Today’s letter memorializes realizations I shared on Twitter earlier this year.
One additional realization I’ve had in 2020 is I love and respect creators. My writing through much of the year has been inspired by people who put something new into the world. Thank you for reading this letter, and I wish you Happy Holidays.
A favor: please send me a note and tell me what you want me to write about next.
In the past 25 years, I’ve had four major realizations about writing.
These are the kinds of realizations that don’t just change the way you think about something, they reverse the way you think about it.
The first realization is writing is about ideas, not words or sentences.
I wrote for a decade before I internalized this truth. My work suffered because I tried to write something memorable or original instead of just writing what I meant.
I still have to work hard to do that.
The second realization is writing is about emotions, not merely ideas.
The song "22" isn't designed to appeal to 22-year-olds, it's designed to appeal to the 22-year-old in each of us. It overlaps ideas and emotions like hands on a clock.
The same with anything ever written by Carl Sagan, or Fred Rogers, or J.K. Rowling. Get the idea right. Personalize it in a way that’s human. Hit the head and the heart at the same time.
The third realization is writing is about movement.
Writing brings ideas and emotions in line, and it moves: it takes the reader from one thought to the next, in sequence and at the right pace, never achieving one form of precision at the expense of another.
Long after he quit stand-up comedy, Steve Martin wrote: "Each new performance brought my view of comedy into sharper focus ... Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, and keeping the audience engaged."
The fourth realization is writing about stillness and absence.
The pickpocket Apollo Robbins was dazzled by the secret mechanics of tricks. Through magic he learned a great performance isn’t about showing things, but hiding them.
To quote Seth Godin: “All the action in comic books happens in between the panels. In panel A something happens. In panel B something happens. But it’s what happens between A and B that changed your mind about anything; the action is in your head.”
Through each of these realizations, I discovered the way to get better as a writer wasn’t just different from the way I was writing, it was the opposite. I’ve always loved to write, but it’s always been hard. It's helpful to know better writers are playing a different game.
For writers: the first game is about novelty. The second game is about ideas. The third game is about emotions. The fourth game is about movement. The fifth game is about stillness.
I'm sure there are other games to discover. I'm also sure writers of any experience can play all five games at once on a good day. The hard part is to play these games consistently.
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