It’s Not About Authenticity

I’m quite a fan of Jon Westenberg’s work on Medium. I know he cops a lot of criticism for being part of the self improvement/listicle/tech oriented content, which I feel is quite unfair because his work is experience based and not just curated bullshit. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as people like Benjamin Hardy. But there is something that I have to take issue with Jon, something you wrote about recently in your post “No more filters. No more editing.”

I can see how it applies to what you do. You want to come across naturally and not force your points too much. It shows in your writing, which I’m a fan of. But what I absolutely and vehemently disagree with is your assertion that if you can’t put something out after 3 revisions, that you “don’t have enough of a grasp of the subject, haven’t written well enough…or making a bad attempt at filtering your brain”.

I come from a very different place to you when it comes to writing. I’m looking to delve into deep psychological and philosophical issues, and such things don’t lend themselves to quickly banging out an article in an authentic voice. Indeed, most writing and art does not and cannot conform to such parameters. The pieces of work that I’m most proud of, I’ve often revised more than ten times over the course of weeks, or even months. It often takes that long for my subconscious to catch up with what I want to put on the page. Sometimes I’ll bounce my ideas off of others and have long conversations that spur further insights. Often I’ll leave something I think is ready to go, only to come back a week later and see a paragraph that messes up the flow, a sentence that needs slight tweaking, or even a word that needs changing.

I liken it to the great chefs’ advice that one should taste their food at regular intervals while they are cooking it. With enough skill, one can put the right ingredients together, cook them and plate up something that they know will be good. But I like to view good art as slow cooking. It’s a constant process of nurturing, of adjusting the heat, of adding things here and taking away things there to come up with something truly remarkable at the end. I think the world of writing could use far more editing, not less, because writers too often make the mistake of equating a rush to hit publish with being authentic. When you’ve been at the craft for a long time, you have the necessary quality in your work to do that. For people that don’t, it makes their writing look like a shallow mess, like a meal slapped together at the last minute by someone who doesn’t really know their way around a kitchen.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for both approaches. I love Seth Godin’s brevity, but I also love the pages and pages that Ramit Sethi puts out on a topic. They are both great and they are both worthwhile, and the common thread they share is the fact that both are incredibly knowledgeable and skilled at what they do. What a lot of writers don’t seem to get is that if you want to be like Seth Godin or Jon Westenberg, you have to earn it. You need both deep knowledge of your subject area and skill at writing to pull off an authentic, “natural” sounding piece that is actually insightful. If you’re missing either, the only thing you’ll be putting out is drivel.

So stop rushing to hit the publish button. Don’t be afraid to leave your work for a little while longer, like that stew sitting in a pot on the stove. I promise you, whatever you have to say is probably not quite ready and could do with some time and care before you send it out into the world. That’s where the work is. That’s where the improvement is. That’s how you go from being a nobody whose work no one cares about to being a somebody that people will listen to.