Writers are notorious for living in their heads. It is the hallmark of the writer to daydream, jot down notes from epiphanies, and to discuss ideas with close friends. But there is another more unconscious input to the writing process that is often overlooked in listicles and advice columns—paying attention.
New writers start out with an edge of excitement and naivety. There is an infinite universe of ideas they see as theirs’ for the taking, and it is theirs’ to be sure. But initially the obstacle a writer must overcome is how they tell a story. More specifically, the obstacle is whether they tell a story at all. It seems odd to suggest that a writer would not tell a story, but it happens.
Many new writers believe that ideas must be described and conveyed almost clinically because that is the academic form from which were conditioned.
This is understandable.
Being objective and fair with minimal idealism, while also coming across as balanced is what defines a good writer, according to teachers and professors. While empirically sound, this style of writing dies on the vine for anyone searching for a bold and interesting read. The style comes across as boring to read and impossible to enjoy. Even with an obvious theme, the lack of a story to engage the reader leaves the writing impersonal and without feeling.
It is here where most writers begin and where I submit that without a story to support a theme a writer is not a writer, but rather someone who writes.
There is a difference.
Not too long ago, I came across a 2014 interview with Sarah Stillman, Staff Writer for The New Yorker. While discussing an occasion when one of her articles was rejected, she described the poignant lesson that frames her writing today,
People don’t really care about issues so much as they care about the stories and the characters that bring those issues to life.
That is considerable insight for a prospective writer. Readers want abstractions personified, be it healthcare, gun control, or other topical social issues. Personification gives an issue a face, a name, and a story. But they also crave substance. The descriptions and overall story must tie to a deeper idea or theory that they can both understand and appreciate. That combination of characteristics brings personal relevance to readers, giving them hope and context as well as something to think about.
Readers also prefer personification because they are drawn to the innate drama of the stories of others. This reality is analogous to what we do when we learn of someone being injured. Almost always, the first question is “What happened?” When you think about it, this is an odd initial question because it is self-serving. Instead, asking “How can I help?” or “Is there anything I can do?” would probably be more appropriate questions initially. But we are conditioned to expect these as secondary questions. Rather, asking for the cause of the injury meets our interest in storytelling experiences outside of the context of a book or article; we get to experience the story in reality.
Learning about what happened also gives a perspective from which to frame our own personal station in life. It is an occasion to reflect on someone else’s plight and to consider whether our fate may fall prey to a similar event. Hearing another’s story is an impetus for being introspective, thus renewing our personal perspective and, hopefully, improving our lives.
For writers, telling a story about what happened should be instinctual. Because many writers begin from an academic or objective perspective this can be difficult. Instead, writers who focus solely on objectivity become consumed with writing about ideas in the vacuum of theory and outside of the context of reality. This causes them to miss where the stories are found.
Herein lies a literary paradox.
While most readers prefer a balanced mix of substantive ideas that are personified through thematic storytelling, new writers who are conditioned in an academically objective form find themselves writing opposite of what most readers, including themselves, prefer. Their conditioning makes them wary to pursue other, more creative forms of writing for fear of losing objective credibility with readers. However, it is hard to lose credibility with readers that are not interested in reading what you say, regardless of your reasons for using unimaginative writing. No story, no readers. It is that simple.
To develop a writer’s mindset, being cognizant of the world around you is a trait that must be honed. This means paying careful attention to benign and even inane details in conversation and the environment. It is in those places that you find the story and the details.
The difference between a writer and a someone that writes is that a writer will identify the story within an issue and search for someone to tie that story to.
Identifying a story from banality is part of the art of writing. It takes a conscious effort to actively reflect on what you see and hear. But good writing requires it. Opportunities to observe banality flourish in the most surprising situations. Just read a blog or a long-form journalistic article and you will see writers pour themselves into describing details that most people ordinarily gloss over. But that is where the story is and the story is what bolsters your angle on the issue or theory you want to discuss.
Malcolm Gladwell is a contributor to The New Yorker and the best-selling author of Outliers, Blink, David and Goliath and The Tipping Point. He is well known for telling intriguing stories with an original angle on such vapid topics as ketchup and dog training. His style embodies the theme of this article because he hits that delicate balance of telling thematic stories by using substantive ideas and personification.
While most writers use characters to hook their readers, Gladwell uses interesting theories and a completely separate topic and develops a narrative that combines both. He then adds characters to enhance the overall experience of the story, bringing it to life.
An example of Galdwell’s application of this technique is a 2015 article he wrote for The New Yorker titled Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Catch On. In lieu of writing a typical human interest story on the latest school shooting and then describing the effects in the greater social context, he chose to approach the subject more obtusely.
After describing the experience of the situation and what it means, he wrote about how Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter’s theory of riots applies to explaining why school shootings occur. By developing a cohesive narrative from two separate topics, Gladwell used a layered storytelling approach that tackles the subject both directly and indirectly.
A more holistic and interesting story.
But it could not be told if he did not pay attention to little details. When interviewing Gladwell regarding his style, The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington wrote,
[Gladwell’s stories] are simply and directly told, with the aid of a dizzying array of illustrations to support his argument. He moves effortlessly from individual stories to learned academic treatises to sociological observation and back to the individual. The writing is vibrant, colourful and packed with surprises.
Yet, his writing is always focused on what is right in front of him, the obvious.
In the same interview Gladwell exclaimed, “I explore the obvious, because that says I’m still trafficking in those familiar common questions, which is where I want to be.”
This is where his readers prefer him to be as well. He is asking the questions that everyone thinks should be asked, but no one ever asks because they have accepted the underlying reality as part of everyday life. Yet, Gladwell’s preference for focusing on the obvious is driven by his academic upbringing during his high school years.
In another interview with The Star, Gladwell spoke with admiration and nostalgia about the influence of his London, Ontario high school English teacher, Bill Exley.
“It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized how formative he had been,” Gladwell said. “He paid a tremendous attention to details and that has been the basis of all of my writing. I thank him for it.”
This experience was likely an impetus that caused Gladwell to suggest that most writers write “experience-rich and theory-poor” stories. While the experience can certainly hook the readers, it has to be used as a means of moving the reader to understand the larger point that is found in the theory or issue(s) being discussed. But before the writing begins, paying attention to the smallest of details is where writers find inspiration and the descriptive scenery for giving readers the story they deserve.