Looking at what writing style is and how to weave it into your own thinking. Scroll to the end to see how to get all the Nutella out of the jar.
“We hired you for what you know, not what you don’t know.”
This was the best career advice I got early on, that I can remember at least. It worked. I did excellent work at RedMonk and thrived.
In addition to a lot of consulting, the job was a lot of self-driven writing, doing all the work myself end-to-end, which I loved. I’d finally become a professional writer, if not exactly in the Great American Novel style I imaged of in my teens.
When you write two, three times a week, you end up thinking a lot about writing style, tone, and the workflow of writing.
I’ve fallen out of practice over the years of writing a lot. My job now is different. But I think about writing a lot, and here’s two people that shape how I think about style: Susan Sontag and Joan Didion.
They inspire me all the time.
Susan Sontag wanted to be a critic. She had strong, tediously reasoned out and deep context. She inspires me because she gave herself the freedom to chase her energy and passion, never questioning what she wanted to do and her taste in culture.
You can see her in diaries that, planned or not, she worked over decades on her project of explaining what was happening in the arts, books, and culture.
Her certainty, “conviction,” inspires me too. She had opinions!
Having read her diaries and books and biographies, you can see that she worked on coming up with those opinions, they weren’t fickle.
Sontag was from an era when people would say, simply, that something was good or bad, aesthetically. But she did the work to figure out what she thought and she was great at showing her work.
As I’m thinking this I realize that it’s slightly frowned on to have opinions now about culture. To many people with shit-opinions have an outlet now, so we see a lot of shit. In the pre-Internet works, though, the shit could only get so high. I say this not to be an old man talking about the good ol’ days, but to make the point that despite all that shit-talk out there, you need to trust yourself to have opinions, a culture aesthetic, and state them, when needed.
And then there’s Joan Didion.
Her style is so clear and so crafted and it inspires me all the time.
She will use a phrase like this all of the sudden “I am telling you this because…”
Her craft is part of her craft, she is part of the story.
Although she’s from the same generation as Sontag, what I like about Didion’s style is its indifference. She covered murders, movie stars, her Californian heritage, and, most of all, herself. Even when she’s telling you the report on her mental breakdown, the take on most everything is always sort of “well, that happened…”
Didion’s style is very…warm? You could say it was cool, but it’s realness and her inserted opinion (often through writing style and structure, not direct comments) make it warm to me. And part of it is her role in the story - she’s very gonzo without all the machismo of Hunter Thompson.
What inspires me as a writer is to see the fingerprints of how she works, often deliberately left in the text, as with the packing list. When I look at this list, I identify with the utility of it, planning out how the writer will engage with the subject, try to pass in different circles, and then do the actual work of writing it down.
I like the see the artists fingerprints on their work. Like the way the fur in The Fantastic Mr. Fox moves around imperfectly, all of how Wes Anderson makes films. Knowing that there’s a lot of work, opinion, and persistence that goes into something that seems effortless is a good reminder.
All of these people had to find, experiment, develop, and work on their selves, their style. You can see that play out in their journals, their work, their biographies.
Knowing how all these people thought and worked reminds me of the more important thing: if you have a style, and opinion of how things should be done, how they look, the work can be fun because the work becomes you. This isn’t that American phrase of “live to work,” nor is it the other side, “work to live.” Instead it’s about eliminating the idea of “work” entirely and just having it be life that you happen to be writing down.
Of course these two struggled financially and in their personal lives - they were writers! And, you know, people. But they worked long and hard to find, develop, and defend their style, their tone, their life. They did great work all throughout.
I want to spend less time chasing what people want me to do, complying to their priorities and needs, compromising what I’m good at, what I enjoy, and my mental-space to satisfy others. I too often doubt my convictions, my style, because I’m not certain what other people want. Or worse, because I don’t get any feedback once I click publish, good or bad. When I think about Sontag and Didion, they both lived by their own style and fit their work to what they knew was needed. And, at some point, you can see that they were writing to please themselves, or at least, to figure things out.
So, that makes me evolve that initial piece of advice I got. Now I think of it like this: “We hired you for who you are, not who you aren’t.” I’m hoping that’s a good tool to make sure I’m in a state where I can do work that makes happy.