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Great vs. Adequate Writing: Part II
By M. Y. Mim
June, 2006, 12:04

Success in writing equals passion, but you must also have to have something to say.
ow that we've laid the foundation in Part I of this series with the academic basics of writing, let's examine the next essential precept: something to say. Here we return to our comparison between the three-legged stool and the firmer foundation of a four-legged stool. Imagine a piece, composed by a gifted writer, passionately written about nothing. How many times have we tried to read a story only to find ourselves mystified at the end? What was that about? Why did I waste my time reading this?

This does not mean the content is boring. Rather, it means there is no substance to the content. This occurs when a journalist covers an incident and can't find the story in the story, for example. Perhaps the reporter lacks the time, maybe there really is no story, or perhaps the reporter is preoccupied with a romance. She submits the piece anyway. And the publication, eager for something to fill the pages, prints the non-story.

Printed pointless pieces appear every day and for myriad of reasons. Take for example, the curse of the second novel. Anne Rice's brilliant first novel, Interview with a Vampire, reached the level of masterpiece by presenting a well-crafted story that raised questions about immortality and involved the reader in examining her own feelings about it. Every succeeding novel by Ms. Rice exists as formulaic pap. Never again did Ms. Rice reach genius, because never again did she have anything original to say. To be sure, the lack of substance does not to detract from the fun of reading her franchise.

Many thriving novelists and nonfiction authors write successful stories that fill a need and sell well, despite a lack of substance. Formula and niche writing may make a successful writer, but it's highly unlikely anyone reading it will find anything new, and even more rarely, that touch of genius.

Each writer needs to ask herself, what is it I want as a writer? If you can be successful at formula, then enjoy it and achieve financial goals. In other words, if this level of writing satisfies you, and you are not lazy, then you are a happy writer. You may or may not be a great writer, and it doesn't matter. However, pity the unhappy writer who excels at the craft, has the passion and ambition to persist, whatever the cost, may even have that "aha!" touch, but, in the end, has nothing to say.

The concept of having something to say is elusive. It refers not simply to a moral, as in Aesop's Fables. On a metalogical level, it refers to creating a resonance between the piece and the reader. It means invoking in the reader an experience of "I understand this, this has happened to me," or "I don't understand this, but I sense its worth." The reader may simply learn something new and be delighted she or he did so. The piece may invoke a psychological or emotional response that need not be conscious in the reader. The reader may only be aware of "Hmm, that was interesting." That's enough.

Passion and something to say appear to be identical twins. On the surface, the differences prove difficult to perceive. However, having something to say, if you choose great writing, supersedes passion, although passion is crucial to persistence.

When I was in the third grade, I declared, dramatically, that "I will make my living by the pen!" Of course I had no idea what I was talking about. I had organized the neighborhood kids into a writing group. We wrote on topics such as "What it would be like to be invisible." I thought writing meant journalism or novels.

After earning a Literature degree, I wanted an academic career, researching and writing analyses. Finances and a desire to try the world first deterred me. One might say my passion wasn't strong enough.

I began my career in publishing. I liked it and did well. The process of publishing a book (at least in those days of cold type) began with a nine-month minimum schedule. I decided I needed quicker gratification. And I wanted to say something different rather than editing others' words.

So I easily switched to advertising, and while I enjoyed ad copywriting enormously, ad agency work didn't suit me, not least because of the endless hirings and firings that came about whenever clients changed their minds. And I had chosen new obligations: a child, a family, a mortgage.

By the mid 1980s, technical writing was the main game in town, so I became a technical writer. I could go on, how I got to The Seattle Times, why I couldn't stay (serious illness), but the point is that I never lost my passion to write, to live amongst words, yet I shifted milieus to meet the needs I had created. My something to say was dictated by ad clients, techies, and then editors.

While having something to say is one of the four fundamentals for great writing, this element serves another purpose as I hope I've demonstrated by telling my story: Knowing what you want to say provides indispensable assistance to directing your writing career.

The kind of writing we do varies based on what we have to say, the depth of passion we feel to say it, and our choices regarding life circumstances. As freelancers, we work hard simply to be published. We persist, though, because it is our passion.

Passion drives you keeps you writing. But be clear about what it is you want to achieve with your writing. That clarity will direct what it is you want to say. More on passion and its role in great writing as we conclude this series with Part III.

Read the previous part to this series.IN Icon

M. Y. Mim is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. You can reach her at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

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