DRMacIver's Notebook

Books by writers are the worst

Books by writers are the worst

One of the big problems with being good at writing is that it makes you think that your writing is good, but this is unfortunately not the case.

This is a problem I run into particularly with people who have "writer" as part of their identity. Often they are very good at writing, so are entirely justified in this identity claim, which is why they write really badly.

The basic problem is that writing is communication, and at some point what you're bottlenecked on in the quality of your writing is not actually the quality of your writing, but the quality of your communication, and because people think "I'm a writer so all I need to do is write well and the writing is good" they overfocus on things that are no longer the rate limiting factor.

In particular, the two skills that I often see writers utterly failing at are clarity of explanation and organisation of information.

Here are some sins I regularly see nonfiction books by writers fall into:

  1. Being very sloppy about how they introduce terms. The terms are casually introduced in the middle of a paragraph, as if the reader should obviously understand what they mean, without examples or any real clear delineation of how they are supposed to be used.
  2. Not organising their book for nonlinear reading. In particular, not organising their book for rereading.
  3. A particularly egregious sin in (2) is bad indexing.

You saw some of this whinging in the post about How to talk about books you haven't read. I think in general this is a common problem: Writers experienced in fiction really don't have the skillset for writing nonfiction by default (and vice versa!). Frequently they are great essayists anyway, because the essay is a format much more forgiving of these sins, but they've concluded that all book writing is the same and not bothered to confront how it's different.