Beyond the book Revising Prose (highly recommended) I’ve spent about no time learning what “good writing” is. It wasn’t until maybe my mid-twenties I realized “Oh, people…they go to school for, or they study this?” (Journalism is an exception due to ethics and legalese.) I got maybe a third of the way into On Writing Well and stopped. Critically acclaimed; universally recommended. I hated it.
E.L. James is the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve been around a good amount of smarter people. Many of whom I’d say have a knack for recognizing “good writing.” Some have even taught it, or are writers themselves. I’ve seen a decent amount of reviews of this book by the same demographic. So many of them have denounced Fifty Shades of Grey as “poor writing.”
A book which has sold 125 million copies….poor writing!
We have 13 years of education most go through. Essentially, 13 writing teachers. If we go to college, usually there is one mandatory English class. So by 22, most of us will have had our writing critically reviewed by 14 people. It might be more than that because you’re writing essays for another class, but really, you’re not actually being critically reviewed until middle school. But hell, call it 50 teachers / reviewers if you want.
Now let’s say you’re into writing. Thinking about doing it longterm. We’ll say you had a really rough time, that all 50 of these people who judged your writing either never gave it much praise, or were only critical. There wasn’t a whole lot of encouragement. Getting As in writing classes weren’t easy to come by.
In fact, let’s say it was 100 people.
Screw it. Call it 7.1 billion people.
Guess what, there may still be 125 million people who will spend money on your writing. Meaning there are still enough people for you to be one of the best selling writers of all time.
Michael Lewis has written (bolded are most popular; you might recognize some as movies):
- Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. 2014.
- Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. 2011.
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. 2010.
- Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. 2009.
- Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity. 2009.
- Michael Lewis, ed. (2008). The Real Price of Everything: Rediscovering the Six Classics of Economics.
- The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.
- Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life.
- Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. 2003.
- Next: The Future Just Happened. 2001.
- The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. 2000.
- Trail Fever. 1997.
- The Money Culture. 1991.
- Pacific Rift. 1991.
- Liar’s Poker: Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street. 1989.
There are like eleven best sellers and millions of books sold as a result of that list. When he was 22 years old, he finished his thesis as an Art History major at Princeton University. Suddenly with a love for writing, he couldn’t help but ask his professor, “So what’d you think of the writing?”
“Never try to make a living at it,” the professor said.
A Princeton University professor. A professor at one of the most “prestigious” universities in the world, recommending one of the most popular authors of the 21st century, an author where it’s getting to be every other book is made into a movie, to not try writing as a profession.
It took years until Lewis finally said no, I’m going to try this. The above list being the result. That feedback couldn’t have helped.
Like anybody with a website, I get complaints here and there. Surprisingly to me, the most common, and one of the only, complaints I’ve received is that I curse. Yet for every person who complains about me cursing, innumerable tell me they enjoy it, or they’ll curse in conversation before I do. It’s how many prefer communicating.
-> The great narcissism of the cursing avoider: They assume everyone should speak like they do. That while cursing makes them uncomfortable, they fail to realize how comfortable it makes others. That not cursing makes as many feel uncomfortable as cursing does! (A reason why it’s been tied to health benefits. Ironically, what this site is about!)
Adam Sandler gets critically destroyed for every movie he’s in. Call it a million critics who have slammed him, a number likely way too high…His movies have made $2 billion. He’s been in movies for ~20 years. We’ll say $10 a movie ticket.
- $2 billion / $10 = 200 million people
Over the course of 20 years, millionS of people have seen his movies. The million critics are irrelevant. –
Justin Timberlake is as famous as it gets. His last album sold 2.5 million copies in the United States. Meaning just in America, 321 million people didn’t buy his album. 321 million said, “nah.” He’s still Justin Timberlake!
“People don’t buy albums anymore, that’s why. They probably saw him on tour.”
According to Wikipedia, his 20/20 tour had two million attendees. For his shows, there were,
- 1 in Africa
- 2 in Asia
- 38 in Europe
- 80 in North America
- 13 in Oceania
For his album, it was 2.5 million buyers in the United States. For his tour, we have almost the same amount of buyers, but we also add a few continents of potential buyers. The percentage who care about him lessens!
Adele sold more albums in one week than anyone ever. Between Canada, UK, and America, about four million in one week. Populations:
- ~324 million in America
- ~63 million in UK
- ~33 million in Canada
Meaning that week more than 400 million people didn’t give a fuck about Adele! At least not enough to give her money.
Way more than 400 million- she’s not even in the top 10 of fastest selling Japanese (~130 million people) record sales. The majority of the world didn’t / doesn’t care about her. Even now, she’s still only -a relative term here- at 8 million total sales in the United States. And she is a particularly good example nowadays because she didn’t have her newest album available for streaming, like on Spotify.
Which is what that professor was really telling Michael Lewis. “I wouldn’t spend money to read your writing.” (Or spend a good deal of time to read something like a magazine article.) He wouldn’t. But he had no idea if millions of others would. As a professor with a 22 year old student, he had no business stating so matter of factly others wouldn’t. Sure, maybe Lewis’ writing wasn’t good, but it’s one piece. What if Lewis had an off project? What if that topic wasn’t something he wrote about well? How often does a big time actor have a movie that bombs? Does that mean they’re a shit actor?
- Men in Black 3
- Transformers: Age of Extinction
- The Hundred Foot Journey
- War Horse
- Real Steel
- War of the Worlds
- The Terminal
How many of those movies are critically panned, or you’ve never seen them, or you’ve never even heard of them? Because they all have Steven Spielberg’s name attached.
Nor did this professfor necessarily know what Michael Lewis’ audience likes to read. Michael Lewis is notoriously sarcastic. Maybe his professor doesn’t like sarcasm in his reading.
Going back to those 14 people who critically review your writing growing up, in the case of say Harry Potter, all the teachers you had will be older than the intended audience. A 30, 40, 50, 60 whatever year old teacher likely has no freakin’ clue what a teenager might enjoy reading.
Furthermore, all those teachers are from the same area. Growing up in Alabama, you might be writing stuff nobody in Alabama cares about, but people in New York, would. If you’re writing for your local newspaper, then knowing Alabama matters. If you’re writing for the rest of the world, or on the internet you have a world audience, then screw what Alabama thinks.
If you’re writing for a teacher, then no, this won’t be well received:
If you’re writing for people who are poor, a different race than your teachers, those who are down and out like you, then you could be Eminem. Seriously, ^ that’s how he writes songs. Guy couldn’t even graduate high school.
Once you’re past having decent punctuation and grammar -decent, doesn’t need to be perfect- maybe some principles from Revising Prose, being clear / taking out unnecessary words, after those things many are spitting out of their ass what is good and what’s not.
-> Ha! David Foster Wallace is considered by many of the english lit world as the best American author of the last 50 years or so. A movie, The End of the Tour, came out about him last year. He was notorious for having things which were hard to get through. Which weren’t so simple or clear. He did this on purpose. In his view, fiction should certainly be fun, but sometimes it should be mentally challenging. Yet what person teaching writing is suggesting to make your stuff less clear? Harder to read?
Often using some book from one to two hundred years ago as a barometer. Does it make any sense to learn how to write for people in the 21st century by obsessing over The Grapes of Wrath, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn? When I read Pride and Prejudice I found it incomprehensible. It was agonizing to read. Because 200 years ago people spoke, and wrote, differently. The issues they were going through were different. Write something about the plight of being on Twitter as a teenager and it’ll resonate more. But I’m sure few polished english literature teachers would say that’s good writing.
Many who want to get into writing, or “art,” whatever that term means nowadays, seem to avoid it out of fear. Or they get too discouraged. Fear or discouragement because a few people said “nah.” The next time you’re down because it seems like not many care what you’re writing, or singing, or producing, keep in mind the most famous people in the world, people you may idolize, can say the same thing.
-> In a way, the rejection is even worse for them. If you’re Justin Timberlake, way more people know who you are than buy your stuff. Meaning way more people are directly saying “You’re not good enough to me to buy.” If you’re an up and comer, somebody trying to “make it,” you can likely say the majority of your non-buying is from people not knowing who you are yet. They haven’t read you and said no, they just haven’t read you.
That to be careful listening too much to what “good” is in these types of endeavors. Good to some is terrible to others, and vice versa. That there will always be more people who don’t care don’t know don’t like you, than do. That a book called On Writing Well, telling everybody what good writing is, might be nonsense because a book which doesn’t adhere to its guidelines can still sell 125 million copies. (Likely way more than anybody using On Writing Well has sold!) That if you’re obsessing over proper semi-colon usage; you’ve missed the point. Because there are no rules. That if 20 people don’t care what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter. That if only 0.006 of America cares what you’re doing, two million out of 324 million, you’re world famous. That likely nobody can predict if you can get this percentage, but if you truly believe what you’re doing is good, what you’re doing is worthwhile, maybe getting some positive feedback elsewhere, odds are there is 0.006, a number you may not even need a tenth of, who agrees.