Discover more from Paul Wells
Everything I know about developing your voice
From my advice to the CAJ mentorship program
As participants in the CAJ mentorship program will have noticed during our online sessions, I’m a bit mystic about questions of style. I’m not sure it’s helpful to think about personal writing style in a mechanical way. I’m frankly superstitious about how I developed my own style. But I’ve been doing some thinking about why my method worked for me. Maybe that’ll help you find a method that works for you.
1. Style is secondary. Clarity comes first.
We’re journalists. We’re trying to explain factual matters to a broad audience. Doing that in a memorable way so they admire us is secondary. If we wanted to be treasured as wordsmiths we could have gone into poetry.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room to think about having a unique voice. It just means you never get to use your stylistic imperatives as an excuse for being inaccurate, for making important information hard to find, or for making readers sit through an extended display of your personal idiosyncrasies. You’ll lose work if you do that, and you should.
This is only fair. It also makes journalism like many other pursuits that are creative, but not only creative. There are a hundred ways to run an offensive play in basketball. They need to stay within the court’s boundaries, respect the time clock, and tend to increase the frequency of the ball’s trips to the net. Within those limits, do your thing. In music, same deal. The bassist Bob Hurst said, while he was working with Wynton Marsalis, “I would like to avoid the expectations of phrasing when I can do that without sounding contrived and without losing the swing.” That’s a good way of expressing the constant healthy tension between self-expression and satisfying one’s obligations.
2. Seek out superb models. Emulate them consciously.
Again, my original model was jazz. Musicians learn, by ear, to recreate the great improvised solos of older musicians note for note, inflection for inflection. Chess players study the reasoning behind key moves in earlier players’ memorable games. When the Louvre first inched away from being a private royal art collection, the first ordinary citizens who were allowed in were artists, who were admitted with their easels and palettes so they could improve their craft by copying the paintings on display.
When I decided I wanted to improve as a journalist, I began making all my leisure-time reading choices based on their nutritional value. I sought out writers who favoured strong, clear prose and, usually at first, short sentences. John Steinbeck, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell. Later I diversified my diet considerably, but always with an eye to learning techniques of vivid expression. When I became the National Post’s parliamentary columnist, I read collections of columns from prominent parliamentary sketch writers in the UK. The form I’d been hired to write didn’t really exist in Canada, so I sought out British models. Soon enough I could discard their example and write the form in my own way, but the immersion method was a key step on the road to that destination.
Why emulate instead of simply sitting and pondering the great stylistic questions on your own? A few reasons. First, you’re trying not to be self-indulgent. If you’re all Look, man, I’m working on my thing over here, it’s hard not to be a bit of a jerk. People will smell it in your prose.
Second, a lot of the mistakes you’re likely to make — verbosity, pacing errors, lack of clarity — are mistakes everyone is likely to make. Successful writers have simply worked all those errors out of their system. You save time if you study their error-free delivery.
Third, I honestly believe some of these processes shouldn’t be entirely rational. Your style isn’t a mechanical construct. It rises out of your subconscious. It functions at the level of metaphor. It’s slightly weird. Leave it in the dark to grow, like a mushroom. Check the product now and then but don’t think too hard about the process.
One more thing.
I was talking to a mentorship session the other day when I read out loud, in quick succession, something I’d written the previous night, followed by something Cormac McCarthy published in 1994. Some of the similarities were striking. I don’t claim to be writing anywhere close to McCarthy’s level. The similarities were basic. Short sentences, words chosen for rhythmic effect, a kind of incantatory bluntness. I had no such effect in mind when I selected the two passages. No resemblance had occurred to me until I started reading aloud. But when I did, the effect of parallel construction freaked me out.
What the hell was this? Here’s my guess: It was an effect of the fact that, as a young man, I added McCarthy to my pile of influences because there was something in his sound that matched the sound I imagined for my own writing. Out of thousands of possible influences, all potentially valid, I picked one who sounded like the voices in my head.
I think the method I’m advocating is a kind of feedback loop.
I used to show up at journalism-school classes with a stack of suggested readings. These are the pieces that inspired me to want to be a better writer, I told students. Or more recent writing that gives me the same feeling of being in the presence of greatness. So you should check them out, I used to say.
I could even give you such a list now. Not definitive, never definitive, but exemplary. Like this. (Read Ulla Gutnikova even if you skip the rest):
Paul Wells’s inspirational writing for aspiring journalists who want to write like Paul Wells, if that’s even a thing
Joe Drape covering American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win for the New York Times.
Norman Maclean on fly fishing from A River Runs Through It.
George Orwell’s A Hanging. The last paragraph is devastatingly understated.
William Faulkner’s Nobel banquet speech: “...the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing...”
Wislawa Szymborska’s Nobel lecture: “But she kept on saying ‘I don’t know,’ and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm…”
Alla Gutnikova seven weeks ago, telling a Moscow court where to get off.
Greg Tate’s obituary for Prince.
Langston Hughes’ Theme For English B.
Frank Scott’s Villanelle For Our Time, the great Canadian post-WWII poem. “Reshaping narrow law and art/ Whose symbols are the millions slain/ From bitter searching of the heart/ We rise to play a greater part.”
But eventually I stopped distributing lists like this. (Obviously not altogether.) I maintain the list I just gave you contains some magnificent writing. But if I may get a bit tautological, part of why it’s important to me is simply that… it’s important to me. Something else will be important to you.
Go find that something else.
Read widely, and keep a bookmark folder or a desk drawer or a corner of your bookcase for the writing that matters most to you.
Then try to write like that writing, and never stop.
I think this process — of selecting inspiring writers, trying to write like them, analyzing your shortcomings, and repeating endlessly — would bring you close to what the behavioural psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” Ericsson is the guy Malcolm Gladwell was paraphrasing with his “10,000 hours rule,” which held that, say, the Beatles became a great band because they spent 10,000 hours playing gigs in Hamburg.
Hang on, Ericsson says, in a direct critique of Gladwell: it’s not that simple. Rote repetition in a kind of distracted grind won’t improve your game. To get better, he says, you need to practice with the intent to get better; work toward specific goals; and “find coaches and mentors.” Constant feedback from more skilled practitioners is a key part of Ericsson’s deliberate practice model.
I think when you find your own inspirational writers, and then make a conscious effort to write like them — their cadence, their structural choices, the emotions their writing evokes — you make those writers your coaches and mentors. You put a picture in your head of what your writing will sound like when it becomes great. And you get a chance to check your writing against that picture until you start to sound great.
See? I warned you I’d get a bit mystic about this stuff.
Good luck finding your voice.