killing all social media for the next 30 days.
reading full books, fiction and non-fiction
reviving a sitting meditation practice
PLUS more activities that extend and deepen attention TBC
You’re invited to join the Attention Recovery process. I’m guessing that most of you are struggling with attention as much or even more than I am. Drop a comment on this post with your thoughts on Attention Recovery, let’s work on recovering our attention together.
Love Not Likes is a charity working on social media addiction with young people. They also sell cool t-shirts.
The mental shift that separates young writers from old writers.
“I wish I had more time for my writing.”
“I quit my job to work on my writing.”
“My writing is very important to me.”
What do all these sentences have in common? It’s that little word, MY.
But it’s not your writing.
Are you a young writer or an old writer?
It’s not about age. Some old writers are 24, some young writers are 64.
Young writers are clinging onto the belief that somewhere inside them is a special piece of writing that will express who they are to the world. It’s uniquely theirs. And one day, they’ll write.
Old writers know this ain’t so. Old writers know that what they have is skill and technique, a knowledge of the craft. And the tighter their craft is, the more of all kinds of writing will come through them.
Old writers write. All the time. They can’t stop. The craft is like an engine inside them that needs to produce words every day.
Young writers struggle to get started. They’re looking for that special piece of writing. Once they find it, they’ll write it. Because it’s theirs.
Such neuro-linguistic cues can be useful. Oh sure, you might say “my writing” in total innocence. But 9 times out of 10 it’s a clue that your emotional attachment to that special piece of writing only you could ever write is greater than your clear headed commitment to the craft.
We’ve made up meditation out of thin air and desperate need. But that only makes it more important.
“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice passed down in unbroken lineages from enlightened beings like the Buddha.”
This is a bad idea.
And this is the first in a new series of critical essays by me, Damien Walter, playing my part as “The Critic”. I’ve been looking for a new way to do high quality critical writing for a while now. Maybe this new place called Substack is it? We shall see.
I think we need to be brutal in taking apart bad ideas, and inspired in opening up good ones. I intend to do just that in these essays. They’re going to range from political theory to spiritual practice, stopping off at sci-fi novels and superhero movies along the way. For now it’s free to subscribe, but at some point I’ll tick the box for paid subscriptions and only those kicking in a few $$$ will be able to answer me back.
I’m ten years into a Buddhist meditation practice, which means I’ve gone through the peaks of belief, out into the dead calm of a crisis of faith, and am now docked in the harbour of this over extended metaphor taking some time to consider the journey behind me.
“meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020”
I can’t even begin to prove that meditation is any good for anything. It might be nothing more than sitting around doing…nothing. And the scientific evidence otherwise is…sketchy at best. I suspect – my intuition and experience both tell me – that meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020.
But I can’t prove it.
What I CAN say about meditation with relative certainty…
…is that it isn’t old.
The fake histories of meditation.
Lineage is a great marketing strategy. It gives the student meditator confidence that the practice is worthwhile, and it gives the meditation teacher ownership of what they are teaching. Unless you’ve had the mantle handed on from some dude who got it from other dude going all the way back to Buddha, you ain’t the real deal.
This is bullshit. In the technical sense of the word…IE information that we believe because it appears to be highly salient to our situation.
Here’s a more honest appraisal of what’s really happening between meditation teacher and student. The teacher is just a regular fucked up human being, who has struggled through a lot of life’s suffering, and found some relief in meditation. And the student is much the same, and they’re working together to see how meditation might help.
You can read all about the histories of various meditation lineages. There’s a convenient wiki on the matter. I’m not disputing that meditation goes back some way, maybe to to the historical Buddha (whoever that was). Most of the techniques of meditation taught in Vipassana or Zen were developed in the 19th or 20th century as part of religious revivalist movements, or even as part of the New Age movement.
But none of that matters. Lineage or no lineage, scientifically proven techniques or no, meditation presents every person who studies it with the same challenge.
Only you can teach you to meditate.
What’s happening inside your head right now? Maybe you’re lost in a maelstrom of thoughts? Maybe you have a mind like a crystal labyrinth? Maybe the whole damn cosmos is unfolding inside the nexus of consciousness called You.
I can never know. The essential nature of being You is that only You can have any true insight into You.
“Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.”
“Know thyself.” Through history echo the words of the oracle at Delphi. So apparently simple, so deceptively hard. Who are you? Are you your name? Are you your nationality? Are you the process of evolution that birthed you? Are you the outcome of the Big Bang? Once we start to ask this question, we’re thrown into a depthless ocean.
Meditation is a set of useful tools for learning who you are. Mindfulness. Concentration, Compassion. They’re useful. They’re very, very useful. A good meditation teacher can show them to you, and talk you through part of the journey they might take you on.
But from there, you are on your own. Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.
Meditation is a 21st century survival technology.
Ancient lineages as marketing strategy isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that stopes us seeing the really, really good idea about meditation.
The Nine Dot Puzzle is a famous psychological example of “frame breaking”. To solve the puzzle you have to break the frame that your mind projects over reality.
Life in the 21st century is an endless series of frame breaking exercises. Are you frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed and angry with the circumstances of your life? The answer lies entirely in how you frame those circumstances, your ability to break that frame, and to construct new frames as you change and grow.
This is the task that meditation has evolved to help us with.
As 21st century beings we’re uniquely challenged by change. 21st century life means re-inventing ourselves many times over, titanic changes of self and circumstance that our ancestors, who lived and died in one place and as one person, could barely have imagined.
Meditation isn’t a practice passed to us by our ancestors. It’s a technology we’re innovating right here and now in the 21st century. The best meditation teachers are nothing more than your fellow passengers in these times of change and upheaval, who’ve learned a few techniques you might find useful.
Taking apart bad ideas, and opening up good ideas, is essential. Meditation as ancient tradition is a bad idea. Meditation as 21st century survival tech is a good idea. Because the good idea is a much better place to start learning.
The job of criticism and the critic is to ruthlessly take apart bad ideas to make space for good ones. I’ll be publishing high quality critical essays via this Substack newsletter as and when I can. The more subscribers I gather, the more time I’ll channel into the task. Help spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?
I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.
My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.
While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.
I was finding less and less I wanted to read.
How the novel lost its magic.
I remember as a kid spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.
Of course we all grow up. We can’t spend our whole live teleporting to other realms. But, at every new stage of my life, new kinds of book would open up new kinds of magic for me. I found The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami when I was twenty-eight. A whole decade of new reading experiences began there, authors like Michael Chabon and Alice Munro came along and reading stayed electric.
But now in my early forties, I haven’t found equivalent new voices. The last novel that really caught me was Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. Beautiful storytelling from the show-runner of Fargo, a real talent. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe it’s out there waiting to be found. The new seam of novelistic beauty just waiting for me, the reader, to mine it.
But I don’t think it’s me. I think, dear novel, that it’s you.
There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.
But I don’t believe the novel is as vulnerable to digital distractions as some might say. We’re all HUNGRY for deeper experiences that stop as from paddling in the shallows of social media. When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.
No, I think a more serious ailment is afflicting the novel. And I fear it’s a self inflicted malady, that it’s going to take quite some time and care to care get over. But that healing process can’t even begin until the novel admits it has a problem. Maybe at a kind of metaphysical AA meeting for dying art forms.
“Hi. I’m The Novel. And I’ve been arrogantly over sure of myself as the natural home of high quality storytelling.”
The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.
Ebooks aren’t helping (but they could)
As a writer, I find NaNoWriMo inspiring. Yes new writers, you go for it!
As a reader, I find the idea of having to read anything written as part of NaNoWriMo truly horrifying. My time is precious, and your 50,000 word novel written in a month ain’t getting a second of it.
Increasingly, this is my feeling about the entire field of digital publishing. It’s hard to find anything polite to say about the Amazon Kindle self-publishing scene, the writerly equivalent of America’s Got Talent, except without the talent.
If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.
And mainstream publishing isn’t all that much better. They don’t seem to invest anywhere near enough into developing talented new writers. New writers are published too early, then disappear before they have a chance to develop, which rarely happens before half a dozen lesser novels have been published.
All of which is really a great shame. Because ebooks and digital publishing could so easily unleash a renaissance in novel writing, as a space for experimentation and the development of new talent. But instead we just get endless cash in genre novels, all with their cadre of fake reviews.
Can the novel redeem itself?
2019 has been my worst year as a reader. But I’m hopeful, and excited, that 2020 will be better.
Everything has a cycle. The novel has produced incredible richness of storytelling and works of art over the centuries. I’m sure it will again. Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.
If the novel’s going to win me back as a reader, it will have to tear down and rebuild how it does the art of storytelling. As the tv show went through a complete revolution to give us Mad Men or Breaking Bad, I can see signs of the novel entering a similarly revolutionary period.
I suspect it won’t be Kindle self publishers OR authors with traditional publishing deals showing us the way. The internet is so rich with unexplored publishing opportunities, I suspect the novels that grab my attention back as a reader will be quite untraditional in how they are published.
Have you spotted authors re-inventing the storytelling of the novel? Give me a lead, I’d love to read them.
Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.
There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.
If you find these useful, take a look at The Rhetoric of Story, a short course exploring the 7 foundations of powerful immersive storytelling. Use code STORY10 for 90% off.
High Concept – the whole concept of a high concept has a bad reputation with some writers. But the truth is, if your book doesn’t have a singular focus that is original and engages the reader’s attention, very few people are likely to expend time and effort on reading it. This is clearly true of commercial fiction. Harry Potter is the story of an orphan boy who goes to magic school. Each volume is a new school year. It’s clear, and it frames everything else that happens in the story. But this is also true of literary fiction. Underworld by Don DeLillo is a multilayered tapestry of human life and politics. But stitching it all together is a baseball, hit on a home run on the first day of the Cold War, and the novel follows all the lives the baseball touches, through to the end of the cold war. A high concept and a half!
Larger Than Life Characters – most people, faced with a terrorist takeover of a jet liner, stay in their seat. Your characters are the people who get up and organise to take the plane back. Playwright David Mamet argues (correctly I believe) that the single most fascinating thing in the world is a strong willed human being. Most people aren’t strong willed. They conform to the world, rather than bending the world to their will. Your characters are absolutely not “most people”. When Luke Skywalker hear’s there’s a princess in trouble, he races off to rescue her. Again, this is as true in a small and intimate story as it is in an epic. Most people hang around in crappy, abusive relationships for years. Your character is the person who walks out the door, and your story is what happens next.
Use course code STORY10 and get The Rhetoric of Story for…guess how much?
Inspiring Locations – one of the reasons we pick up a novel is to experience places and experiences unlike our daily life. There’s a reason why James Bond’s adventures don’t take him to Slough or Clacton-on-Sea. Or why Star Wars isn’t set in a galaxy quite close to home. On the immediate level, locations that have natural beauty, or even alienating strangeness, are the ones readers will gravitate towards. A tropical paradise, an urban metropolis, an icy moon orbiting a black hole, or the rolling prairies of Montana. These are places many people might like to experience. In a more granular analysis, inspiring locations tend to attract interesting people. If you want to write a political thriller, it’s not going to work set in a provincial town in Derbyshire. You simply won’t find many political power brokers in Bakewell. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of place you might find a retired crime solving lady like Miss Marple. There are no absolutes with location, but you do need a good one!
At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival.
Close and Intense Relationships – How many stories can you think of that are about families? War and Peace is an epic that spans a continent. But it’s really about two families. Think very hard about your life. How many people are you really, deeply and truly related to? A dozen? At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival. And if they aren’t, they are about relationships that gain equal intensity. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the lead detective and the serial killer he is pursuing barely meet. But they share elements of the same pathological personality, that manifest in different ways. A profound and intense relationship.
High Stakes – is your story about saving the world? Lord of the Rings is. Every life in Middle Earth turns on Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Epic stories turn either on the fate of the world, or of a city or community of another kind. The heroes actions avert a disaster, or bring a gift, that improves everyone else’s life. And the stakes must be equally high within the context of a smaller story. Jane Austen isn’t talking trivia when she describes Elizabeth Bennet’s quest for a happy marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Every other moment of her heroines life turns on her marriage, at a time when most women were trapped in loveless unions of economic advantage. What would not have worked is if Jane Austen had based the story around Lizzy’s regular sewing circle evenings, which while fun, had little bearing on her fate. You get the point.
Multiple Points-of-View – we all see the world through our own eyes, but the world is crowded with many points of view. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology that our view is fundamentally self centred, and therefore inaccurate. To show us the full picture then, stories need to take us through multiple character’s points of view. Many novels do this literally, such as the hyper-succesful Game of Thrones books by George R R Martin, which dedicate one chapter at a time to each of a half dozen POV characters. Other novels stay in a single POV, through which we encounter numerous other characters who see the events of the story very differently. Either choice is fine. The important issue is that, one way or another, we see the world of the book through more than one limited, subjective set of eyes.
Think any of the above is new? Not a chance! Go read the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu myth, and you’ll see it has all six!
Buy Damo A Coffee
Enjoyed this post? Kick in a few bucks to pay the author.
It’s worth noting that these six points can also make a brilliant structure when pitching a story idea. Don’t try describing a convoluted plot in a few sentences. Set-up the concept, introduce the location, pin down the characters and their relationships, then hit your audience with the stakes. You’ll see film trailers do this over and over again, because it works.
A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.
I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!
“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”
Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.
Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!
The gig economy, and freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings on Upwork. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities.
The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.
The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.
“Content writers” churn out dozens of blog posts a day, usually to promote websites via Google search, and often earn little more than minimum wage for their efforts. But the days when Google algorithms could be gamed by high volumes of low quality content are long gone. Businesses are learning quickly that the most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.
I call the second group Full Stack writers. These writers have a wide and deep skillset that allows them to deliver, not generic “content”, but high quality writing that people actually want to read. Writing with the potential to go viral in the short term, and to create a highly engaging online identity in the longterm.
Full Stack writers command hourly rates of $70 to $100 as a baseline, and are in increasingly high demand as the competition for attention online intensifies.
What skills define a Full Stack writer?
When I’m asked how I built a successful freelance writing career, the answer is rarely what people expect. I can’t suggest any special marketing tricks. I don’t know any underhand ways to hack the system, and I have used no gimmick promotions. I won’t tell you to give away your work for “exposure” or to build a portfolio. In the immortal words of Samuel Johnson:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Anyone working in startups and software development will be familiar with the idea of the “full stack developer”, a coder with a “stack” of skills that allow them to deliver complex projects single handed. The full stack developer is agile, and essential for small and medium sized enterprises innovating at high speed.
Full stack writers fulfil a very similar role, as a jack-of-all-trades; part journalist, part marketer, with the skills of a copywriter, a screenwriter, and a little dash of the poet, all rolled into one.
It’s my experience that success as a freelance writer rests on a “stack” of three foundational skills. These skills aren’t new, they have been known for thousands of years. But today they seem to have been almost forgotten. They’re rarely taught at schools or colleges, and many struggling professional writers don’t know them at all.
Mastering this trinity unlocks the path to a fourth skill that is, in my experience, the most valuable skill you as a writer can master.
Words and sentences. Whatever you are writing, from an advertising slogan to an epic fantasy novel, it’s made from these two building blocks. The better you know how to use them, the more effective your writing will be.
“The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills.”
It might sound blockheaded to suggest that writers learn to spell! But sadly, many writers offering professional services don’t have a clear grasp of grammar. Instead they rely on their “instinctual” understanding of how language works.
If you’re trying to complete complex writing tasks, on deadline and to a budget IE the work that a professional writer does, day in and day out, instincts alone won’t cut it. You need to consciously understand the rules of grammar.
Consider a typical entry level writing task. You’re asked to rewrite a 500 word blog post to improve its readability. And by the way, the client needs it back in 30 minutes. If you know your grammar you can rewrite sentences so that the subject and predicate are clearly linked, reorder run-on phrases into clear cumulative sentences, eliminate unneeded adjectives, and a host of other solutions. You’ll be enjoying your coffee break while the “instinctual” writer is still struggling their way through the first paragraph.
The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills. Train yourself in word selection and sentence structure with resources like Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, or the most famous short guide to grammar, The Elements of Style.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking. While it’s rarely in the job description, the skill that will keep you most in demand with clients is the clear expression of thoughts, in a logical progression, as words on a page. Because, believe it or not, most people find this extremely difficult.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking.
A major client in 2014 paid me almost 20% of my income in that year to produce a 3000 word document about their business. The unspoken job was working with the company founder and CEO to clearly define their business vision. I put many hours into logically organising all the concepts being expressed…and less than a day actually writing the finished document.
The simplest way to think about logic is as “information flow”. For a reader to understand any piece of writing, it has to introduce a clear idea, then develop the idea systematically towards a conclusion. If ideas come in an illogical or contradictory order, the reader will quickly become confused, then stop reading.
For instance, if this short essay had begun with a detailed description of logic, but only explained halfway through that logic was a useful skill for writers, this would be a failure of information flow.
Studying logic will allow you to identify and avoid common logical fallacies, produce writing that is consistent IE avoids internal contradictions, and to turn out complete arguments that convince the reader. To see logic used brilliantly, look at the work of science writers like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
Among my long term clients is a senior executive for a large international corporation. A major part of this client’s work is public speaking, either within the company or at events and conferences.
The client knows what they want to say, but wants to find the best ways to say it. The skills I use to help this client go beyond grammar and logic. As a speechwriter, the main skill I employ is rhetoric.
Put simply, rhetoric is the skill of using words to persuade. Something that humans have been doing for almost as long as we have been speaking.
In the city states of ancient Athens and Rome, over two thousand years ago, giving speeches was an essential part of public life for high born nobles. Speeches were so powerful they could topple kings and even start wars, as Shakespeare well knew:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Mark Anthony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar is, as written by Shakespeare, a litany of rhetorical devices. It weaves together ethos, pathos and logos – the three pillars of rhetoric – so adeptly that, while claiming to be against Caesar, Mark Anthony actually incites a riot in his memory. Such is the power of rhetoric!
In the modern era we experience profoundly powerful rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and twisted but no less powerful rhetoric in the public pronouncements of Donald Trump. But the uses of rhetoric today go far beyond speech making.
Newspaper articles, television advertisements and viral tweets all employ the same techniques of rhetoric. And the Full Stack writer with a commend of rhetoric can turn their hand to all of these and much more.
The fourth skill the Full Stack writer must master.
Together, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the “trivium” of the classical liberal arts, as they were taught throughout the Western world for thousands of years.
Name any great writer before the twentieth century – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen – they would certainly have been taught the trivium.
But today these foundational skills are rarely taught, replaced by more “technical” education…which is why so many people struggle to express themselves in writing.
With the skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric at your command, you can complete almost any freelance writing task. Ad copy, blog posts, feature articles, news reporting, brand identities, white papers, landing pages. There is really no end to the number of highly paid writing tasks that mastering the trivium will open up to you. For many writers, this is enough.
In a classical liberal arts education, the trivium were the gateway to even higher level skills – music, arithmetic, and astronomy among them.
Today the trivium unlocks many more advanced skills. Advanced research, technical writing and more all grow from knowing the trivium. And a fourth skill that, in my experience, is the most valuable skill a freelance writer can offer.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.
When I began to build courses for writers, I made storytelling my first focus. After years of professional writing, and a three year stint as course director in creative writing at the University of Leicester, I knew that story is the most powerful single skillset any writer can develop.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.
How many hours a day do you spend reading novels? Watching HBO box sets? Lost in an epic MARVEL superhero movie? How much time do you spend lost in stories?
Story does something quite amazing. For the time we’re immersed in a story, it can seem almost real to us. We are the protagonist of the story, and we experience the events of the story as they unfold. As research into psychology and neuroscience have shown, our brain thinks in stories.
Story isn’t a mystery. Every story that is loved and that has lasted through time relies on 7 basic elements to create its immersive effect. Understanding this “rhetoric of story” can help you tell stories about any subject, at any length, in any medium.
For the Full Stack writer, storytelling is the skill that clients are hungriest for. My most loyal clients come back time and again because I help them tell great stories; about their business, about their products and brands, about their charitable causes, about their own lives.
Storytelling is, in my experience, the most powerful and valuable skillset today’s Full Stack writer can develop.
Subscribe to my YouTube channel for insights into building a professional writing career.
“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at 9am every morning.”
We live in a time when creativity is sold as a cure-all alongside diverse other forms of self help. There are creativity coaches, handbooks of creative recovery, and creativity retreats. Being creative has superstars.
But there’s something they aren’t telling you.
Think about this from the perspective of the creativity guru. They have to appeal to a mass market. If they’re going to make superstar status, a million people have to buy their book.
So what they aren’t going to say, won’t ever reveal, and indeed CAN’T come clean about is this.
You don’t know what you’re doing.
The basic reason why 99% of novels never get written, songs don’t get recorded, films are never made and businesses go unfounded, isn’t a mystery.
It’s not a psychological block.
It’s not a childhood trauma.
It’s a plain old lack of knowledge, skills, technique and learning about the activity at hand. The person doing the creating, does not know what they are doing.
This is a problem the creativity guru cannot solve. Because to do so, they would have to, themselves, know what they are doing. And if they knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be a creativity guru.
The writer for who inspiration strikes at 9am every morning knows what they are doing. Which is the universal answer to all vague creative problems like writer’s block.
Know what you are doing.
(The opening quote is of contested authorship, which either means it’s untrue, or so true no one author alone could have said it.)