I was both delighted and overwhelmed by what stood before me. This was not unusual. In fact, the same thoughts go through my mind each time I walk through my local library’s stacks. So much to read.
I wasn’t until later, as I was staggering to the circulation desk with a pile of books I could barely see over, that I thought to ask myself when I would possibly find time to read all of these. Hmm.
Many personal development blogs draw on the assumption that time is a scarce resource. Some give advice on how to manage your time, while others discuss ways to boost your productivity (thus enabling you to get more done in a given amount of time). Still others encourage you to establish clear values and priorities for your life, reasoning that since there is not enough time to get everything done, you should focus on the things that matter most.
I thought of these competing time management/productivity philosophies as I stood in the library’s lobby looking at the dozen books I had chosen. Clearly, I would have to put some of them back. The question that entered my mind next had nothing to do with time. How do I choose? Given that I didn’t have time to try them all, which ones would I choose to invest some time in?
I started to think about what makes a reader decide that a writer is worth some of the reader’s time. What keeps a reader coming back to a writer book after book, or blog entry after blog entry? What makes a certain writer’s work a “must read,” while another’s is skimmed or skipped?
1. Restlessness: If a reader is going to venture into a writer’s mind, the reader wants to find something alive there. An intellectually restless writer is always experimenting, always pushing toward a fuller articulation of his or her ideas. This restless energy sizzles and sparks on the page.
From a writer’s perspective, a restless mind is not sunshine and roses. The writer is never fully satisfied with his or her work; that’s what drives the writer to continue. But when the great ideas come along, this writer will pursue them with spirit.
2. Perspective: A writer’s perspective can draw many readers. A writer can communicate perspective through his or her choice of content (a particular political or religious perspective, for example). He or she could also transmit perspective through tone, form, voice, or any of a wide array of stylistic devices.
I don’t think that the perspective itself is important. That is, it doesn’t necessarily need to be “fresh” or “modern.” For example, a thoroughly mainstream, conventional, old-fashioned perspective could be a hit with readers. In other words, the what isn’t important; the how is.
A clear, consistent perspective will win out over a badly-conceived, poorly explained and inconsistent perspective, no matter how “fresh” or “modern” it may be. This means that you must know who you are as a writer. Thankfully, writerly self awareness is easier to achieve than personal self awareness, but it’s still tricky. Peer review feedback, and regular self assessment, can help writers quantify their perspective. By thinking about writing in terms of what readers may find compelling, a writer is well on his or her way to meeting his or her readers’ criteria.
3. Delight: Some writers just delight us as readers. Again, this quality is not tied to content or form. For me, it boils down to two things. First, the writer has a command of language. The writer’s style might be terse and declarative, like Hemingway, or florid and qualified, like James. Whatever the writer’s particular style, though, the writer executes the work by means of skillful language use.
This skillful command of language, I should add, is not obtained with ease. Even the most brilliant writers painstakingly work and re-work language until it conveys their message. In an interview for the Paris Review, Hemingway said that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When the interviewer asked what about that last page had given him so much trouble, he replied, “getting the words right.” (Quoted in Trimble Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing 99).
The second writerly quality that inspires delight in the reader is something that I can only describe as joy. Joy at the privilege of being read. Joy in the process of honing ideas and then, once the ideas are sharp, honing the language that contains them. As before, this sense of joy pervades writing independent of its content; I sense this quality no less in a great tragic piece than a great comic one. Perhaps a better word for it is love.
So how many books did I leave the library with? Two – the most confident and compelling of the bunch. After all, I reasoned, I could always come back for the others when I had more time.
What makes a writer’s work a “must read” for you?
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