I’ve written a lot of stuff: over 1600 articles, five books (ten if you include those originally published directly to the blog), countless video scripts, email newsletters and more.
Quantity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. There are still many things I would like to improve about my writing. Hopefully, given a few more decades of practice, I’ll be able to do so. But, by this point, I can at least claim to have some experience.
Given my history, budding writers occasionally ask me for tips. My usual reply is to write a lot. Write—and publish—one hundred essays before you start to scrutinize your work. The thought of publishing something (even just online) is paralyzing to most new writers, so overcoming that hurdle is bigger than finessing your prose.
But supposing you’re writing regularly, what should you write about?
Write What You Like to Read
The only rule I’ve ever kept for myself as a writer is to strive to write the kinds of things I enjoy reading. Writing for yourself may sound narcissistic, but it’s closer to the opposite. If you don’t care about what you’re writing, why should anyone else?
Writing for yourself can be harder than it sounds. For one, what we like to read is generally smarter, wittier, more imaginative and thought-provoking than what we feel capable of producing. Especially in the beginning, taste typically outpaces proficiency.
A second difficulty with writing for oneself is that, for non-fiction at least, we enjoy reading about things we don’t already know. And we also dislike writers who don’t know what they’re talking about. Thus, writing what you like to read requires scrutinizing the ideas and knowledge you take for granted: How would you judge this writing if you didn’t already know everything it discusses?
Writing what you like to read leads to better prose. Do you hate rhetorical questions? Don’t use them.1 Do you like it when writers open with a story, or do you wish they would just get to the evidence for their argument? Do you like short sentences? Or are florid descriptions elaborating the subject in meticulous detail more to your liking?
There isn’t a “correct” answer. Write what you like to read. There are no rules in writing other than this.
It can take some reflection to figure out what kind of writing you like. First impressions can be misleading. I’ve done exercises where I study writing I like. Often, what I thought I liked about a piece of writing turns out not to be there at all. Upon re-reading an author I admired for the depth of his research, I found that the book contained only a handful of citations.
Only when you really start examining why some writing appeals to you do you have any hope of recreating it in your own work.
The Perils of Writing for Someone Else
Writers don’t always have a choice about how they are to write. Publications have house styles. Corporate gigs expect you to match the boilerplate. Scientific journals expect your research papers to conform to a particular template.
Thus, the advice to write what you like to read must always be viewed within the constraints of the place you choose to publish. However, even within those sometimes confining shackles, you can identify writing you enjoy and writing you don’t.
Our ability to simulate the thought processes of others is worse than we typically think. “I don’t like this, but so-and-so will” is not only condescending, it’s almost always false. People may like different writing styles than you do, but it is rare to reverse engineer that appeal without also enjoying it yourself.
The joy of writing isn’t making tons of money or having people laud your work—those things are rare enough to frustrate even the best writers. Instead, it’s the satisfaction that comes from writing something that you think is good. Write what you like to read, and regardless of what others think, you’ll have something you can be proud of.