Posted by on Dec 2, 2018 in Articles & Advice, Blog, Featured, Uncategorized |

Image credit: Henriette Browne, “A Girl Writing” (ca. 1870), Victoria and Albert Museum

By Jason Zweig | Dec. 2, 2018  10:00 pm ET

In Part One and Part Two of this series, we looked at how to get started as a writer and how to sharpen your skills. In this final part, let’s talk about what it means to be a writer.

 

What makes writing better so hard?

The same thing that makes being a better person so hard: admitting your shortcomings and recognizing that you are your worst enemy.  Making your writing better is tantamount to declaring war on yourself. 

I’m often asked what the most important quality is to be a columnist for a major publication.

I always answer: “Self-loathing.”

I don’t loathe myself as a person, at least not most of the time.  But I loathe myself as a writer, because I should and I must: because I know, to the marrow of my bones, that nothing I’ve ever written or ever will write can capture the subtle, confounding, infinite complexity and contradictions of reality.  To be a writer is to recognize that you will always be overmastered and defeated by whatever topic you choose: The richness of life always beggars anyone who tries to wrap it in words.

If you think Shakespeare or Dickens or Dante or Woolf or Twain or Tolstoy or Austen or Orwell or Flaubert or Faulkner or any other great writer was ever completely satisfied with a single page he or she wrote, you need to read a few literary biographies.  Robert Hughes, the art critic at Time magazine, was talking about painters when he wrote that “the greater the artist the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize,” but it’s just as true for writers.

If you ever look at anything you’ve written and feel full of pride untainted by the insatiable urge to fix everything that’s wrong with it, you are someone who writes.  You aren’t a writer.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebooks, “When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a second time.”  The great playwright and novelist and Samuel Beckett wasn’t joking when he defined writing as “disimproving the silence.”

To be a writer, you must recognize the futility of ever being able to get to the bottom of anything — and, therefore, the obligation and obsession to keep trying.  Precisely because you will always fail, you must keep trying to succeed.

My colleagues think I’m kidding when I tell them that at least 80% of what I write is mediocre, 5% to 10% is downright terrible and, if I’m lucky, 5% is decent.

I’m not kidding.  At best, I’m pleased with about one-twentieth of what I write.

If you think I’m too hard on myself, take your latest, greatest piece of writing — that thing you are proudest of — and show it to someone.  Have the person read it while you sit there.  Watch his or her mouth, the eyes, the eyebrows, the forehead, the softly puzzled smile, that frown that comes and goes and comes again.  When he or she is done reading, ask: “How did you like it?  Tell me what you think.  I can handle the truth.”  Don’t take your eyes off the person’s face while you wait for the answer.

Admit it: You don’t dare do that.  I’ve made your palms sweat just by asking you to imagine doing it.

And if you disagree — if you’re sitting there reading this with a smirk and telling yourself, “Of course they’d love it, because everybody knows everything I write is great” — then you’ve got nothing to learn from me or from anybody else.  Just go away.  Get off my blog.

Controlling Your Tics

Let’s start with the first baby step to becoming a writer: cultivating the ability to read your writing with someone else’s eyes and ears and mind.

Grab something you wrote long enough ago — at least a year or two — so that you no longer remember it in any detail.  Go to a private place and read it aloud to yourself.  You might try copying and pasting it into an unusual font or printing it in a quirky color to help make it look alien to you.

How does it sound?  How does it move off the page and off your tongue?  Can you read it without stumbling over the syllables?  Are you repeating yourself?

Whenever I do that, I notice my verbal tics: twitches of wording, itchy habits of sound, annoying ways of putting sentences together.

  • I have a terrible tendency to lean lazily on alliteration.  (In an article I wrote for my college newspaper, I used the phrase “paucity of persons” to describe the sparse attendance at an event; four decades later, the memory of those words makes my skin crawl.)  I also seem to have a compulsion to use parentheses (way too many) where they aren’t necessary (or desirable).
  • I constantly resort to double dashes — what journalists call em-dashes — even when commas — or nothing — will do.
  • I also can’t seem to stop saying “my own” or “her own” instead of “my” or “hers.”
  • I use “of course” and “after all” far too often.
  • Worst of all, I repeat myself.  In my struggle to find the single best way to make my points, I end up making each one over and over again, perseverating in circles of different words around the same idea, each effort only a little less flawed than the last.  As soon as I catch myself doing it, I hear David Byrne yowling inside my head, “Say something once, why say it again?” and smash psychotically on my keyboard to kill all the repetitions.  Do I catch them all?  Not a chance.

I’ve been working diligently for decades (see what I mean?) to purge these flaws from my writing, but I know they are like the hitch in a baseball player’s swing.  Coaching and constant practice can minimize and manage the problem, but never quite eliminate it.  As Mark Twain said, “You can straighten a worm, but the crook is in him and only waiting.”

I struggle against the poltergeists that haunt my prose, hopping into my sentences when I least want them.  The only defense is not to ignore them when they pop up, but to treat them as the little garbagemen they are.  In everything I write, I look for lazy alliteration, obsessive parenthesizing, and extraneous double-dashing. I’ve got them down to a barely acceptable minimum after 10 years of waging war against them.

Your tics are different.  Maybe you love to begin sentences with “And” or “But” or “So.”  Maybe you love incomplete sentences or piling adjectives on top of each other or comparing everything to sports or connecting everything to your favorite music or using three to five exclamation points all the time to show how excited you are.  The simple rule is: Whatever you like most in your own writing is the thing your readers probably like the least.

Do you like to italicize things and use quotation marks to “emphasize” whatever you think is “important”?  If what you’re saying is important, you don’t need fonts or punctuation marks to prove it.  And if what you’re saying isn’t important, no amount of italics or quotation marks can make it so.  If what you’re saying can’t speak for itself, why are you speaking for it?

A little bit of boldface can go a long way, especially if people are reading you on their phones, where their attention is so often atomized.  But if it’s a habit, you need to stop.  Otherwise you come across to your readers like that annoying parent who claps only for his own child at the school assembly or who screams “Good job!” from the soccer sidelines every time his kid touches the ball.

It doesn’t matter what your tics are.  All that matters is that you train yourself to see them and then to get rid of them.

Cut!

Not long ago, I came across a professor complaining that academic journals make you adhere to arbitrary lengths for articles, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t make his work fit.  Maybe he’s not trying hard enough.  Maybe he’s trying the wrong approach.  Or maybe he thinks Oscar Wilde was serious when, asked to make changes in one of his plays, he retorted, “But who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?

You have no right to act affronted when someone asks you to cut your writing, as if the request were some sort of selfish demand.  You’re the one who’s being selfish, by refusing to make your readers’ lives easier.  And, above all, you’re hurting yourself, as selfish people always do: The point of cutting your writing isn’t to make it shorter.  The point of cutting it is to make it better.

Cutting your writing is the surest way to find its weaknesses; it is only when you take a knife to what you wrote that you can find out whether any of it is even alive.

Here are a few principles I use to cut.

Cut whatever you just wrote by 10%, and you will make it about 25% better.  Cut it by a third, and it will be roughly 50% better.  Cut it again and again.  Cut until it hurts, and beyond.  Cut until you feel like Freddy Krueger and one of his victims at the same time.

First, make it longer.  Once I feel I’m finished writing, then I take some time to add in everything I didn’t use that I’m wondering whether I should have used.  I do that because, oOnce I start cutting, I never want to add anything new; I want every word that might possibly belong in there at the beginning.  In the movies, the slasher always locks all the doors before he starts.  Likewise, when I cut my writing, I want to know that nothing else is to getting in, and that I have all my victims are where I want them.

I find that Throwing in every idea that stands even a remote chance of being usable liberates me to cut with extra brutality, because it assures assuring me of starting off with at least some material so marginal that I barely feel the pain of the first cuts feel like scratches.

Next, make a copy for posterity.  That’s especially important ^vital^ for young writers.  You’re trying to teach yourself the lesson that most of the masterpiece you just finished was a waste of words.  The only way you’ll learn that, over time, is by making sure you keep a copy of everything you started with.  (Besides, in case you cut so deep that you kill the patient, you’ll want to be able to refer back to the original.)  Take a word count, and put that — in extra-large numerals — at the top.  Now take two-thirds of that number and put that in ^it^ even bigger numbers next to the first: That’s where you need to end up.  My columns run in The Wall Street Journal at around 800 words apiece.  Before I turn them in to my editors, I cut them down myself — from an average of 1,200 words.  If you can’t cut your writing by one third, it won’t be worth reading.  You’ll need to make a copy of the original to prove to yourself, after the fact, how much more verbose it was than necessary. 

Now, cut hard and deep.  The biggest mistake developing writers make is to try cutting a few words here and a handful there.  But you aren’t doing cosmetic surgery on beautiful moviestars in Beverly Hills; you are doing amputations.  The tools you need aren’t microscopes and miniaturized scalpels.  You need to start with a chain saw.

You probably think I’m making this sound ridiculously scary and intimidating, but trust me: There’s a secret to it.  Keep reading and I’ll tell you.

It sounds harder and scarier than it is.  Read as fast as you can.  Read in big gulps, a paragraph at a time.  Identify the weakest paragraph and delete it.  Delete the next weakest, and the one after that.

If you can’t find any paragraphs to cut, you’re kidding yourself.  The best solution I know of is to become exhausted: Go run 10 miles, or stay up an hour past your bedtime, or get up an hour earlier in the morning than usual.  Now, while you’re exhausted, read what you wrote.  The weak links should leap out at you.

Next, find the weakest remaining sentence, and kill that.  If you can’t find one, take any sentence at random and delete it.

Ask yourself: Do I miss it?

Answer honestly.  Your piece might be better without it.  Or maybe you can replace the deleted sentence with something shorter and sharper.  Put it back only if its absence creates a black hole.  Keep searching for sentences to kill.  By the time you’re done with this,^Stop only when^ all your remaining sentences should feel indispensable. 

Next, look for sentences with multiple clauses that run on and on, saying more than you need to, taking too long to get to the point, giving you a platform for repeating yourself, quoting other people echoing what you’ve already said; semicolons are a reliable tipoff that you could have made your point faster.  Hack the extra clauses out.

With luck, you’ve cut by about 20% now.  You can put down the chain saw and switch to a hatchet.

Now, kill all the adverbs.  It’s not that I really dislike adverbs; I hate them.

When you use the right verb — did you notice how, in the previous sentence, I replaced that wimpy “really dislike” with the militant “hate”? — you don’t need the fake emphasis of “really,” or most other adverbs either.  Get rid of them: Slaughter every single “actually,” “very,” “really,” “truly,” “clearly,” “certainly,” and the entire kennel-full of these weasel words.  The typical writer can probably cut a piece by 5% just by exterminating every adverb.

Why I Hate Adverbs

Now, you can go through your piece with a scalpel and trim, nipping and tucking word by word, until your writing is as tight as you can make it.  Repeat at least once, preferably twice.  If any paragraphs have “widows” or “dangles,” a single word or short phrase that doesn’t come close to filling out the last line, use that as a pretext to try shaving just ^shave^ enough words to cut that fragmentary line.

Finally, set it aside for as long as you can, at least a day, or longer if you have the luxury of time.  Don’t touch what you wrote.  Don’t look at it or even think about it.  Let it rest, and get some rest yourself.  You’re about to embark on the hardest leg of the journey to becoming a better writer.

Rewriting

You have to regard your own work as garbage if it is to end up as anything better than garbage.

The essence of rewriting is destruction.  Journalists and other professional writers almost always call it “killing my darlings.”  Cutting is bloody, but rewriting is what hurts, because it requires brutal self-examination.  Rewriting also hurts more than cutting because, after you already put all that work into striving for perfection, now you have to scan everything you did with a cold, alien, objective eye that focuses on finding every imperfection.  If you can’t find any, you are writing, but you are not a writer.

The trick is to regard the writing as writing, not as part of you.  Let go of any pride, any feeling that what you wrote is beautiful or brilliant or perfect.  Let go of the very idea that you wrote it.  Do everything you can to make the words look strange and unfamiliar.  That’s why you have to let your writing sit for at least a day, so the heat of the moment can cool and your memory of every syllable can start to fade.  If you wrote it in Microsoft Word, copy-and-paste it into Google Docs, or vice versa.  If you printed it out, then read it on a computer screen.  If you wrote it on your computer, then read it on a printout.  Change the font or the color.  Do whatever it takes to help you see it as someone else’s work, or as no one’s work.

As Samuel Johnson, who set the standard for English prose in the 18th century, advised: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  More tersely, Elmore Leonard, the author of Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and other thrillers, says, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

So you have to learn to let go of whatever you love the most.  Great writers don’t try to fix their own work; they try to destroy it.

Watch Mark Twain trying to beat a single quip into shape:

He chops and hacks at it at least four times until, finally, he bashes two giant X’s over it.  “Give it up,” he commands himself.  “Am sorry he died.”  (Notice how Twain talks to, or at, himself as if Twain the writer and Twain the self-editor were two different people. They were! As anyone who works with words should be.)  Perhaps immediately after that, a new aphorism flies onto the paper, and with two simplifying changes Twain perfects it.  Did destroying the previous one give birth to this one?  It couldn’t have hurt.

Now look at this page proof of Eugénie Grandet, by the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac, from the manuscript collection of the Morgan Library.  Even as his novel was being printed, Balzac stood in the print shop, yanking each page off the press and rewriting it almost word for word, even gluing torn shreds of scrap paper onto the page to accommodate the flashes of revision racing through his mind. You can see at a glance that Balzac isn’t merely editing or improving himself; he is attacking himself.

A page from Honore de Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet” (1833).

That is no fluke; it is how he worked.  A lesser writer would have said, My book is already written.  Balzac said, in effect, Out of the book I have already written I can still make a better one.  [To Balzac, as his biographer the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig wrote, every page was a battlefield.1I am not, alas, related to Stefan Zweig (1881-1942).

Here’s another example, from Zweig’s collection of manuscripts, now in the British Library:

Page 3 of “Une Tenebreuse Affaire” by Honore de Balzac, f.15r.

It took me decades of experience as a professional writer before I learned how to rewrite like this.  The person who taught me was Danny Kahneman, whom I helped write Thinking, Fast and Slow.

From the Archives: Daniel Kahneman

Because I’ve told the story before, I will just repeat it here:

…nothing amazed me more about Danny than his ability to detonate what we had just done.

     Anyone who has ever collaborated with him tells a version of this story: You go to sleep feeling that Danny and you had done important and incontestably good work that day.  You wake up at a normal human hour, grab breakfast, and open your email.  To your consternation, you see a string of emails from Danny, beginning around 2:30 a.m.  The subject lines commence in worry (something like “I don’t think this works”), turn darker (“What were we thinking?”), and end around 5 a.m. in a barrage of panic (“This will not do at all”) and despair (“This is just garbage”).*

     You send an email asking when he can talk; you assume Danny must be asleep after staying up all night trashing the chapter.  Your cellphone rings a few seconds later. “I think I figured out the problem,” says Danny, sounding remarkably chipper.  “What do you think of this approach instead?”

     The next thing you know, he sends a version so utterly transformed that it is unrecognizable: It begins differently, it ends differently, it incorporates anecdotes and evidence you never would have thought of, it draws on research that you’ve never heard of.  If the earlier version was close to gold, this one is hewn out of something like diamond: The raw materials have all changed, but the same ideas are somehow illuminated with a sharper shift of brilliance.

     The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck.  How did he do that? How could anybody do that?  When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

     To most people, rewriting is an act of cosmetology: You nip, you tuck, you slather on lipstick.  To Danny, rewriting is an act of war: If something needs to be rewritten then it needs to be destroyed.  The enemy in that war is yourself.

     Having wanted to be a writer since I was 13, I still hadn’t learned how to be one until I worked with Danny.  I no longer try to fix what I’ve just written if it doesn’t work.  I try to destroy it instead — and start all over as if I had never written a word.

     Danny taught me that you can never create something worth reading unless you are committed to the total destruction of everything that isn’t.  He taught me to have no sunk costs.

* Here I am paraphrasing, but not by much.

Nowadays I call this “listening to my fear.”  If I’m afraid something I’ve done isn’t good enough, I know it’s not.  I create a new document on the spot and start from scratch.

How do you know when you’re done rewriting?  Balzac, if he were alive today, would probably go back and tear up all his books all over again.  For me, I know I’m done rewriting when I can say this:

I don’t know if it’s any good.  I only know I can’t make it any better anymore.

Tomorrow, I might feel differently.  But today, that’s a good feeling that, to me, signals work well done.

Rhythm

Orwell pointed out that good English prose vibrates between short, simple words rooted in Anglo-Saxon and polysyllabic, sonorous words derived from Greek and Latin. The master of this kind of music, of course, was Shakespeare, as you can see and hear in these lines from Macbeth…

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No: This my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

…in which the magnificently processional and fluid line “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” is followed by the startling shift to clipped words that sound like gongs of doom: “Making the green one red.”

Watch how Abraham Lincoln took a paragraph drafted by his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and elevated it from rhetoric to political poetry.

Seward wrote:

“I close.  We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren.  Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken.  The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

Lincoln transformed that to:

“I am loath to close.  We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Notice how Lincoln makes the abstract personal.  Seward’s lines have the chilly commanding tone of a sermon given by a preacher who struggles to keep his ego in check — “I close” (you in the back row, wake up now!) and “I am sure” (Trust me, I know I’m right!).  Lincoln infuses the passage with emotion and empathy — “I am loath to close” (You are my friends, and I hate to leave you) and “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies” (Please, I beg you, let’s live together in respect and friendship).

Angels Making Music, Hans Memling (ca. 1483-1494)

Lincoln concludes with a heartbreaking image that somehow seems to turn mere mortals into a heavenly choir accompanied by harps.  The “mystic chords” come from “memory” (so it’s not to a remote God we should look, but to the divine spark within each of us, which Lincoln makes us feel he senses even when we are at our worst).  He tells us those chords will “again” be “touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  We have fallen, but we shall rise again.
Seward offered only a rhetorical implication that divine justice would redeem the nation.  Lincoln offers the tangible hope that who we can be is who we are, that we all have angels within us.

Lincoln didn’t have a hoity-toity Harvard or Yale or Stanford education.  He grew up reading Shakespeare and Milton and the King James Bible by candlelight, soaking up the simple majesty of their words.

At its best, writing becomes almost indistinguishable from music: Someone reading great writing, just like someone listening to great music, takes an intense, tactile pleasure in the rhythm and flow of the work, sensing instinctively what is about to come next and nevertheless being surprised and thrilled by it at the same time.  Great writers orchestrate that interplay between tension, suspense, surprise, release and completion.  It is wild and sensual, deliberate and controlled, all at once, all carried out with lightness and grace.  The spontaneity is studied, the result of continuous refinement.  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:

It would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakspeare, (in their most important works at least,) without making the author say something else, or something worse than he does say.

How can you develop the inner ear it takes to hear — and make — the music of language?  Read, read, read.  As I said in Part One of this series, no aspiring writer can ever read too much of the great masters.  You can also study some of the world’s best writers on what separates good writing from bad:

Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses

H.L. Mencken, “Professor Veblen

Virginia Woolf, “Craftsmanship

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language

Criticism Is the Best Medicine

It’s never good news when the managing editor walks into a lowly reporter’s cubicle.  One day in early 1990, I looked up from my desk at Forbes magazine to see Shelley Zalaznick standing over me.  My heart started to pound in fear.  “Hi, Shelley,” I chirped as I stood up, trying to master my fear.  He didn’t say hello.  A slow second or two crawled by as Shelley extended his arm to full length, parallel to the floor, as rigid as a gangplank.  From the end of it, pinned between his thumb and forefinger, dangled a sheet of paper.  From the look of revulsion on his face, it might as well have been a hank of used toilet paper.

“What is this?” he said, then flicked it toward me. 

It fell onto my desk, and I grabbed it.  It was the letter I had drafted, for editorial approval, to a reader who had criticized my most recent article.  “Oh, that asshole,” I exclaimed before I had time to censor myself. “Everything he said was wrong.  All I did was tell him.” 

Shelley looked at me, and his eyes could have flash-frozen a pot of boiling water in the Sahara. “That asshole pays your salary,” he said.  “You work for him.  He doesn’t have to respect you.  But you have to respect him.”

I looked back at him, stunned.

“Try again,” said Shelley.  “Start over.  And get it right this time.”  He walked away.

I sank into my chair, angry and disgusted.  The reader had written me a two-page, single-spaced letter itemizing something like a dozen of what he believed to be serious errors of fact or fairness in my story.  He hadn’t stuck to facts or fairness himself, however.  He had called me ignorant and stupid, biased and reckless and dishonest.  I lost his letter years ago, but to this day, three decades later, it remains one of the most obnoxious instances of feedback I’ve ever gotten from a reader (and I’ve gotten thousands). So, naturally, in my response, I’d seen his rudeness and raised it: My rebuttal had been dripping with sarcasm and self-justification.

This asshole pays my salary.  I thought about it for a minute.  At first it made me even angrier.  Not only had the reader humiliated me; Shelley had humiliated me all over again for having the nerve to defend myself. 

But I realized Shelley wanted me to understand a couple of things: Why was I feeling so defensive in the first place?  And if this asshole pays my salary, then how should I respond to his insults?

I need to take him seriously, even if I think he’s an asshole.  Even if he is one.

I tore my original response up and deliberately carried the pieces down the hallway to the communal trash can, where they would be too far away to infect my thinking.  I took the reader’s letter and laid it alongside my article, and I read each of his criticisms alongside what I’d originally written.  I forced myself to ignore his rhetoric and to focus only on one question: Who is right?

To my amazement, once I set my defensiveness aside, I could see that the reader had a point — every time.  He was never exactly right, but he wasn’t wrong either.  The more closely I read what he’d written, the more I realized he knew a lot about the topic.  By the time I got to the end of his letter and my article, I realized he knew at least as much about it as I did.  The difference between what I’d written and what he’d written wasn’t that I was right and he was wrong.  It was that my wording was precise, based on specific research and documentary evidence, whereas his letter was based on his experience and general familiarity with the topic. 

In the light of his letter, my article looked strange to me now: not factually incorrect, but incomplete and imperfect, like a pear-shaped billiard ball or a piece of furniture that somehow wouldn’t stand quite flat on the floor. More importantly, my breezy confidence about how much I knew was gone.  As I read my article again, everything in it seemed distant and unfamiliar and conjectural: Where did I get that from? Who told me this? Did that number come from the annual report or from my notes? Had I double-checked with the registrar’s office that the CEO had graduated from the college he’d said he attended, or had I relied only on the yearbook picture he’d showed me? Did I know any of this stuff, or had I confused the feeling of knowing for knowledge itself?

I went back and re-researched and re-reported the whole thing all over again.  When I’d finished, everything I’d originally written held up.  I stood up when I was done and went for a walk around the block.  I came back to my desk, filled with a strange sensation I can only describe as gratitude.  That angry reader had forced me to deconstruct my own work in a way I’d never done before: I realized that, as I researched and reported the article, I’d been building a case, looking for critical evidence and rejecting favorable evidence.  I’d started out knowing what I’d wanted to write, and spent the entire time confirming my first impressions instead of trying to kill them.

The reader was right: I was biased.  Without consciously realizing it, I’d been trying to write a negative article, and I succeeded.  But how hard was that?  The real challenge would be to try not to write a negative article and then to end up with one.  To be fair to the people you end up criticizing — and yourself! — you have to make every effort to praise rather than criticize them.  The only way to get it right is by keeping your mind wide open to the possibility that you are wrong.  I’ve tried to do that ever since, in everything I write.

I also realized that day that if you are defensive when somebody tells you you got it wrong, you probably are wrong about something.  Mastery and confidence aren’t insecure; I’d lashed out at my critic because some part of me, down deep, must have been afraid he was at least partly right.

How could it be otherwise?  In writing, as in life, anger and defensiveness are always rooted in fear.

Criticism isn’t dangerous, and you shouldn’t be afraid of it; you should embrace it the same way you embrace your best friend or family member, the only one you trust enough to tell you when you’re full of sh*t.  How rude a critic is doesn’t matter; all that matters is always throwing yourself open to being criticized.  You can’t learn much, if anything, from people who agree with you.  It’s the person who criticizes you who can make you smarter.

So I began my letter to that reader: “Thank you very kindly for your thoughtful letter.”  I took each of his points in turn, calmly pointing out what I knew and how I had documented it.  I concluded: “Thank you again.  Respectfully, Jason Zweig.”

To this day, whenever I get nasty critical feedback, I just tell myself, This asshole pays my salary.  I work for him.  I try to answer every critical email I get, so long as the person raises anything of substance, and I always try to write a calm and polite and thorough response.  (If all you do, however, is attack my intelligence, insult my parentage, or compare me to a gastrointestinal or reproductive organ, I won’t respond to you.)  And I still go back and double-check anything a critic challenges me on.  If I’m wrong, the last thing in the world I want is for an error to live on into posterity with my name attached to it.  Every criticism is a chance for me to correct a mistake, improve my reporting, or to learn something.

I almost forgot to tell you: When I turned in my revised letter Shelley Zalaznick had two words for me that still rank among the highest praise I’ve ever gotten.  He said: “Much better.”

The unluckiest writers alive are the ones who have no one to tell them they are wrong.  Try never to ridicule people who criticize what you write.  No matter how foolish they seem, they might still be right.  Even if they’re wrong, you might still learn something else from them.  If they’re right, you get to correct your mistake.  If they’re wrong, they’ve still given you the chance to double-check your work; re-reading it again in a new light, you might suddenly see unexpected ways to improve it.  Your critics are not your enemies.  They are, whether they know it or not, your friends.  They can bring out the better angels in your writing.

Although I think my novelist friends will disagree with me, I’m tempted to define a professional writer like this: someone who can take criticism of his or her work, no matter how fierce or stupid, without stooping to anger or insult in return.   I often express my own attitude this way:

“I have ego in my work, but I don’t have ego about my work.”

What I mean by that is that I tried my hardest to make whatever I’ve been writing perfect, but I know it’s not, because nothing is.  If you don’t like it, tell me how to make it better and I’ll see what I can do.

Maybe I’m weird, but I think that’s how it ought to work.

For further reading:

On Writing Better: Getting Started

On Writing Better: Sharpening Your Tools

Ten Tips for Writing a Book without Making Your Head Explode

Why I Hate Adverbs

Saving Investors from Themselves