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). ((I also differ on Holiday’s definition of interestingness, but that’s just a matter of taste that needn’t be discussed.))

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. ((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.))


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.

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