nihalsahu.net

Your Writing Is Not Good Enough

(content note: honesty, criticism, self-flagellation, self-indulgence)

I.

I’m worried that I’ve begun to care less about my writing. I first noticed it when I didn’t look forward to sharing a new essay anymore. I was hiding them in shoddy tweets, hoping no one I respected would notice that I had written something new. The second time I noticed it was yesterday. I was reading Sasha Chapin:

An amateur fear-driven writer gets up, begins writing something scary, and then becomes petrified, imagining all of the people who will disapprove of them—so they close the document and feel bad. A professional fear-driven writer gets up, eats a large plate of tortilla chips, and, in a fog of carbohydrates, forgets what they were going to write. Or, through a feat of literary ingenuity, they tweak the scary thing into something cute and anodyne that will offend nobody.

I have become a professional fear-driven person. Every week, I mutter a promise to myself; write something serious, write something long, not these link roundups that might as well be tweet threads. I went through months of promising myself to write something I can be proud of, before inevitably capitulating with ‘oh well, something new and inane has happened in the Supreme Court this week, I guess I’ll write about that.’1

This is worse than bad writing. This is dishonest writing, driven by fear.

Fear and sloth are things acquired in a period of unambition, like cobwebs or overgrown nails, and they become clear from the questions you ask people who are trying to give you feedback on your drafts. ‘What do you think of the *analysis *in this piece?’ knowing that you’ve neglected the prose. ‘How do you feel about the rhythm in this paragraph?’ while remembering that it is the only part of the piece you’ve really edited. And you will wave off spelling errors and grammatical mistakes as if your busy schedule makes proofreading impossible.

This happens when writing becomes a chore, something to do in the middle of other busy, important work, which involves writing too; writing which I had stopped caring about. This is partly because turgid, workmanlike, bureaucratic prose is easy to do. I had too many drafts pending, and could hardly afford to stare at any one page for too long. I was never in danger of running out of writing I didn’t care about, and which were all due yesterday.

Aspiring literary novelists in a consulting firm or a law practice quickly learn that their objective is to be competent at their work. And competence is defined by the interests of the client.2

Slowly, they begin to atrophy the muscle that enabled the painstaking process of careful editing; abandoning the ambitions they had for their drafts. Quickly, professionals learn to prize structure, chronology, and formulaic repetition. They overlook the basic integrity and euphony of a well-written sentence and write drafts to please their superiors. They learn that the prose style itself is so undervalued that they can afford not to care about it. They neglect style; forgetting that style is morality, is decorum, is truth.

II.

Like many bad things, this comes from a desire to be nice to people. The instinct to be sociable is strong, but the instinct to be sociable is also inimical to incentivizing ambitious prose. There were times when I was far worse at writing but still cared desperately about it. During this period, I asked people for writing advice all the time, and usually got the kind of lazy recommendations that come from a likeable desire not to hurt my feelings. And now, socialized further, I too give people advice that doesn’t help them.

And I don’t blame myself. When I’m asked to edit a draft or give someone advice, I can’t possibly tell them what I’m actually thinking. No, I will turn the page and tell them that they could spend more time editing, but that it’s generally fine. I will leave some helpful comments in the margins; I don’t mean them. Writers will be loath to tell you what’s wrong with you — they will be reluctant to criticise or nitpick because they consider it bad form; because they are polite and don’t know you well enough, and because they want you to like them.

If I could, I would tell them what I have heard a few times from precious, rare people who cared enough not to let me throw my education into a listicle. No, I would say, your errors are not easily corrected. I would like to be able to take a few hours, pour them a drink before I clinically break down the erratum, and show them the faults in their personality that make them misplace commas, use the wrong phrase, sloppily structure a paragraph. No, old friend, your mistakes cannot be fixed like bad form, except in the sense that you are lifting something too heavy, and you could not manage good form if you tried.

If you haven’t given anyone harsh criticism before, it’s useful to follow it up with some sort of rousing call to action. Tell them softly: ‘You need practice, and while you should have started a long time ago, it’s alright. You care about this, and to be terrible at this hurts you, but you care enough to do it anyway. You care enough to face the limits of your own competence and push against them every day. That’s quite enough.’

There are, of course, no guarantees that a friendship will survive after being subjected to a bill of charges. I haven’t tried this on anyone yet, but I am in awe of anyone who exhibits this kind of competence at raising aspirations; just as I am a friend to anyone who trusts me enough to withstand clinical honesty and continue to care about their craft. By doing this, they are defying mediocrity, defying convention, defying gravity.


  1. I don’t mean to say that there’s anything wrong with writing about what happened in the Supreme Court this week. It’s terribly important. But there are ways of writing about things that are decorous, that suit the subject; and then there is what I have been doing, for which I owe you an apology. ↩︎

  2. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you should care about your clients, even at the expense of your blessed prose style. But if you want to protect the part of you that cares about sentence structure, you should be mindful of what pleases your soul. ↩︎