Only One Thing Matters

“What do you look for in a writer?”

I was talking with a client this week about him hiring a junior writer, and he wanted to know how I evaluate someone’s writing, what makes me confident they know what they’re doing.

He was listening very intently and ready to take down lots of notes, like he was expecting me to reel off a long list, among which obviously would be spectacular references, astronomical sales records and an adoring and share-happy audience.

But honestly, there’s only one thing I care about. All I want to see is clarity.

Writing, about anything, is about communicating meaning. It’s about being able to take your understanding of something and convey it, complete, into someone else’s mind.

When the meaning is clear, all the other stuff — the sales and the audience and the accolades — will eventually follow.

Here’s what will not get you any of that stuff:

  • Flashy vocabulary
  • Poetic style
  • Complicated sentence structures
  • Artificial rhythm
  • Over-intellectualised arguments

All these are illusions that distract both writer and reader from the piece’s meaning.

When the writing is all big words and fancy construction, the reader gets the false impression that the piece is a bit beyond them, and the writer gets the smug satisfaction of having written, without any of the benefit of having to truly clarify what they mean.

Meaning is all that matters.
And if the writer and reader are the same person, as they are when we’re writing for our own private purposes, this is even more important to keep in mind.

If you’re writing to figure out what you think about a certain situation, or to unpack some baggage you’ve been carrying around, or to explore some alternative realities you might work yourself into, then coming to clarity is crucial.

Sometimes you only get to clarity by writing about the same thing over and over again, probing a little bit further each time you sit down with the subject.

Sometimes it’s a question of taking yourself to task a bit: paying attention to the moments you start to avoid writing about something, and pushing yourself to go there.

Sometimes it’s about taking a few steps back, trying to see the situation from a distance, to allow your mind to collect bits of information you might not have considered before, so that when it comes time to write, they weave together to create something entirely new and clear.

Really, clarity is about knowing your subject.

It comes from writing about something over and over again until you can explain it in the simplest terms, answer every question and anticipate what its implications might be.

It’s about writing often, with a curious and critical mind, so that over time you start to trust yourself more, and so that the hard-won clarity of your self-observation starts to seep out into other parts of your life.