Currently I’m reading a collection of essays by the National Book Award winner and genius grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many people view Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, as political, but I’ve heard him speak, and he repeatedly emphasizes that he is a writer above all else. He is an observer and he shares his observations with the world, and we can draw valuable writing tips from his work.
3 Writing Tips Culled From the Reflections of a Genius
Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power consists of articles he wrote during the Obama years, each of which are preceded by Coates’s retrospective reflections on those essays.
As a fellow writer, I was enthralled by those reflections. Here was an anointed “genius” expressing his doubts and self-critiques. There’s something fascinating about watching a successful writer still cringe at the very works that gave him that success.
Given all that, I had to share some of my takeaways, writing tips drawn from Coates’s self-reflections. Here they are:
Before anyone knew who Coates was, he blogged. And he did so solely because he had many ideas and no where to put them. He posted four or five times a day, and over time people (besides his Dad) started reading it. They offered comments and suggested other books and philosophers for him to check out. Eventually the blog drew the attention of The Atlantic.
Writers write. But they also allow others to read and critique what they have written—because it’s the only way to get better.
That’s where blogs (or even the comments of The Write Practice articles) come in.
Coates used his blog to get out ideas out of his head and heart, and was open to the comments of others. Many of these posts even served as the starting points for articles he later published in The Atlantic and elsewhere.
Try blogging (or commenting) to test out new techniques, attempt to write in new genres, or to simply workshop certain pieces or ideas. Who knows? You may get the attention of a prominent magazine. 😉
2. Reflect on past work
It was really, really, really interesting for me to see Coates look at an essay he wrote three years ago, think about where he was in his life, and then consider whether he successfully executed his idea or not.
For example, Coates describes a 2004 article he wrote about Bill Cosby as an “attempt”: “I felt myself trying to write a feeling, something dreamlike and intangible that lived in my head, and in my head is where at least half of it remained.” He also admits that he heard about the accusations against the comedian, but chose not to go there. He says that decision made the article less true.
Nine times out of ten when I publish something, I’m done with it forever. I rarely return to past work. But maybe I should. In preparing Eight Years, Coates was able to both reflect upon his weakness in a dispassionate way and appreciate his growth.
As writers, we constantly question ourselves and think our work could be better. But perhaps this self-critique would be more useful to us if we allowed some time to pass first.
3. Seize your moment
Coates says he’s know as a “black writer.” Yes, he’s black, but he also writes about black American issues, specifically. So the election of Barack Obama was directly life changing for him. In other words, it was his moment. Coates writes:
“The fact of Barack Obama, of Michelle Obama, changed our lives. Their very existence opened a market. It is important to say this, to say it in this ugly, inelegant way. It is important to remember the inconsequence of one’s talent and hard work and the incredible and unmatched sway of luck and fate.”
If you find that, after years of setbacks and failure, the world is suddenly ready to hear your voice—speak. Write.
More importantly, pay attention so that you don’t miss the opportunity. As Coates “inelegantly” points out—timing can be just as important as talent and hard work.
What is your unique market? What hole do you fill with your writing?
Your Ideas Can Change the World
Writing is our opportunity to share our observations with the world. Want to influence others with your stories and ideas? Share your work boldly and invite response and critique. Reflect on past work after a few months or years have passed so you can view it through the lens of your personal growth.
Then, when your moment of recognition comes, you’ll be ready to seize it.
And your words will change the world.
Have you read Coates’s writing or heard him speak? What other writing tips can you draw from his work? Let us know in the comments.
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