Culture Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi: A Brief Note on Writing

Setting down a lifetime of this trade's tricks, one at a time.

By Matt Taibbi / Racket News

I decided a few months ago that with the practical aim of downloading a lifetime of information before my mind goes the way of my hairline and hoop game, I would start writing down what I knew about my life’s work. I don’t mean journalism but writing, which I began learning as a confused teenager who thought it should be no trouble to lock himself in a room and start cranking out improvements on Catch-22 and Scoop.

I’ll write the intro to the project when done. Until then, you’ll see occasional capsules describing tricks and rules I’ve learned. It will be nice to write about something I enjoy, instead of the Alien-like terrors on the daily news feed. Note all writing is idiosyncratic. I don’t think there are universal “rules,” except the one big one: things either work or they don’t. If it works, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. What you’ll be reading are rules that seem to work for me. You might discover the opposite.

Rule #1: When you think you’re finished, go back and kill 20% of your copy.

Soviet writer Isaac Babel, a fan of what the Dude called “the whole brevity thing,” said a key was using “strong fingers” and “whipcord nerves” to remove parts “you happen to like most, but are needed least.” Babel added writing was “like self-inflicted torture” and wondered why he didn’t follow his father into the farm machinery business. You’ll see that sentiment a lot. Most people who actually like writing, overwrite. When you think you’re finished, check the word count. If it’s 1800, target 360 for termination. Your real length is probably 1200, but a 20% kill is a start. Nobody has a 100% smart rate, least of all you. Learn to enjoy it. If loved ones walk in the room during this process, they should see a schizoid gleam in your eye that makes them nervous.

That’s it! See you at #2.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

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