An editor at The Economist once remarked, as advice to me on how to write: “Aim to write a piece that gets featured on The Browser.” Edited by Robert Cottrell, The Browser is a website that recommends only five to six articles everyday, which it considers are the best of all that is published on the web that day.
Cottrell, who spends every possible hour of the day reading new content on the web, has written an article in the Financial Times that has some important lessons for young writers like us (if you can’t get through the FT paywall try this). I’ve distilled them for you here:
- Only 1% of all writing on the internet is great writing, and even that is an “embarrassment of riches”.
- Great writers produce great writing, and the bad ones cannot be rescued.
- His golden rule is: the writer is everything. And a corollary: the publisher (with a few exceptions) is nothing.
- We live in a world of ideas and they are not restricted by source or medium.
All of the above taken together paints a rather depressing picture for young writers. The honest truth is that the market we’ve entered is full of great writers who produce ever more great writing, leaving ever little time for us to find a readership for our work. Despite the difficulties, there are some ways to overcome these huge hurdles.
To cheer myself up, here are two things that I read/watched after Cottrell’s article:
First: Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School
Krulwich shares some of Cottrell’s views, but he serves them on a kinder platter. Krulwich says that journalism has reached a point where there are no guarantees that any big publishing house will give you a safe job, irrespective of how good you are. So if you are waiting to get picked, your chances are pretty low. Instead go out there and start doing. “There are some people who just don’t wait,” enthuses Krulwich. This is not a fanciful advice. There are examples like that of Ed Yong, Brian Switek and Alexis Madrigal, who’ve managed to build a career on their own terms.
Second: Avi Steinberg’s article in the New Yorker: Is writing torture? (on Gilbert vs Roth)
The article tells the story of Julian Tepper, a wannabe novelist, who was told by Philip Roth, an accomplished novelist, to quit writing. Roth said, “It’s an awulf field. Just torture. You write and write, and you have to throw most of it away because it’s not any good.” In response Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray and Love, wrote that there are few professions that come close to the pleasure that writing can give.
But it was Avi Steinberg’s take on the whole matter that most convinced me. He says that authors like Roth are correct in that writing can be a torture, especially if it is something that you want to make a living out of. And what Roth tried to do by dissuading Tepper was perhaps good too, because it is better to be aware of the harsh reality of being a writer than to go in to it being ignorant. It is those who can say: “Listen, I don’t care what you tell me. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’m determined to do it, and I will do it,” are those who will be able to succeed in this profession.
Science writing is not fiction, but it is still writing. And at the heart of our profession is our desire to convey thoughts and ideas, mostly through scientists’ work. But we do it because we enjoy it. We are fascinated with the world of science and we want to share stories that amaze us. That to me is enough reason to keep trying.
So what can we do get to that 1% of great writing?
Somewhere in Cottrell’s article I can smell the rotten stink of the innate talent hypothesis, which says that great writers are born to be great writers. I’m sorry but I don’t buy it. I hated English in school, but that was because fiction was not my thing. My education was structured in a way that fiction was given undue importance in writing. Then when I finally realised that non-fiction writing is just as great (if not better), I started to work on it. If I read my blog posts from two years ago, I can see myself in that writing but mostly I see how much I’ve improved since. Of course I have a long way to go, but great writing can come from lots of practice. Period.
I’ll also argue that, while the publisher may be nothing for Cottrell, it is a great place for young writers to vie to be. Great publications are great because they have fantastic editors. Even now articles that I submit to the same editors come back with lots of red marks. Every time this happens, I learn what it is that I need to improve the next time. And I’m not the only one, even accomplished writers have their work decimated. So writing for publications is not just a way of reaching an audience but also it is the secret of rapidly improving your writing.
Finally I would say that while there is a lot of science stories out there, most of them aren’t written well. For instance, it kills me a little every time when I see someone share a link to sciencedaily.com or physorg.com, which are news aggregating websites that share press releases, when some science writer has actually written a story about the same piece of research. And while Cottrell is right that we live an age where ideas matter not the source or the medium that carry them, there is a lot of value that writers can add to make the ideas clearer and spread faster.
Cottrell’s article was a nice slap in the form of a reality check, but it only makes me want to work harder and write better. And someday I know I’ll have an article featured on The Browser.
First published as a guest post on scientificamerican.com (SA Incubator blog).