Writers Against Writing?

A smart line in an annoying advice piece by marketer Ryan Holiday on (not) becoming a writer:

Getting published is easy. Getting anyone to care? Well, that’s the hard part.

Truth, of course. Publish yourself or get published by a friend – not a big deal. But who’s gonna read it? Unfortunately, the author’s treatment of this riddle isn’t of help:

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. […]

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

Utter bullshit. Holiday elaborates his argument from an n=1 sample composed of people who do “interesting” things like assisting Tucker Max or “watching office politics” at American Apparel and later become a successful writer (id est, Ryan Holiday). I obviously agree on the former (do interesting things), but I disagree on the latter (this will easily make you a great writer).1

If you think about it for a second, form does matter. “Assembling words” is an activity on its own. Holiday knows this, of course. He devours a ton of books himself – and he uses his own writing skills when he hides a few facts, highlights others, and creates a catchy headline in order to advance a shallow argument. That may not make him a great writer yet, but probably a great marketer on his way to become one.

Unfortunately, for now, devious rhetorics can help you sell your book (or your Thought Catalog blog post); they may give you a lot of clicks and some recognition. But they won’t touch your reader’s heart and soul, not even when they generate interest. Those two, they care about more than our curiosity does. Having the skill to reach them means – for most of us mere mortals – some hard work. It’s something I don’t like to recognize either, but it’s hard to deny.2


Along the same lines, Discouragement for Young Writers, by Freddie deBoers, who self-describes concisely as “some dude” and opens with a double-disclaimer:

A third of this is tongue in cheek. You’ll have to decide which third yourself.


I’m not a writer; I’m just someone who reads and writes a lot. So you may take all of this in a “credit only to the man in the arena” sense, and I wouldn’t blame you.

DeBoers obviously understands there’s some higher higher value in writing:

None of this, by the way, means that I don’t think you should write. What else are you going to do? I can’t sleep at night, and I don’t like the drugs they prescribe. So I write.

But said writing just isn’t easily monetized. Overall, deBoers’ piece is funnier and more insightful. It helps that he doesn’t brag about his life “in the ghetto (briefly)” (Holiday). He explains why it sucks being a writer, especially when starting out (“They will eat you up with judgmental eyes if you fail, and you will almost certainly fail”). Consequently, deBoers argues, it might be better to just keep our aspirations to ourselves.

While that’s decent advice, it’s unfortunately merely as decent as other people’s recommendations of public commitment that holds you accountable for your decisions. There are many ways to Rome and it’s up to you to find the one that works for you: Be interesting, live first (and write later), practice your prose, connect with the right people, never give up, whatever. The world is full of rockstars and hermits, professors and beggars, teenagers and pensioners who have written bestsellers. Ryan Holiday did it. DeBoers, from all I can tell, did not: “10,000 hours of practice might be better spent playing Snood. That’s the gamble.”

Does this mean one is a better writer than the other? Or does it make it more or less likely that you’re gonna be one yourself? Nobody knows. If you want to make a living as a writer, both pieces provide solutions: Do stuff and market yourself ruthlessly (Holiday) or forget about any monetary expectations (deBoers). If you’re not into money but into writing, though, the solution I’d consider is this: Sit the fuck down and write.

  1. I also differ on Holiday’s definition of interestingness, but that’s just a matter of taste that needn’t be discussed. []
  2. It doesn’t really help that Holiday backpedals at the end. A more wholesome look at the problem would have been preferable, even though it might have generated less page views. []


  1. Hi, Fabian! I just stumbled across this. Interesting piece!

    There are many ways to Rome and it’s up to you to find the one that works for you


    I think one of the biggest obstacles to becoming a writer or making a living as a writer is worrying too much about advice or the best way to do it or whether you’re good enough yet. The thing about writing is the more you do it, the better you get, so, assuming you can’t start 20 years ago, the best time to start is now. I would argue that this is true even if your life isn’t all that interesting yet, so you’ll have the skills ready when it is.

    In the end, what makes someone a writer is writing. And what makes someone a good writer is writing more. Whether you can make money at it is a separate issue that comes down mainly to luck and/or marketing.

    That’s my take, anyway! I’ve spent the past year or so basically turning myself into a book designer… by designing books. It’s been pretty magical.

    1. Haha, your last paragraph reminds me of Mountain Shores #4 with Markus Freise: “You learn tennis by playing tennis!” :)

      “The thing about writing is the more you do it, the better you get, so, assuming you can’t start 20 years ago, the best time to start is now. I would argue that this is true even if your life isn’t all that interesting yet, so you’ll have the skills ready when it is.”

      True, and it’s more: While taking the interestingness route is fine (I like it myself), you can also be a great writer with a completely “boring” life. How many writers live a very quiet, even reclusive life, and still manage to write the most captivating stories? I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of words written by a hermit who spends his whole day with his typewriter.

  2. Fabian,

    I’m a fan of both your work and Ryan Holiday’s work. I generally agreed with his article, just as I generally agree with his. Before judging Ryan as a writer, you should read his writing on his own website. There, he’s writing for himself, he knows his audience is generally agreeable, and he writes much better. There is a certain prerequisite to being a reader of Ryan Holiday, and the general readers of Thought Catalog don’t fulfill that requirement… Personally, Thought Catalog is not my favorite medium…

    I think what Ryan is trying to get at is the advice writers who just say, as you said, sit down and write. Let’s say you read the latest NYT bestseller, and you think, hey, I can do that. These people who have nothing to say feed on the advice of “Sit down and write” and they end up self-publishing a copy of the bestseller they read. Ryan is trying to dissuade those people who merely add to the noise.

    I’m in a bit of a rush right now, so if you didn’t understand what I was trying to say, I’d be glad to discuss it in-depth at a later time.

    1. Radhika, thanks a lot for jumping in!

      To be clear, I’m not judging Ryan’s writing in general. I’m a subscriber to his site as well and am actually a bit of a fan myself. I’m also agreeing with his recommendation to do interesting things in order to write better – but that’s not a requirement for great writing. Not in any way. So what I find dishonest in that TC piece is that he plays down the importance of writing skills/technique (which have to be learned) – even as he is using them.

      1. I do agree, yet, I still believe he is justified. Have you ever seen any generic “how to write a novel” website that gets thousands or millions of hits? Their advice is simply, “Keep on writing till you get better.” But Ryan is saying, it’s useless to write if you have nothing to say. Step 1 would be: have something to say. Step 2 (which he has not addressed, because I think that he thinks too many people gloss over step 1): craft it coherently.

        If we’re not still in agreement, I’ll end it here, because it’s a useless argument if we’re both in general agreement.

        1. Radhika, I’d say we’re in agreement here. My critique is that he defends a “a fucked up writing style”, which in his own case is in reality pretty advanced – knowing that someone with really bad style wouldn’t get anywhere. He also doesn’t consider greats writers that never did anything interesting in their lives, but still have something to say – and write better than he or I ever will. Not such a big issue, maybe, but still an oversimplification that struck me as annoying. That said, if we consider the two steps you mention, then I’d say we’re on a good way to better writing. :)

  3. I was watching a conversation between Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissaan and Reneault, and Naoko Takahashi, a Japanese astronaut. They were discussing leadership in their respective fields when Ghosn referred to this quote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (The quote is attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery.) It seems to fit the spirit of this post. Some people who write are “collecting” wood while a smaller number are seeking tha connection to the immensity of the human experience. It comes through in the different feel and impact of the works read.

    1. Interesting to hear about the real source of that quote, Greg. Even more interesting to apply that thought in this context. I think it’s quite conciliatory, as probably both Ryan and I aim for the deeper connection you describe, even though we might not be in agreement on the wood we’d collect when it comes to practice. Maybe one day we’ll hear his thoughts on that!

Comments are closed.