Freddie Deboer on Writing

Freddie discusses how being weird and divisive is necessary for being successful as a writer:

Because being divisive is good for business. You have to be weird. I’m making more money than I ever thought I would in my life because what I write is not easily found elsewhere. Niche tastes can still be popular ones. 90% of people in media write in the exact same style of sneering haughty disdainful liberal contempt, so it’s no surprise so many of them struggle in a flooded market. Twitter’s effect on people in media is to sand off all of their rough edges; they’re scared to be individuals because individuals get made fun of. But individuals also get dollars. Why would readers pay for that which they can get anywhere else? For my whole career the purpose has been to target and cultivate passionate feelings among the rare 10% rather than to be vaguely unobjectionable to the common 90%. It’s a living.

Yet another Freddie humblebrag.

But later he writes:

Other than that stuff, you know… I understand that our culture is attached to a tedious literalism and that most people aren’t used to engaging with anything that doesn’t proceed from A to B to C. But there are all manner of other ways out there, other modes and genres and moods, and we could be enjoying them all, but we aren’t. No insult to the Ezra Kleins and Matthew Yglesii of the world, but there’s something tragic about the fact that so little is published on the internet, at least in prominent places, that transcends the form of busy little facts and mundane little arguments and plodding this and then this and then this and then this that they pioneered.

Yet Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias are hugely successful by any objective measure such as pageviews, viralness, and quantity of substack subscribers despite adhering to a conventional writing style, and their posts being generally devoid of personal information or weirdness. Yglesias’ blog is even called “Slow Boring”. Same for Tyler Cowen of the immensely popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, whose style is the opposite of Freddie’s. Another example is Lyn Alden, whose obsessiveness with facts and data, and her dense, impersonal essays about complicated macro matters, has made her a great success. Just because weirdness or over-personalization worked for Freddie does not mean it generalizes to other writers or somehow can be replicated.

The reason why “90% of people in media write in the exact same style” is probably because that is what works, not owing to a lack of originally. The NYTs, WSJ, the Economist, Vox, Washington Post, etc. are privately owned companies, which means they are competing with each other for a finite supply of advertisers, pageviews, and subscribers necessary for their survival. Politics aside, their ultimate goal is to make money. If they could boost ad revenue and pageviews by many magnitudes by pretending to write from the perspective of a mentally ill person, an insect, or whatever.. why wouldn’t they.

What makes science ‘science’, is that the results, in theory, can be reproduced by following the steps outlined in the published result. Such reproducibility does not apply to creative fields, in which quality and tastes are subjective, such as writing, music, or painting. At best there are a set of guidelines/rules such as grammar, structure, and spelling, this is hardly sufficient to explain why some writing is more successful than others. Why was the Harry Potter series such a big success? Or The Martian? Who knows. Publishers have been trying to replicate the success of Harry Potter, with mixed results at best.

As discussed , the conventional style of journalism works in part because the alternatives are much worse. The reader’s time is valuable; they want the pertinent information, not unnecessary personal diversions and digressions unless they are necessary for proving the author’s point. There is this mistaken or hand-waiving assumption that readers are lazy or only skim headlines; yes, some are, but astute readers are also the most important, because their endorsements also matter the most. Credibility is probably the most invaluable resource for success at writing, and that is attained by establishing oneself as an authority, which means you have to get all the details right and come up with strong arguments and evidence. You cannot just hope to use rhetorical sleights of hand or ignore the obvious objections, and assume readers will not notice.