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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