Review: If You Want to Write

Off of the glowing recommendation in Wise Guy that this is the book to read if you aspire to be an author, I took a quick read of Brenda Ueland’s most famous publication If You Want to Write. Ueland is a renowned journalist and freelancer for major publications and newspapers, and the book goes into her philosophies on writing, culminating in her sincere belief that everyone has a voice and that voice should be expressed through the act of writing. It was first published in the 1930s, though it has remained popular through the decades and is conveniently available in ebook formats.

The book itself is fairly short, and revolves around the motivational idea that anybody can write and write well. She regularly uses examples from students in her writing classes, and shows that their work is at its best when it captures their “true voice.” I’d summarize the advice as an appreciation and drive for authenticity, and with that, a sincere belief that everyone’s perspectives are unique and therefore valuable and worth reading, particularly if they learn to express it clearly1.

It’s a reasonable position to take, one that I’ve personally encountered more in business contexts which prizes clarity and effectiveness of communication. That emphasis also squares away with what I thought of Wise Guy as a book, and why it’s strangely charming in its own way: the author is unabashedly autobiographical, but underneath the veneer of self-promotion is the sense that he is genuine in his writing. The style and substance made me, the reader, believe that he doesn’t have a real agenda beyond wanting to share his experiences as life lessons.

But the central tenet of the book—that everyone can and should write—feels a bit dubious to me reading it in 2020. Of course, there was no way for Ueland to predict how her philosophies could be interpreted almost a century later, but what has transpired in that time is a much broader democratization of the activity of writing and communication with the advent of the internet and social media. The blogging revolution came and went in the early 2000s; the availability and impact of social media is still something we’re currently reckoning with today.

It’s really the coming and going of blogs that shows that, given opportunity and ease of access, most simply people do not care to write substantively2. In our current age of social media, while there’s certainly much more writing and that a lot of it comes through unfiltered—i.e., authentic—no one would claim that every single voice is valuable. In fact, the cacophony of crap feels almost necessary for the cream to rise to the top; that the democratization of access doesn’t magically make everyone worth reading, but it does make those who are discoverable.

That said, I still took something away from If You Want to Write—that, at the end of the day, rhetorical flourishes are not a substitute for authentic substance. I contend that most people cannot produce good writing by just putting pen to paper, however earnestly; the internet has removed most barriers to publishing (in the most rudimentary sense, e.g., Facebook status updates) and that has not resulted in a smorgasbord of unhidden authors3. More than a guide, I think of If You Want to Write as gentle encouragement, a vote of confidence to its readers that they should write, perhaps until they are able to find their voice.

  1. She reserves her strongest criticisms for pretentious writing, which she describes as simply boring.

  2. Though I suspect the difficulty in capturing an audience in an age of communication abundance also acts as a demotivator.

  3. That’s not to say that the internet hasn’t made it easier to be discovered; the Martian started out as a Kindle book.

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