Monday Musings (Why Writing Became Sterile)

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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

Our new Write of Passage production studio is done. Bringing it into reality has been the most challenging design project I’ve ever worked on. I wrote about the process in the Photo of the Week section at the bottom of today's newsletter, but before we get there, I want to share some of the pieces that inspired the studio aesthetic.

Here's what I want to share this week:

  1. After Minimalism: In this piece, I argue that it's time for us to move beyond Minimalism. If we want a dynamic world, we should splash our buildings with vibrant colors, bold patterns, and visions of a better tomorrow. Minimalism is a child of our obsession with utility and efficiency. But in all it's dominance, we've forgotten that buildings used to be a mouthpiece for our collective ambitions.
  2. The Microwave Economy: I still think about this essay all the time. I wrote it while moving into a new apartment, which I wanted to inject with life. The essay begins with a critique of our obsession with efficiency, with a focus on language, music, and architecture. At the end, I outline a practical design philosophy which I'll use as a guiding light when I become an architect in my next life.
  3. Why Logos Look the Same: Oddly, the most popular thing I’ve ever written is about aesthetics, not online writing (which is what most of my stuff is about). I explored why so much contemporary design suffers from an eerie sense of sameness. You can read it here.

Why Writing Became Sterile

Why does so much contemporary writing feel the same?

It seems like every non-fiction book follows the same formula of making an assertion and backing it up with a study — over and over again. When did we decide we needed a scientific study to justify every obvious intuition?

Non-fiction also follows the same blueprint of short sentences, simple words, and logic so basic a five-year-old can understand. And yeah, it's efficient, but all of us would benefit from some more unhinged writers who look at what you're "supposed to do" and give it the New York Salute.

Cumulatively, I call these changes "The Spell Check Effect."

The rise of homogenous writing began with Microsoft Word. First, spell check corrected our spelling and grammar. Then, as it became more advanced it started correcting our sentence structure, suggesting certain words. Now, with recommendations in Gmail and Google Docs, the age of prediction has arrived.

— —

Should You Use Grammarly?

Use it for editing, not writing.

Even if each of Grammarly's individual suggestions are useful, collectively it makes every writer sound the same. If you use Grammarly while you're writing, you'll silence your personality. Software just doesn't know how to deal with the outlier thinking that makes great writers great.

I like Michael Mayer’s line about writing software: “Writing tools often lower variance which is good if you’re a bad writer and bad if you’re a good writer.” Practically, the better you get at writing, the less you want to rely on software tools.

Take Ernest Hemingway. One Musings reader put Hemingway's words through Grammarly and the software recommended a bunch of changes. Hemingway wouldn't have his voice if he'd written with Grammarly. (But if you want to use it to check for obvious errors, go for it!).

The same thing's happening on Twitter. The algorithm promotes threads with the same short introductions and line-spacing on each tweet (trust me, I've done a bunch of it). For a few years, Twitter's been moving towards a TikTok-style algorithm where most of what you see isn’t from people you follow. The most popular stuff goes insanely viral until it becomes a meme. And frankly, I don't know what to do because most of what I publish without these tried-and-true tricks goes nowhere. Never has it been so challenging to build a Twitter audience with dignity.

I hear the same thing is happening in fiction. Erik Hoel, one of my favorite Substack writers, argues that social media makes writers timid. He summarizes the changes: "Workshop-trained writers are often, not always, but often, intrinsically defensive. This single fact explains almost all defining features of contemporary literature." In the past, they'd say what they meant even if it'd rub people the wrong way. But because writing on the Internet opens people up to criticism, writers have become "defensive and wary."

— —

How Should You Respond?

There’s more to good writing than good ideas. Good writing is entertaining. The better your writing, the further your ideas will spread and the more serendipity you’ll create for yourself. The world rewards people who are good at communicating ideas, not necessarily those with the best ideas.

Ultimately, you want to develop a distinct and unmistakable voice. This voice becomes a pillar of your Personal Monopoly. That style can show up in infinite ways. Packy McCormick injected humor into the antiseptic world of business writing and explained ideas with memes. Tim Urban got tired of buttoned-up explanations of intellectual concepts and played around with stick figure drawings instead. Nassim Taleb personifies his ideas by pulling from a cadre of characters like Fat Tony, an Italian guy with serious street smarts who is straight out of The Sopranos.

No piece of software could have ever recommended these ideas.

Voice is your personality on the page. And like your personality, it will take time to develop.

The problem is so many writers get stuck in nonsensical consultant-speak instead of listening to the whispers of their intuition. As Tyler Cowen put it so eloquently: “It’s the weird that’s truly normal. It’s how people actually are—what they really care about. In a sense, you’re getting them out of the weird. The weird is the stage presence we put on—all the ‘puffery’ and unwillingness to say what you really think.”

You ain’t gonna think your way to finding a voice though. You have to write and publish. A lot.

So when you read, pay attention to the writers who excite you. Emulate their tactics. When you write, look for sentences that make you say: “That sounds like me.” Once you publish, listen to the compliments people give you. When the praise aligns with the voice you have and the one you want to develop, double down on what makes you wonky.

Note: If you liked today's Musings, you'll like our Write of Passage newsletter, which is entirely geared towards making you a better writer. Sign up here.

Photo of the Week

This week's choice was easy!

We've been working on a production studio for the past eight months, and it's finally done. We wanted a set that matched our values at Write of Passage: intelligent but playful; timeless but contemporary; thoughtful but energetic.

Tomorrow, we host our first guest: Nick Maggiulli (author of Just Keep Buying). A double-digit number of guests will be coming to the studio in the next few months.

Come October, we'll teach the next cohort of Write of Passage from the studio too. In the meantime, we'll also level up the quality of our YouTube videos and launch a new podcast called How I Write.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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