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Thursday, April 28, 2011

So You Want to Become an Excellent Writer?

A good writer writes well. That is to say, a good writer is (or ought to be) well-versed in the craft of writing. Unfortunately, this takes some good old-fashioned study in grammar and spelling. In spite of the effort and discipline that are involved in such banal study, the mechanics furnish only the means of entry. The quality distinguishing the excellent writer from even a good one is passion-fueled insight. The writer who writes out of a strong urge, or instinct, to express such insight publicly naturally finds his or her own voice, and thus identity, as a writer.  In this sense, a writer is like an entrepreneur whose passion breaks through the confines of an organizational structure, like lava pushing through the tough shell of a lava dome. Even though I do not know whether he is a writer, Richard Branson illustrates my point.

The entrepreneur founded the Virgin Group, which contains more than 300 companies as of the spring of 2011. Ordinarily, the reality of running a cumbersome corporation saps entrepreneurial talent, enabling managerial creatures to swoop in and take the reins of power from founders (often times without due respect, as per the nature of the managerial race). In the case of Branson, however, having a large company has not prevented him from taking on new commercial ventures that reflect his dreams in a way that solidifies rather than enervates his control. "I'm just ridiculously lucky," he says according to USA Today, "and [I] just love to live my dreams." True to form, he has been pioneering Virgin Galactic into space and Virgin Oceanic into the deep sea, utilizing the wealth of a large corporation rather than being hampered by organizational strictures.

The key to the dynamic is Branson’s passion for exploration being of such strength that it cannot but be in the driver’s seat. "The interesting thing about exploration is . . . you never quite know what you're going to discover," he says. The uncertainty involved could have easily been choked by organizational technicians who reflect the caution innate in corporate culture. Branson’s zeal to explore has broken through that crust because his passion is real rather than borne of a fickle management fad such as visionary leadership. Accordingly, his advice on choosing a profession is: "don't try to start a business because you think you can make money. Start a business because you really want to." In the case of Richard Branson, business is merely an extrinsic shell housing his innate curiosity.

Similarly, the excellent writer utilizes the mechanics of writing to express an underlying passion rather than merely to write for its own sake or to make money. Such a writer is likely to deliver a unique and interesting perspective that is a real contribution because passion tends to go further in the sense of uncovering.

For example, I once visited friends in Leipzig, which is in Germany, which in turn is a state in the European Union. I discovered that Europeans tend to paint the entire U.S. as homogenous—as if equivalent to a state with a very large territory in the E.U.—while assuming that the E.U. states are so different they could just as well be different planets. Meanwhile, most Americans are oblivious to the category mistake, not to mention sheer unfairness, in a state in the E.U. being reckoned as equivalent to the U.S. rather than to one of its states. Both the category mistake and the unfairness, as well as the getting-away-with-it, trigger my passions for logical consistency and fairness.
Passion-fueled insight can be revolutionary, and thus provoking to the interests vested in the status quo. Such is the power of passion that it can change the world. Because it is in the nature of energetic insight to erupt into being expressed, writing is a natural channel for it.  

Please click to add a question or comment on the role of passion in excellent writing.