I learned in elementary school that an essay should have five paragraphs: an introduction, a three paragraph body, and a conclusion that rephrases the introduction. I always struggled to rewrite my introductions with different words. It didn’t occur to me as a kid that it was hard because I was writing fluff. For a long time, I learned rules and guidelines for writing without really thinking for myself about what it takes to write well.
I was exposed to fantastic writing through books, but those cases never struck me as remarkable. In the same way that it might be harder for comedians to make you laugh because you know they are trying to make you laugh and maybe because you expect them to be good at it, I always expected quality writing from the books I read.
So if someone were to ask me for examples of great writing, I would go to Roger Ebert’s movie reviews instead. As a teenager, I got into the habit of reading his review after every movie I watched. His reviews were always worth reading, regardless of how good the movies themselves were. I’ve read plenty of media reviews (for movies, video games, music, etc.), but Ebert seemed to occupy a tier all by himself in terms of writing quality. He was exceptional at figuring out the most interesting and important aspects of a movie and succinctly writing about them. No fluff necessary.
In his review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert wrote:
The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001" is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.
Ebert did the same distillation with his writing. The goal of all writing is to communicate something, whether that something is an idea, feeling, argument, or mood. This might seem like a truism, but I have a bad habit of not keeping it in mind. I haven’t always allowed the question of “am I communicating what I want to communicate to my intended audience?” to drive my writing process because avoiding it has allowed me to be lazy.
Writing is a representation of the author’s thoughts and feelings, and thoroughly sorting those out can be really hard. It takes much less effort to write fluff that seems sensical on the surface but doesn’t actually say much. Great writing depends on having something worth communicating in the first place, and while muddled thinking can be cleared up during the writing process, the author must put in the effort to do so. I tend to leave my thoughts somewhat jumbled, even if it means my writing suffers as a result. Sure my writing is usually free of typos, but that’s because it is far easier to identify and fix run-on sentences than it is to do the same for confusing thoughts. I do the easy work and leave the hard work (figuring out what I am really trying to say) to the reader.
So laziness also leads the writer to not think about the audience. Every piece of writing has an audience, even if it’s just the author’s future self. Great writing contains a high degree of empathy with them, and empathy takes effort. The writer has to think about whether or not the audience has the background knowledge needed to understand what is written, how they will construe what the author intends, and how they might respond. The burden should be on the writer to try to read the reader’s mind rather than the other way around.
When I read one of Ebert’s reviews, I am fully engaged. Not because I agree or disagree with him but because it feels like he has put in the work necessary to precisely explain what he thinks of the movie. It is so effortless on my part to read and understand his writing that I am left with the energy and desire to continue the conversation, even if it’s just in my head. This is the crux of great writing, and it applies to everything from movie reviews to novels to emails.
For more thoughts on writing, I recommend Paul Graham’s essays: