The first secret to good writing

Clive Crook

Clive Crook

I’m just cleaning out some of my old stuff and came across this, which is now two-and-a-half years old but worth re-reading for a moment. In it the author, Clive Crook, writes about why, in his opinion, The Economist is such “a splendid, and partly inadvertent, success,” as he puts it. He gives a few reasons, but one is, I believe, relevant to all writers–of books, articles, blog posts–and even to all story-tellers, whether in video, audio or text.

First, though, the obvious disclaimers: I write for The Economist, and it was Clive who “discovered” and hired me, way back when. Clive was The Economist‘s deputy editor for many years, until he left to join the National Journal/Atlantic family. (He also blogs for the FT now.) At the time of the article from which I am about to quote, The Economist was looking for a new editor, and Clive threw his hat into the ring. (John Micklethwait became editor instead.) But that is neither here nor there.

Instead, here is the crux, buried in his last two paragraphs (my italics). Isn’t it odd, he says, that we are getting so many readers, when

it is not as though the paper’s writers and editors ever really sought those readers out. In my experience, the editorial side of the enterprise spends little time worrying about what readers might want. In this insecure age, the larger part of the media industry thinks about little else but what readers, viewers, and advertisers might want—the better to serve them, or condescend to them, or pander. The Economist has always been much more interested in the world, and in what it thinks about the world, than in the tastes of its readers or anybody else.

… I suspect that if The Economist ever starts to worry very much about the new readers it would like to reach, in print and on the Internet, and to think about how it should tailor its content more deliberately with them in mind, then that will be the moment when its business starts to conform to industry averages.

The lesson: don’t second-guess what others want, for that is the way to inauthenticity. Say what you want to say, and to hell with “the market”.

Now, every lesson, needs a counter-lesson, just as yin and yang need each other. Otherwise you make a fool out of yourself. I’ll give you the counter-lesson in the next post.

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11 thoughts on “The first secret to good writing

  1. Clive Crook mentions that the Economist is relatively expensive to buy. Presumably this contributes to its profitability. Crook wrote his piece in early 2006, I assume before the printed version of Economist could be read for free on the internet, as it now is.

    Has the Economist’s free availability on the internet affected its paid circulation, and therefore its profitability, I wonder?

    As an intermittent reader of the Economist for more than 40 years, I’ve always find it informative, educational, and also vaguely comforting, like a glass of warm milk before bedtime. But sometimes its breeziness and smugness irritates me.

    Nonetheless I keep coming back for more!!

  2. I loved the subject of the article. I have faced this at my level as well. I’ll quote a friend of mine who is in ‘Advertising’ and has his task cut out (okay I know that’s a cliche!) for convincing clients in telling them what is good for them. He had attended some seminar conducted by one Kennedy who runs the ag agency which the legendary Nike advertising campaign.

    What a lot of advertisers do is try to predict what consumers are thinking and how would they react and accordingly craft their communication. That’s almost insulting them. How would you feel if I always keep predicting you and talk you in a way which is manipulated in order to suit your response. It’s as good as talking to a ATM machine. Your consumers are humans and need to be treated accordingly. Only then will they see your brand as a person. Love and hate is an ongoing process…

    I think this blog post stands true in any creative process: whether writing, advertising or painting…

  3. In reply to Christopher: I’m NOT aware that making the site free (for content less than one year old, that is) has damaged our paid subs at all. It may have done the opposite.
    I, for one, have been arguing FOR making the site free for several years now. My main argument was always that this would allow a link structure to develop over time, so that future readers would be guided to content of interest, even or especially if it be an article published, say, in 1939 at the start of WWII. I speak a little bit about this in this interview, along with Daniel Franklin, our web boss.
    Regarding your other point–the occasional smugness in tone–I am your loyal ally. This too I have been lobbying against internally, but it’s often hard to enforce, because what is smug to one reader is witty to another….

  4. In reply to Abhishek: It strikes me that advertising is the most cynical story-telling medium: yes, you tell stories, but you almost by definition use the audience’s prejudice as a point of departure. Eg: the advertising agency presumes that men think that sports cars get them laid, so they tell a story of … a sports car with babes on top.
    But here, too, the best ads seem to be the ones where the creator is willing to take a risk with an authentic message….

  5. I do agree with you. I think the 1984 commercial was the biggest risk that Apple took (in the world of ads). It worked beautifully and is considered as the best ad ever made inspite of it being rather outrageously different by drawing a metaphor of ‘Big brother’ from Orwell’s 1984 and then moving ahead to link it to IBM. I saw this ad when I was a kid and I didn’t understand a thing!

    I guess a good ad, like a good story should be able to raise the eye brows of the audience for at least one full second!

    Looking forward to an update on your book!

  6. I read the transcript of the interview you did, with interest.

    My understanding, then, is that enabling the Economist to be read free on the internet, increases the numbers of readers to the extent that additional advertising revenues would exceed the revenues lost through people (like me) no longer buying the print edition.

    I note, however, that advertisements placed by outsiders on any one page of your free internet content are no more than one or two, and they are inconspicuous. For what it’s worth, I, as Mr Average, don’t look at these ads at all.

    Anyway, I’m not complaining, since my now being able to read the Economist online for free, is saving me the money I would otherwise have paid to buy it at a news stand.

    And why I read the Economist is because – as you said in your interview – it makes digestible all the multitudinous and confusing news sloshing around out there, in cyberspace, the airwaves, and whatever other medium one can think of.

  7. You, Christopher, are the reason why we didn’t make our content free earlier. By which I mean people like you. The fear (among the suits, not the journalists) was that people would drop their subscription once the content was available free.
    Instead, we seem to be discovering–so far, fingers crossed–that people view the print subscription as valuable in its own right. As a souvenir. A sensual experience. An opportunity for serendipity.
    Online they find a different experience: the ability to mouth off in the comments and nascent social networking aspects (Economist readers seem to like talking to other Economist readers).
    The other aspect you touched on was advertising. We’re in that uncomfortable interregnum where advertisers (as opposed to journalists) value the same reader, named Christopher, more in print than online. But this will pass.
    Online ads can do things that print ads cannot do. They can report back whether or not Christopher turned the sound on, clicked, moused-over, and so forth.
    And, if my vision comes about, then you will be able to find articles of such precise interest to you (through the links into them, and thus the search results) that we will serve up ads that you will click on with great enthusiasm. I mean…. don’t you think a well–placed cricket video next to an article about that seminal moment in cricket history would overcome the resistance of an eminent cricket blogger such as yourself?

  8. I subscribe to The Economist, but it doesn’t arrive until Monday because I live in New Zealand. I could read it online 3 days earlier, but I almost always prefer to wait for the print version.

    There’s a ritual to the magazine arriving, the cover art is great (I loved the edge of the world cover a few weeks ago). If I was just reading a couple of the stories then reading them online might be preferable, but I usually read, or at least skim all of them. I actually use it as time to get away from the computer.

  9. So glad to hear it, Richard! You’ve just described my point to Christopher: for you the (paper) issue is a sensual experience, a point of serendipity.
    That said, I am HORRIFIED that Kiwis have to wait till Monday to get their issue. We have printing presses in Asia. I don’t understand this delay.
    Thanks for putting up with us.

  10. I have seen it in shops on Sunday mornings, which I guess is Saturday evening in the UK, so it’s not that bad. Just no residential mail delivery on Sundays means we wait an extra day.

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