In the same issue of The Philosophe, I wrote a companion piece titled Samuel Johnson: Hack Writer Extraordinaire. I posted that article in my "corner." It can be found here.
In Defense of the Hack Writer
by Jeff Riggenbach
“Reviewing books is a valid profession,” says Ayn Rand near the end of her latest posthumously published volume, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers (New York: Plume Books, 2001), “if practiced properly.” Noting that she is “speaking now of nonfiction books,” she states: “There are three basic requirements for a book review: (1) to indicate the nature of the book; (2) to tell the reader what its value is; and (3) to tell him briefly what its flaws are, if any” (145, 147). I must, then, immediately get down to business – the fulfillment of these three requirements – lest I be convicted of improper practice as a book reviewer.
The Art of Nonfiction began its life as a series of informal lectures (that is, not written out, but delivered off the cuff from an outline and notes) offered by Rand in 1969, not long after her historic break with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, to “well over a dozen friends and associates” who had expressed interest in writing for her magazine, The Objectivist. The lectures were tape-recorded. They have now been transcribed and edited (quite capably, I might add, by Seton Hall University philosophy professor Robert Mayhew) and published as a small book.
Rand begins by making an important point about nonfiction writing. “[A]ny person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction,” she says. Nonfiction “writing is literally only the skill of putting down on paper a clear thought, in clear terms” (2). There are two important subpoints imbedded in this formulation. First, consider what goes into speaking English grammatically. “When we speak,” Rand says,
it feels as if the words come automatically – as if the words and thoughts come simultaneously. Of course they do not. If you observe children learning to speak, or yourself learning a foreign language, you discover that language is not innate and automatic, but an acquired skill. It is so well integrated at the adult level, however, that the transition from the thought you want to express to the words you use to express it is automatic. In writing, you need to establish the same kind of connection between your subconscious and the words you put on paper. (58)
“Writing involves both your conscious mind and your subconscious,” Rand had pointed out a little earlier in her presentation. “But the distinction is that when you prepare an outline and when you edit, you function predominantly by means of your conscious mind.” On the other hand, “[w]hen it comes to actually writing…your subconscious must be in the driver’s seat,” just as it is when you speak (57).
But it is crucial to recall that Rand spoke not merely of speaking, but of the ability to “speak English grammatically” (emphasis mine). She places a major emphasis in her remarks on the importance of grammar and punctuation. “One of the most important applications of the Objectivist attitude toward reason,” she declares, “is grammar. The ability to think precisely, and thus to write precisely, cannot be achieved without observing grammatical rules.” According to Rand, “[g]rammar has the same purpose as concepts. The rules of grammar are rules for using concepts precisely. Since sentences consist of concepts, the whole secret of grammar is clarity and the avoidance of equivocation” (99). And clarity, as Rand makes clear throughout her presentation, is the sine qua non of successful nonfiction. “I once said that the three most important elements of fiction are plot, plot, and plot,” she reminds us. "The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity, and clarity” (2). “If you want to express your ideas,” she advises later in her course, “particularly ideas based on Objectivism, learn clarity – and that means concepts, grammar, punctuation” (103-104).
On the other hand, Rand is no fan at all of that trusty friend of far too many writers, both amateur and professional, the thesaurus. “[D]o not use a thesaurus” is her advice (94). “When you use a synonym, not because you need a different shade of meaning, but strictly to avoid repetition, the result sounds phony. …A thesaurus usually provides words with not quite identical meanings. In a nonfiction work, particularly on a serious subject, any time you change a word you introduce a slightly different connotation, and the reader will be justified in thinking that you are talking about something else” (128-129).
Rand’s main focus in her remarks is on the sort of nonfiction that most commonly appears in magazines, what she calls “middle-range articles.” As she explains,
[n]onfiction writing covers a wide range, from theoretical works that deal with broad, abstract principles, to concrete journalistic reporting. Theoretical articles discuss new fundamentals or present a new approach to issues on a fundamental level. …The proper medium for these articles is academic journals…. Journalistic articles, on the other hand, consist not of theorizing, but of reporting on a given phenomenon or event – describing some concrete event or situation.
The articles I most enjoy writing are in the middle range.
Middle-range articles fall somewhere between theoretical and journalistic articles. They consist of the application of abstractions to concretes, which is what most intellectual magazines contain. Such articles deal neither with philosophical theory nor with concrete reporting. They accept a theoretical proposition and analyze some current event or some aspect of the culture from that viewpoint. (4-5)…
As Rand observes, these “middle-range” pieces are “what most intellectual magazines contain.” She is speaking, of course, of magazines like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, and also of those magazines which are devoted mainly to discussion of political issues and events, but which also discuss books, the arts, and topics in the humanities and social sciences generally – magazines like The Nation, the National Review, The New Republic, and Liberty. (Were she giving this writing course today, she would probably be speaking also of online publications like Slate, Salon, and The Philosophe.) Publications of this type are a fairly recent invention. The first of them, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, was established less than 200 years ago, in 1817. At the end of the period which saw “the original introduction of machinery into paper manufacture and printing between 1801 and 1814,” there was not only the technological means to print publications more cheaply, there was also a “steadily growing” educated, reading class, “as a result of the widening of economic opportunity in the early decades of the century” (Allen 20).
It became clear to more than one observer, most notable among them the Scottish publisher William Blackwood, that there was now “a potential audience for an intelligent type of monthly magazine, less ponderous and more entertaining than the quarterly Reviews, which would nevertheless retain something of their intellectual standing, literary quality, and influence” (21-22). The quarterly reviews were the only truly “intellectual” publications before Blackwood’s appeared on the scene, but they were too scholarly and stuffy for many of the newer members of the rapidly expanding reading class. Blackwood achieved success with his new monthly magazine by retaining something of the “intellectual standing, literary quality, and influence” of the quarterly reviews, while also creating and maintaining “a more relaxed, personal, and intimate ethos which permitted the inclusion of more blatant sensationalism, literary gossip, and fiction for the less erudite reader” (23). This has remained a viable strategy for the middle-range intellectual magazine to this day, as a glance at any of the contemporary magazines listed above will surely attest.
Once you have decided that you want to write the sort of middle-range article she has described, Rand encourages you to consider exactly who you are writing for. Who are your readers? How much do they already know about the subject(s) you plan to address? “Actually,” Rand comments,
you make this kind of judgment constantly in talking to people. For instance, you do not speak to children the way you do to your peers, and you talk to your boss or people more knowledgeable than you in yet another way. You do not change your ideas, or talk up or down, but you are aware of their state of knowledge in comparison with yours. In writing, what you must primarily judge is your readers’ knowledge, because that determines how much you need to explain.
Unless you “project the reader’s frame of reference,” Rand insists, “you cannot start an article. You assume some level of knowledge – some context – which you cannot teach your readers, but must take as the base from which you write. That is a requirement of objectivity” (19).
You should also be aware of some of the purely psychological problems that many writers have to confront, even after they’ve chosen a subject, projected a reader’s frame of reference, done whatever preparatory thinking and reading they feel they need to do, and sat down in front of the keyboard to write. Some of the most insightful and genuinely useful pages in this book are the ones in which Rand considers topics like writer’s block (which she calls “the squirms”) and the difficulty many writers have explaining an idea or theory they know well to someone who knows nothing about it at all (Rand calls this the “circular squirms”). She displays an astute understanding of the ways in which the subconscious processes information and the ways in which it interacts with the conscious mind in producing a piece of writing (63-68, 70-73).
But whatever you do, Rand counsels, if you want to get the best results from your efforts at writing, be professional about it. “You can be professional before you publish anything – if you approach writing as a job,” she declares. It is necessary simply to “apply to writing the same standards and methods that people regularly apply to other professions.” She imagines being “an employee of Hank Rearden,” and speculates:
He would not tolerate it if I told him, “I can’t work today because I have self-doubt” or “I have a self-esteem crisis.” Yet that is what most people do, in effect, when it comes to writing. I have always taken the professional approach. Of course, I can never guarantee how long some piece will take me, but my assignment is always to fill that page. I know a certain subject has to be stated, and I have the capacity to state it. What the difficulties are is irrelevant. They are my problem, and I will solve it. (3-4)
This passage is perhaps most interesting for the attitude toward professional writing which it reveals. To Rand the true professional makes it his or her business to get the job done, finding ways to deal with the difficulties the task entails, not using them as excuses to quit. On the other hand, she makes the flat statement that “I can never guarantee how long some piece will take me.” Few professional writers I’ve ever known would adopt any such attitude; nor would they consider it “professional” to do so. Except for certain writers of books (and they a small minority within the ranks of authors), all writers must adapt themselves to the budgetary and time constraints that confront their publishers; that is, they must meet a deadline.
Rand does address the issue of deadlines. She concedes that if a piece of writing, whether it is an article or a book, is ever to be finished, “[a] certain pressure is necessary – the pressure of reality: if you are writing something, it is appropriate to finish it. So a deadline does serve a purpose.” On the other hand,
if you must deliver a certain number of words on a given subject by a certain date, that…can be disastrous. You will either write carelessly, because you lack the time to think, or be completely paralyzed. The tendency is either to become a hack (writing only what comes to you easily) or not to write at all. (83)
“Do not make time a constant pressure,” she cautions. “Do not judge your progress by each day; since the production of any written material is irregular, nobody but a hack can be sure how much he will produce in a given day” (84).
Apparently, then, every newspaperman or –woman, every columnist, every reviewer, every editorial writer who ever had to meet a daily deadline, is a hack, writing only what comes easily. Well, as one of their number, I’ll testify that, yes, hacks they assuredly are, but they do not write only what comes easily. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, I earned some portion of my income (anywhere from around ten percent to around eighty percent, depending on the year) by writing for newspapers. I wrote a variety of things, but probably ninety percent of my output was editorials, book reviews, and Op Ed articles (opinion articles that appear on the page Opposite the Editorial page). All these pieces were only a few hundred words in length – only twice in my memory did I manage to get more than a thousand words past a newspaper editor. The shortest pieces I wrote were Op Ed articles for USA Today. These, which I produced at an average rate of two a month for more than a decade, were only three hundred to four hundred words. My longest newspaper pieces, the book reviews I did for the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, averaged around 750 words.
All these were “middle-range articles” in Rand’s sense. All of them applied abstract principles of some sort to current issues or events. Rand herself acknowledges that articles of the kind I used to write for a living do qualify as “middle-range articles”; she reprints one in its entirety (“The Politics of Fear and Hope” by James Reston, which was originally published in The New York Times, May 6, 1969) to illustrate a point she wants to make about the way in which writers of such articles “apply philosophy without preaching it” (34-36). Reston’s piece is around 750 words, a fairly standard length for articles of its type when they are published in newspapers. And though Rand declares with a tone of great certainty that “[n]o one can write an article in a day,” I can assure you that Reston’s article was written in a day – probably in a morning (95). Deadlines on a daily newspaper come around mid-day – anywhere from noon to around 3:00 PM, depending on the paper and the pages you’re writing for – and many writers feel they’re at their strongest and most facile in the morning.
When I was writing for USA Today, I usually had twenty-four hours’ notice of the topic my editor wanted me to write about. I generally got the call about mid-afternoon on, say, Tuesday. The piece was due the following day, no later than 3:00 PM. I usually did the “legwork” (the interviews and other research) for one of these articles during the afternoon and evening of the day I received the assignment, then made some notes and went to bed. The next morning I got up, drank several large cups of coffee and wrote the piece. The 3:00 PM deadline was, of course, Eastern Standard Time, and I was on the West Coast. So for me it was noon. At around noon, I’d phone the piece in, then turn my attention to whatever else I was currently doing, most commonly a book review, but sometimes an Op Ed article or an article for a magazine.
I wrote more than a hundred of these pieces for USA Today during the 1980s. For most of them, as I say, I had twenty-four hours’ notice. For a few I had a few days’ notice, and for a few I had about three hours’ notice. My editor was willing to call on me for a piece on that kind of short notice now and then because he knew I was a professional and therefore could be counted upon to get him the number of words he needed on the topic he needed discussed by the time he needed those words. He knew, beyond that, that the words I submitted would add up to a coherent argument and would have some literary flair as well. This, in the newspaper business is what professionalism means. This is why, for any veteran of that business, it is more than a bit amusing to see Ayn Rand vigorously championing professionalism about writing while simultaneously being ambivalent about deadlines and declaring that she can’t guarantee how long it will take her to produce any given piece.
It is, if anything, even more amusing to see her counseling her students that, when writing a “middle-range article,” one should write a “draft” and then extensively edit and revise that draft to produce the finished product. “In the process of writing,” she says,
it is crucial not to stop for too long (and preferably not at all). For instance, if you have two hours assigned to writing, write during that time without stopping. (No one besides a hack can write for much more than two hours straight, except when there is unusual inspiration at the end of a work.) If you can write continuously, chances are that your work will require the least editing. But if you pause after every sentence to reread and rewrite it, you will have a lot of trouble in editing. One of the deadliest obstacles to good writing is critical overconscientiousness exercised during the process of writing. (61)
As noted earlier, Rand believes that writing is done by the subconscious, while editing is done by the conscious mind. Again and again she warns against the evil of editing what you write as you go along, insisting that this will make it impossible for you to write at all.
To the sort of professional writer I’ve been discussing, the kind who writes for newspapers and faces a daily deadline, it is difficult to know what to make of such advice. Writers who face tight deadlines on a regular basis have no time for extensive revision and editing. They have to get it right the first time. As Jack Woodford put it in 1933, “first draft writing is the only kind upon which you can take a real profit.”
If you begin by writing loosely, and revising it afterward, you will end by writing it ten times as loosely, and revising it fifty times afterward. The habit is always progressive. I speak here not only out of my own experience, but from observation of my writing friends. …If you write a first draft which you are going to send to the editor immediately it is finished, you will grow more and more careful as time goes on. (35)
An earlier hack writer of note, Edgar Saltus, who flourished in the 1890s, is described by one of his editors as having “made few alterations, for he wrote slowly; and once a sentence was committed to paper, there it remained.” The same editor, Charles Hanson Towne, quotes Saltus as saying “over and over on different occasions,” that “plasterers do not replaster, and bricklayers don’t relay bricks. Why should weavers of words have to be constantly changing their blocks of sentences? God deliver me from the amateur in any art!” (Sprague 79-80)
Woodford and Saltus are far from unique in displaying this attitude toward revision; nor is it only forgotten writers who have displayed it. Ernest Hemingway, too, was a careful, inch-by-inch writer who revised as he wrote and produced extremely clean “first drafts.” Hemingway, too, like Woodford, had been a newspaperman in his early years as a writer. Look where you will throughout the literature written in English in the past two centuries, and you will find this pattern: writers trained as journalists or as deadline-driven contributors of fiction or poetry to monthly, weekly, or daily periodicals, writers who earned their living by contributing to these periodicals and so were forced by circumstance to learn to write faster, editing as they went, than Ayn Rand considers seemly for anyone other than a “hack.”
Who are some of these “hacks”? One was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was, as Michael Allen writes, “an intense young poet, forced by necessity to direct his limited energies into journalism” (101), and it was by journalism that he got his living and his reputation. Allen quotes Killis Campbell (whose pioneering scholarly work at the University of Texas in the 1920s and ‘30s was instrumental in establishing American literature as a legitimate field of scholarship within American higher education) as declaring that Poe was principally known during his own lifetime as a “fearless and caustic and not always impartial critic” – i.e., as a book reviewer – and that he was hardly known at all as a fiction writer until after his death (168, 161).
Poe seems to have been well suited to the career path he had chosen. An early biographer, G. E. Woodberry, whose two-volume Life of Edgar Allan Poe was published in 1909, described him as having “a contemporaneous mind, the instincts of the journalist, the magazine writer” (132) Michael Allen writes of “the elements of stability in Poe’s character which his day-to-day work as a journalist demonstrated, his professional skill, his dependence on magazines and various kinds of books, encyclopaedias, and anthologies for material to be ‘worked up,’ his habitual desultory ‘skimming’ of such sources, and his topical preoccupations with the literature, culture, and society of his time” (12)
Part of what is meant, in this context, by the phrase “professional skill,” as we have seen, is the ability to write quickly and to a prescribed length; the ability to meet constant, tight deadlines; and the ability to submit a manuscript which requires little or no editing, even though it may be one’s “first draft.” As for the phrase “habitual desultory ‘skimming,’” Allen explains as follows, partly in Poe’s own words:
[W]e are fortunate to have Poe’s own description of his way of reading…. In “reading out,” he wrote in 1844, one can read very little, since “each individual word must be dwelt upon in some degree.” But “in reading to ourselves, at the ordinary rate of what is called ‘light reading,’ we scarcely touch one word in ten.” What is more, Poe says, “he who reads really much finds his capacity to read increase in geometrical ratio.” He can just “glance at the page which detains the ordinary reader some minutes” and winnow “the matter” from “the chaff.” (17)
“Speed reading” this is usually called today. In my youth, I took a course in it offered by the Evelyn Wood organization; it taught me much of great value for my later career in “middle-range” journalism. It is a necessary technique of journalism, for the constant, tight deadlines leave one little time to read slowly and carefully, as perhaps one “should.” This characteristic of journalism has often been noted and has frequently been denounced as one of the evils of the profession. Allen tells us that “De Quincey had seen this kind of ‘shorthand reading’ as one of the worst evils resulting from ‘the plethoric form of cumulation and periodic writing’ of his own generation of journalists” – the generation that came to maturity, fame, and influence in the 1820s (17). De Quincey’s lament was echoed a hundred years later by another London-based book reviewer and literary journalist, Cyril Connolly, who added a few other, related laments of his own. “All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, so it should never be undertaken” (Connolly 1945, 1). “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once, and they require separate techniques” (Connolly 1938, 19).
We have suggested that journalism must obtain its full impact on the first reading while literature can achieve its effect on a second, being intended for an interested and not an indifferent public. Consequently the main difference between them is one of texture. Journalism is loose, intimate, simple and striking…. Carelessness is not fatal to journalism nor are clichés, for the eye rests lightly on them. But what is intended to be read once can seldom be read more than once; a journalist has to accept the fact that his work, by its very to-dayness, is excluded from any share in tomorrow. …A writer who takes up journalism abandons the slow tempo of literature for a faster one and the change will do him harm. By degrees the flippancy of journalism will become a habit and the pleasures of being paid on the nail and more especially of being praised on the nail, grow indispensable. (91).
Connolly felt that “[t]here are certain people who benefit from journalism.” One type is made up of
amateur writers who through lack of a public or through not having to consider a public, are verbose and obscure, who have acquired too many mannerisms or private meanings for the words they use or who employ such leisurely constructions that an editor alone, since they will not listen to their friends, can impatiently cure them. The other class who benefit are those well-stored minds who suffer from psychological sloth, and who can only reveal their treasures in short articles for quick returns. (92)
It is in this latter group that Connolly counts himself. “Myself a lazy, irresolute person, overvain and overmodest, unsure in my judgments and unable to finish what I have begun, I have profited from journalism,” he writes. But lest there be any doubt that he now regrets his choice to enter that field, he states unequivocally that
any other way of making money would be better, [for] reviewing is a whole-time job with a half-time salary, a job in which the best in [the reviewer] is generally expended on the mediocre in others. A good review is only remembered for a fortnight; a reviewer has always to make his reputation afresh nor will he find time for private reading or writing, for he is too busy reading other people’s books and this will disincline him to read when he is not working. The sight of his friends’ books accumulating depresses him and he knows that, besides losing the time to write books of his own, he is also losing the energy and the application, frittering it away on tripe and discovering that it is his flashiest efforts which receive most praise. (94)
Despite all this, Connolly’s books, which consist mostly of his collected reviews and essays from newspapers and magazines, have endured well. Four titles of his are currently in print as I write (Summer 2001): The Rock Pool, his only novel; The Evening Colonnade, his last and best collection of reviews and essays; and the two volumes from which I have quoted, Enemies of Promise, a sort of book-length essay, partly critical, partly autobiographical; and The Unquiet Grave, a collection of aphorisms, observations, pensées, brief discourses of one or a few paragraphs in length, on diverse subjects. This genre is, of course, like journalism in that it requires that one do the most one can with very brief space and confine one’s efforts to pieces that can be written fairly quickly. It is also a genre much favored by journalists and by writers who engage in journalism along with other kinds of writing. Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary) is the obvious example; others are George Jean Nathan (The Autobiography of an Attitude, The World in Falseface), H. L. Mencken (Minority Report), and Thomas Szasz (The Second Sin, Heresies).
A journalist is, as has been suggested, ineluctably a hack. For a hack basically is, as one standard dictionary puts it, “one who writes for hire” – that is, one who stands ready to write whatever a paying client needs to have written. The word hack, used in this sense, derives from hackney, familiar in English since the 13th Century as a word for “a horse of middle size and quality, used for ordinary riding, as distinguished from a war-horse, a hunter, or a draught horse.” The editors of the O.E.D. (from which this definition is taken) comment further that “from an early date mention is found of hackneys hired out; hence the word came often to be taken as, A horse kept for hire.” By the 17th Century, this latter usage had become commonplace. Also, by metaphoric transfer, the word hackney had come, by the 17th Century, to be commonly used to describe “a person whose services may be hired for any kind of work required of him; a common drudge.” Yet another sense that began to emerge during the 1600s was “a carriage kept for hire.” It is easy enough to see how, from here, a hackney became a cab. Since many of the horses for hire (and many of the horses who drew cabs) were old and overworked, it is not difficult to understand how the adjective hackneyed could, by the mid-18th Century, have come to mean “used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest; made trite and commonplace; stale.”
It was also during the 18th Century that the term hack, short for hackney, began to be applied to certain writers. A hack in this new sense was “a literary drudge who hires himself out to do any and every kind of literary work; hence, a poor writer, a mere scribbler.” But of course, it is not at all obvious, just from the fact that you hire yourself out to do “any and every kind of literary work,” that you must necessarily do a “poor” job of that work. Indeed, as we shall see, a dispassionate examination of the evidence suggests another sort of conclusion entirely.
But I get ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that during the 18th Century, the word hack began to be applied to writers for hire, and nearly always in a spirit of opprobrium. This spirit persists to this day – in part, I think because of metaphoric transfer from the image of the overworked, used-up, undistinguished cab horse, and in part, perhaps, because of a sort of envious attitude that some writers, particularly those like Ayn Rand, who use the term hack in a derogatory sense, exhibit toward other writers, those whose facility enables them to write quickly and well, to predict with considerable accuracy both when an article will be finished and how long it will be, and, moreover, to be paid (sometimes very well) for their trouble.
The odd thing about Rand’s attitude toward hacks is that she herself stresses the importance of practice in writing. “Nobody can learn to write without practicing,” she maintains.
No matter how much theory you know, you will not be a good writer until you practice. Therefore, do not expect your first articles to be easy. They will be difficult, and as you develop they will become even more difficult, because you will attempt more ambitious themes. But in a different sense writing becomes easier: with each article you write you learn something, so that at the end of the article you are better than you were at the beginning. (3)
But, of course, one of the great advantages of journalism is that it forces a writer to practice. There’s nothing like having to meet a daily, or even, for longer articles, a weekly deadline to whip you into shape. By the late ‘80s, after more than a decade of freelancing for newspapers and magazines, two brief full-time stints as an editorial writer and columnist on a couple of daily papers, and one three-and-a-half-year stint as an editor and regular writer for a monthly magazine, I could do a good deal of highly competent, highly publishable writing in a single day. The longest article I ever wrote in a single day was around four thousand words. To give you an idea of how long that is, this article, the one you’re reading, is about 5,700 words long, so far. It’ll probably be 7,500 before I’m through. Ten articles that length, and you’ve got a book of around 250 pages.
Of course all this begs the question of what counts as “writing.” This article you’re reading is going to take six days to write – or, at any rate, that’s my estimate at this point in the manuscript. I started writing on Wednesday, August 1. Today is Sunday the 5th. I expect to finish up tomorrow and e-mail the piece to my editor sometime tomorrow evening. But I also worked part-time on this piece for about a week during the last week of July, hunting up quotations, making notes, and coming up with an outline; during that week I also read one entire book, Michael Allen’s book on Poe. The week before that, I read Rand’s Art of Nonfiction, making notes on it as I went. So I suppose you could say that it took me a month to write this piece, working on it part-time. That four thousand-word article I mentioned in my last paragraph took me one day to type, but probably two or three days from the beginning of the process to the end, including all the reading and notemaking and outlining I did, working full-time (which was usually my policy in the old days for magazine articles – set aside an adequate block of time and do nothing else but the article; work twelve or sixteen hours a day if you have to, but do nothing else until it’s finished).
Writing this rapidly has its disadvantages, as we’ve seen. But its compensating advantages include more than just the chance to get a lot of practice. It also makes it possible to earn a living by writing. Very few writers who write only what they want to write are able to earn their living by writing, much less live well. If you’re a writer and you want to live decently, your choices are two: either you can have a day job (often teaching or some sort of editing, but sometimes something utterly unrelated to writing) and write only part-time, or you can find a way to write for a living. Every writer faces this choice. To disparage those who choose the second way as “hacks” is shortsighted in the worst way; it is also profoundly ahistorical. Journalism is hack writing by definition; it is writing for hire. A journalist has only partial control (if any) over his or her subject and none whatever over how long the article must be or when it must be finished. The only thing the journalist will often have full control over is what Rand calls “theme.” As she sees it, “there are two essential elements of an article: subject and theme. The subject is what the article is about…. The theme is what the author wants to say about the subject…” (10). And within this narrow range, much good work can be done – has been done, by many talented writers. And the work I am talking about here is the kind Cyril Connolly described as “literature” – that “writing…that will be read twice.”
The list of classic writers in English on both sides of the Atlantic who did much or all of their work as journalists and are still being read today is a long and distinguished one. It includes not only Poe and Connolly and Bierce and Mencken. It starts long before any of them were yet born and includes figures like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson (famous for declaring that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”), Thomas Paine, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Benjamin R. Tucker, Albert Jay Nock, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe.
The list also arguably includes a minor American writer known today mostly to libertarians, Rose Wilder Lane. According to her biographer, William Holtz, “[a]ll of her life Rose would cheerfully describe herself as a competent hack writer” (66). She wrote for hire – for newspapers, for magazines, for those in need of a ghostwriter, for anybody who would pay her to write. She learned to write efficiently, at high speed. Holtz doesn’t tell us, but I’d wager many of her articles were done in a day. She didn’t waste time, and she didn’t wait either for “inspiration” or for Rand’s “subconscious.” She had two households to support from very early on – her own and her parents’. Nearly half of her dozen or so books remain in print and are still read today. For libertarian readers, foremost among these is her polemic on behalf of individual liberty, The Discovery of Freedom, first published in 1943.
Ayn Rand, whose breakthrough novel The Fountainhead had been published in the same year, was startled one day in 1945 to see a review of her novel in the National Economic Council’s Review of Books. The National Economic Council was an anti-New Deal organization. The review of The Fountainhead appeared over the byline Rose Wilder Lane.
Rand wrote to Lane, thanking her for the review and praising her “masterful” review in the same issue of some books by Frederic Bastiat. Rand subsequently subscribed to the Review of Books “mainly in order to get your book reviews,” as she told Lane in a letter in August of 1946, such a “rare treat” it was “to read intelligent book reviewing for a change” (Berliner, 238, 309). Little did Rand know that she was paying these compliments to a shameless hack.
Rand learned a great deal between 1945 and 1969, when she gave this course in nonfiction writing, but there were still some things, at the later date, that she did not know.
A few examples:
As previously noted, Rand passionately defends grammar and punctuation and urges her students to “get a good primer on grammar.” Her editor, Professor Mayhew, comments in a footnote, however, that “in her course, Ayn Rand does not recommend any specific primers on grammar” (100). This is a problem. It causes her outstanding section on grammar and punctuation to end in feeble anti-climax. Had she only known about Lawrence Sargent Hall’s How Thinking Is Written, a truly remarkable grammar book in that it begins by discussing parts of speech as epistemological categories, and proceeds from there. It is an approach any admirer of Ayn Rand is likely to find extremely interesting. I don’t agree with everything Hall says in this book, but I do recommend it very highly. And I can’t help but feel that, had Rand ever read it, her review would have been not only positive, but a delight to read in its own right, full of insights and astute observations – the kind of thing you would read twice.
Another thing Rand seems not to have known as much about as, perhaps, she herself might have wished is the subject of rhythm in prose. She devotes two pages to it toward the end of her discussion. “In poetry,” she says, “the rhythm of a sentence is formalized….
But the rhythm of a prose sentence is a complex issue. …Rhythm is the progression and timing of sounds, and the intervals between them. Therefore the trouble here is the same as with music: we do not yet have an objective vocabulary of music…. At present it is impossible to define precise principles by which to determine whether or not a given sentence is rhythmical. (135)
Rand recognizes that developing an “ear” for the rhythm of prose is necessary to writing prose effectively, but she emphasizes that there is not much developed knowledge of the subject. “When and if someone defines what constitutes rhythm,” she declares, “(and this will take a neurologist, a psychologist, and an esthetician), we will have more exact principles to work with” (136).
Had Rand only known about Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature,” originally published in 1885 in a magazine, The Contemporary Review. It is far from the final word on the subject, of course, but it goes a good distance toward what I believe Rand would consider an objective analysis of prose rhythms. Moreover, it makes even clearer than Rand does, with excellent examples by first rate stylists like Macaulay, why this subject is important.
Another thing Rand couldn’t possibly have known about in 1969 relates to her discussion of the art of writing introductions to other people’s books. “There are all kinds of miserable little pipsqueaks who write introductions to classics in a patronizing manner, without saying anything about the book,” she declares. “The introduction serves only as an opportunity to show off the writer’s own supposed erudition” (156). How could she have known that more than thirty years later, when, after her death, her informal lectures on nonfiction writing would be published as a book, the publisher would be kind enough to provide an example which perfectly illustrates her point? I mean, of course, the fatuous introduction to The Art of Nonfiction itself, which has been written by the noted pipsqueak, Peter Schwartz.
True to Rand’s description, Schwartz is insufferably patronizing. Also true to her description, he says next to nothing about the book he is ostensibly introducing, except for what is contained in the fairly lengthy quotations he lifts from its pages. But then, we hardly need an introduction to present us with quotations from the book, do we? After all, we’re about to read those quotations for ourselves – and in context too!
Worse, what little Schwartz does say in his own voice about Rand’s course on nonfiction writing is inaccurate, attributing positions to Rand which she herself never enunciates and which are, in themselves, dubious to say the least. He begins, for example, by announcing that
[t]he process of writing is widely regarded as an impenetrable mystery. Good writing, it is believed, is the product of some inborn ability, which can be neither objectively defined nor systematically learned. Like ardent religionists who insist that the road to truth is open only to those who are visited by divine revelation, many teachers of writing claim that the path to effective prose can be traversed only if one is struck by the inexplicable thunderbolt of inspiration. (vii).
Who, exactly, adopts this ridiculous position? Certainly not any of the thousands of academics who earn their living teaching writing on campuses all over the country. If they told their students that what they were teaching couldn’t be taught or learned, their classrooms would empty overnight and they’d be out of their jobs. More to the point, Rand herself never accuses anyone of holding any such preposterous notion. Needless to say, however, this doesn’t stop Schwartz from hammering the point home himself for another couple of pages.
Even worse is Schwartz’s assertion that when he uses Rand’s course materials in his own writing classes “at the Objectivist Graduate Center of the Ayn Rand Institute…the response I typically get from students is something along the lines of: ‘So there is a definite method by which to write – and it works!’” (x) The problem is that this is incorrect. In fact there is not “a definite method by which to write.” Rand never says there is either, not in so many words (though at times, admittedly, she does speak as though she thinks the method she is describing is the only method, or at least the only one worth considering). The truth of the matter is that, as Jack Woodford put it nearly seventy years ago in the introduction to his book Trial and Error: A Dithyramb on the Subject of Writing and Selling,
it is impossible to teach anyone to write. In most other branches of human endeavor there is said to be a right and a wrong way of doing a thing. In writing there can only be your way, whether you pose as an aesthete, or whether you frankly admit that you write for money. The following pages, at best, set forth only my way of writing; it is not a particularly good way, I am reasonably certain, since critics of high calibre have assured me of this. (11)
Except for the faux modest last sentence, this is what Rand should have said. To her credit, she comes perilously close to it in more than one spot. “I cannot literally teach you to write,” she declares. “I can provide only a set of shortcuts that are helpful as general principles. These shortcuts will save you from bewilderment and from having to discover them slowly by yourself.” She also tells a remarkable anecdote about the way she learned the craft of screenwriting.
When I began my first job as a screenwriter, I had some idea of how to write a script. But I did not know the technical terminology. When I arrived at Warner Brothers…I asked for a sample script, and was given one. I was also given a secretary to provide me with any help I needed. I never had to ask her a question. I simply looked at the sample and figured out what was meant by “close-up,” “dissolve,” “fade-out,” etc.
“Now,” she says, “fade-out to a few years later. I am working for Hal Wallis at Paramount.”
Wallis had bought an original story, which was intelligent and had good dialogue. But, he told me, he was disappointed in the screenwriter (who had also written the story) because although the story was good, the screenplay was a mess. He asked me to take a look at it.
I did, and could not understand the screenplay. It had a close-up where the action did not necessitate one; there was a long shot when only one person was in the room; and so on. None of the technical directions matched the action of the story. I asked the screenwriter how he decided where to use a particular direction. He said he had asked for a sample script to see how it was done – and then he followed it exactly. If the sample opened with a close-up, he opened with a close-up. If two pages later there was a long shot, he marked a long shot two pages later, etc.
I call this anecdote remarkable for two reasons. First, as Rand herself observes, “I too had asked for a sample script. But I looked for the abstract format and knew that I had to fit that abstraction to my own story. He took the format of his sample literally” (180-181). This, to put it baldly, helps to explain why some individuals may indeed be too concrete-bound to master a skill like writing – at least, when that skill is put in the service of a particular pre-existing format or genre, as hack writers are regularly called upon to do.
Second, there is an uncanny resemblance between this story and Jack Woodford’s story of how he learned to write short stories for magazines. He decided which magazine he wanted to try to sell to. Then he picked several stories published in that magazine and analyzed them. What was the total length – the number of words – of the average story published in the magazine? What proportion of those words was devoted to description? What proportion was devoted to dialogue? Did the story open with action? With dialogue? With description? And so forth. Woodford studied the “abstract format,” as Rand put it, of the stories published by the magazine. Then he sat down and wrote one, following the abstract format. He sold it – his very first effort at commercial writing.
Rand, like Woodford, knows that the only real way to learn to write anything is by reading and by heeding the example set by those you read and admire and wish to emulate. She falls short of the truth only in her failure to acknowledge that there is no one way of writing which all must follow. In writing, as Woodford says, there can only be your way. Ultimately, every writer has to figure it out for him- or herself.
Certainly the foregoing discussion has made it clear that there have been dozens of famous writers who did not write the way Rand proposes that we write. Probably there are thousands of little known writers who fit the same profile. I, as I have indicated, am one of them. There has been, and will be, only one “draft” of the article you are now reading. I’ve edited it as I’ve written it, flying cheerfully in the face of Rand’s advice. When I finish writing it, probably in about another hour, I’ll read through it a couple or three times, editing as I go. Then I’ll send it off to my editor and have a beer.
There is certainly nothing wrong with Rand’s way of writing. It produced a slew of outstanding articles over a period of around fifteen years. But there is no point in pretending that it is the only way of writing. There are nearly as many ways of writing as there are writers.
In this, as I say, Rand was mistaken (if not as bald-facedly mistaken as her pipsqueak introducer would have us believe). But there is precious little else one can really criticize about this posthumous volume. It is far and away the best how-to-write book since Woodford’s Trial and Error three generations ago. It is filled with good sense, good advice, and astute understanding of the process of writing.
Allen, Michael. Poe and the British Magazine Tradition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Berliner, Michael S., ed. Letters of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1995.
Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. New York: Macmillan, 1948 .
- - - . The Unquiet Grave. New York, Viking, 1957 .
Hall, Lawrence Sargent. How Thinking Is Written: An Analytic Approach to Writing. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1963.
Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
Rand, Ayn. The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. New York: Plume, 2001.
Sprague, Claire. Edgar Saltus. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature.” Essays on Literature, on Nature, Juvenilia. New York: Scribner’s, 1925.
Woodberry, G.E. The Life of Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.
Woodford, Jack. Trial and Error: A Dithyramb on the Subject of Writing and Selling. New York: Carlyle House, 1933.