Stephen King said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And yet, I put one in the title. When I’m serious about polishing an article, I’ll do a search for “ly” so I can change things like “really bad” to “egregious.” I’m not serious about polishing this one. It’s a data dump.
The adverb thing is not the advice. King breaks that rule all the time anyway.
My kids think I’m a dork.
In the 80s, there was a TV show with some kind of alien muppet called Alf. Whenever Alf said something he found personally hilarious he would proclaim, “Ha! I kill me!”
Guilty. When I write something (some) people think is funny, it’s because I thought it was funny first. I copped to this in the LA Times years ago, when writing about building a home gym: “[My wife] took issue with my laying claim to half the basement with large metal contraptions and feared I’d become a recluse whose only activities were working out and chuckling to myself while writing silly sentences.”
Speaking of the LA Times, how did that happen? Only a year after my first published article I had a regular gig every two weeks in the official paper for Fitness Mecca. It wasn’t like there was a lack of fit people in town, but they were calling this Canadian “our fitness columnist” when I was still new at it.
To answer that, I’ll quote from a reference letter my editor, Rosie, wrote for me: “Here was a rarity: a person who made health and fitness not only accurate but also lively and readable.” After a while, conferences and universities and community colleges were asking me to come and speak about writing.
Back to that I kill me stuff, because I do.
My kids think I’m a dork because I’ll write something I think is funny, and start laughing, and even say aloud, “I kill me.” It’s gotten to the point where my son will hear me laughing while I write and say, “Yeah, we know, Dad. You kill you.”
The best advice I can give isn’t micro shit like adverbs and going back to delete the word “very” 99% of the times you used it, or even editing like a mofo, although that’s important. Really important. Dammit. Not “really important.” It’s critical. Happy now, Mr. King? Anyway, this is even more big picture than hardcore editing.
My advice is: Kill yourself.
Figuratively, of course; the Alf version of self-slaughter. And that’s only if you’re going for humor. Whatever it is, you have to look at what you wrote and think, This is pretty good.
How you get there is not easy. You need to tell yourself a lot of stories and find the ones that resonate and yearn to come out. I got into health and fitness writing because I wasn’t impressed with what was there. There was a hole in the market I desired to fill. In short: I became the fitness writer I wanted to read.
I expect there are quotes from famous writers who hate their own work and blah barf blah. I have a hard time believing the veracity of much of that. It sounds like some arrogant “Oh I hate my writing it’s crap but I won awards and I’m not sure how that happened and what I really mean is I love my writing but I want to say I hate it to sound cool.”
I love my writing.
And you need to love yours. If you don’t love it first, who else will? If you don’t like what you wrote, it means you know you could have done better. It has to make you laugh, make you think, make you cry.
If something I wrote brought tears to your eyes, know there were tears in my eyes when I wrote it. If you found something fascinating to learn, I was fascinated while uncovering the research to write it. If you laughed, we’ve already established what I was doing.
The advice may be simple, but as I said, it’s not one of those things where it’s easy to get there. It’s hours of labor. I began writing with history papers at the age of 22. Six years later, I completed a master’s thesis and thought I was getting pretty good at this writing thing. A few years and an MBA later my career was advancing in part because of my skill at written communication. Executives were compelled by my ability to research, compile thoughts, and encourage a course of action. Even back then, when I wrote business cases and strategic plans, I would proof them and think to myself, This is good shit.
In my 30s, I wrote a novel. It was crap and shall never see the light of day. But I could tell there was a bit of talent lurking. That talent wasn’t something that popped in. There were the years of labor I mentioned.
How to speed things along? How to write something you enjoy? Answer: Read things you enjoy.
Growing up, there were a few authors whose work resonated with me so much I read them again and again. My voice of is a hybridization of theirs, plus some other voices I encountered along the way, intermingled with my own weird self. I studied great authors through repetition. I wasn’t skimming for information, I was taking pleasure in the prose. I still do it now, when I find an author I like. I read slow, letting the words flow through my brain as I laugh or cry or am made frightened. I relish in the emotional response to what this author has evoked in me, and it all gets filed away in my brain as a learning experience. When I am able to recognize how other writers can make me say, “Wow,” I am better prepared to wow myself with my own work.
It took until I was 40 when circumstances allowed me to put serious effort into writing for a living. When I wrote my first paid article I knew it was good, although 10 years on I can see I’m better now, it was good enough for me at that time.
Again: I became the health and fitness writer I wanted to read. Which isn’t to say I was better than everyone, but I assumed there were other people who thought as I did, in that they also wanted to read stuff like what this voice in my head was saying. Editors agreed, and my career progressed. Last year I sold a book to a major publishing house. Part of that was because of the idea I had, and part because I have a large following. But the executive editor also liked my writing, and that’s what sealed it.
On that note, there will always be people who hate what you write. I get that a lot. It doesn’t matter, because if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. Find your voice and push it to the wall. Pick a hill and prepare to die on it. And one other cliché about being opinionated.
It always goes back to impressing yourself first. It can require expanding your ability to empathize, because there are myriad markets to target. I’m not a woman, but most of my readers are. I don’t have obesity, but there are many of my readers who do. I’ve not been sexually assaulted or harassed or targeted with violence or walked in fear in my own neighborhood, but I’ve written about these things, doing my best to imagine myself as the reader, and I have been told those pieces resonate. Reading many thousands of Facebook comments from my readers has helped me develop such empathy. You don’t have to be the target market to understand it.
There are times when I’ve phoned it in. There were articles where I knew I could have done more research, explained myself better, and been more targeted and more convincing. Like this one. Then, there were times I wrote a piece where I slaved at the prose to make it as polished as I could, and was pleased at the way the words flowed, such as this one. There were pieces where the idea was just right, unique, and it exploded. And there was one where it was a subject that almost no one cared about, which is why it had never been covered well, and I was determined to dig and write the authoritative piece on the subject because it was important to me.
If popularity is something you desire, what you write about is even more important than how you write it. That’s a whole different article, but let’s say a great idea that people will read is one that has a novelty factor, and it resonates. It needs to either be something completely new, or examining a subject in a new way, combined with being important to people in a “Fuck yeah!” or a “Holy shit!” kind of way.
The idea, again, is appealing to you as a writer first. If the idea is going to make thousands of other people want to read it, you’re going to have to want to read it too.
Want to write well? Consider it an act of self-gratification; masturbation via keyboard (Edit: My friend and writer extraordinaire Lou Schuler says it’s more like sex work, where the goal is to pleasure someone else, and you don’t get paid unless your client—the reader—gets off. Although it’s okay if you get off too). It’s got to feel good, even though it can also be painful because you’re trying so hard to live up to these personal expectations, and failing again and again, and still trying, and doing that open a vein and bleed on the page shit, and it doesn’t always work …
But sometimes, it does, and you are pleased with what you have created. And that’s the best writing advice I can possibly give you.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first bookwas published by Random House Canada in 2014. His next book, which is about life-changing moments, will be published in January 2019.