Actually Good Writing

Actually Good Writing

Last year Slate Star Scott referred to Boris Johnson as "a shockingly good writer". If you read the article in question, leaving aside quibbles about the complete lack of substance in the content you'll find a perfectly passable Wodehouse pastiche; the written equivalent of Johnson's blustery personality. It's completely fine, but I feel like I wrote something like this for a secondary-school English lesson once? This is just a mode of writing you can slip into if you've read enough of that kind of writer. I was surprised to see praise being lavished on something as completely Fine as this, but perhaps it speaks to a lack of actually good writers in Scott's feed. I had a think about it and realised there aren't actually all that many in mine either?

Take the writer I often affectionately refer to as Our Freddie. I've spent a decent amount of my time over the last decade reading Freddie DeBoer. He can be a bit pompous, he can get a bit no-one-is-doing-Marxism-properly-but-me, has his hobby-horses that I just do not care about—but I have been reading him since (judging by my Pinboard saved articles history) I was in university, and possibly longer. Since he joined Substack, I have paid for it on and off, as my budget has allowed. There are a number of reasons for this: he has a pretty decent hit rate saying stuff that I agree with in a better and more entertaining way than I would; he often manages to articulate ideas in ways I find useful; his graphomania is very relatable to me (mine is less visible as I go through cycles of frequent publishing, but when I'm not publishing, believe me, I'm still writing stuff) but the key thing for me is that I find his writing consistently entertaining and fun to read.

This makes him, as I say, an anomaly. The number of writers I follow whose writing I really truly enjoy on a words-on-the-page level is relatively low: off the top of my head there's Matt Levine, Maciej Cegłowski, Dan Davies... maybe a few others, but much of my reading material is things I read I read for the information being communicated, or because it's by someone I know in some way. With the people whose writing I like, I'm usually interested in what they're communicating—that's why I started reading them in the first place—but it's just as much about the style with which they do so, so I'll follow them through topics that might not normally be of interest (though I will not read their writing about sports I don't follow; the line has to be drawn somewhere). Noticeably, these are the writers I tend to read first, the ones I want to get into straight away, who I enjoy reading.

(It's also worth nothing that some people might have the juice, just not in written form. Something I remember first noticing when reading a lot of videogames blogs and listening to a lot of videogames podcasts as a teen: there are many people whose primary job is 'writer' whose writing is generally mid—decent, workmanlike, but not actively engaging. However, they come alive on podcasts. Justin McElroy—back before his whole family got involved and the schtick got tired—was a mid blogger and a good podcaster. Will Sommer is a proper journalist who writes for the Washington Post so doesn't often get a chance to stretch his legs, but a great podcaster. Stephen Bush is actually allowed to have a bit of fun at the FT but was always the best thing on the New Statesman podcast. (I understand he's sometimes on one of the FT podcasts now but I cannot bear listening to the other FT talking heads to get to him.))

I don't think everything should be written in a 'fun' way, necessarily. I think e.g. Levine proves that it's entirely possible to be entertaining and extremely informative, but I wouldn't want the whole FT to be written like Matt Levine (just Alphaville is fine, thanks). I do think that maybe those whose writing focuses chiefly on factual communication but who don't have to answer to a publication could benefit from being a little more entertaining. I love Adam Tooze, but it's very common for my eyes to start glazing over after the fifth or sixth graph in a Chartbook post.

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