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We seem to be living in an age of know-it-alls: talk show hosts and guests, expert witnesses, pundits, gurus on every conceivable subject. The information age is exhausting. It is also dull, like a dinner party guest who never stops talking. In my view, this climate is anathema to good writing, which is rooted not in knowledge, but in curiosity.
This may seem paradoxical, since one of the primary goals of nonfiction writing is to inform. But I strongly believe that good writing begins in the mind, long before pen touches paper, or fingers a keyboard. Writers must learn to think like writers. I find this is a point I need to stress over and over again with my students. For thinking like a writer turns out to be a very radical change from what most of us have been taught and conditioned to do over our entire lifetimes. At first it feels very uncomfortable. In some ways it reminds me of learning to speak a foreign language. Conversation in the language requires intense concentration. It's such a relief to lapse back into English, which flows effortlessly in the mind and over the tongue. But as the grammar and vocabulary of the new language become familiar, conversation becomes easier. If one is immersed in a foreign culture for long enough, speaking its language becomes almost second nature. For most people, thinking like a writer is not nearly so difficult as learning a foreign language, but it requires effort, concentration, and discipline. It's a relief to revert to our usual patterns of thought. Over time, thinking like a writer becomes almost unconscious. In a few cases I've seen it all but transform someone's personality. For a desirable sideeffect of thinking like a writer is that it makes you more interesting to others. It enhances one's appreciation of life.
The essence of thinking like a writer is the recognition that what's most interesting is what's unknown, not what is known. Thinking like a writer prizes the question more than the answer. It celebrates paradox, mystery, and uncertainty, recognizing that all of them contain the seeds of a potential story.
At first encounter, it is probably hard to recognize how radical a notion this is. But consider: in ways large and small, subtle and unsubtle, overt and hidden, we are rewarded from childhood on for providing answers to questions posed by others. We are taught to process information by memorizing and retaining it, not by questioning it. Confronted daily by a mass of new information. we rarely stop to consider what is missing.
So many people seem to spend their lives in the inevitably futile quest for certainty. Often this takes the form of religion, which for many provides solace in the face of the unknown and the unknowable. But what may be entirely appropriate in the spiritual realm too often spills over into every other aspect of life. Patients expect certainty from their doctors; clients demand clear-cut answers from their lawyers; and voters want solutions from their politicians, however intractable the problems and farfetched the proposed remedies. While managers may pay lip service to the notion that they welcome criticism and questions from their employees, the reality seems to be that they prize flattery and a parroting back of their own ideas. The more powerful they are, the more insulated they seem by yes-people. Questioners, by and large, are viewed as dissidents, heretics, and malcontents. It seems that the more we are confronted by change, the more we cling to the status quo.
No wonder the unanswered question prompts such a visceral reaction. Some people seem to panic, others suffer anxiety attacks, and most people feel uncomfortable. To varying degrees, all of us react this way. But instead of repressing or fleeing from such feelings, writers need to embrace them and explore their causes. They are important clues. All of them can be harnessed by the writer to make people want to read his or her work. For the fundamental paradox of the unknown is that even as most people flee from it in their own lives, they are fascinated by it. Even though people spend much of their time reading things that do nothing but reinforce what they already know and believe, curiosity remains irrepressible in the human spirit.
In my view, curiosity is the great quality that binds writers to readers. Curiosity. sends writers on their quests, and curiosity is what makes readers read the stories that result. These days, when there is increasing competition for people's time, writers cannot count on anyone to read their work out of a sense of obligation, moral duty, or abstract dedication to "being informed." They will not read because someone else deems a subject to be important. They will read because they want to, and they will want to because they are curious.
While editing the front page of the Journal -- a newspaper with as educated, affluent, and sophisticated a readership as any writer could hope for -- I had to confront and accept the fact that the average reader isn't interested in much of anything outside his immediate self-interest. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Any given individual is interested in something; some people are interested in many things. But the odds that someone shares those interests with anyone else, let alone with all of the two million people who subscribed to the Journal seem quite remote. The Journal conducted periodic reader surveys to determine what, in fact, people said they were interested in. A large portion, something in the neighborhood of 70 percent, indicated an interest in national macroeconomic data and trends, which isn't surprising given the makeup of the Journal's readership. The next-highest-ranking topic, but garnering less than 50 percent interest, was local business news, obviously of interest only to those in the same locality. Nothing else -- not national political news, foreign news, legal affairs, religion, or editorial opinion -- registered even a one-third interest level. And in surveys that revealed what Journal readers actually read, it was clear that when these broad topics were reduced to specific stories -- say, oil production in Libya -- there was no measurable interest at all. I never had the heart to tell some reporters that these surveys suggested that no one had read their published stories.
There are, of course, prominent exceptions to this general level of lack of interest. During one week when such a survey was conducted, the front page ran an obituary of Sam Walton, the legendary billionaire founder of Wal-Mart Stores. As I recall, that story attracted an astoundingly high 80 percent readership, even though there was nothing particularly surprising or newsworthy in it. But during that same week in 1991, a group of dissident Communists attempted a coup in the Soviet Union, kidnapping Mikhail Gorbachev and trying to reinstate the repressive militaristic regime that had so long threatened the West. I couldn't imagine a much more dramatic or important story. The characters -- Gorbachev, a heroic Boris Yeltsin, the vodkasaturated dissidents -- were great; the action and intrigue was out of a Le Carré novel; and the day-to-day suspense was intense. Our Moscow correspondent, Peter Gumbel, handed in the best work of his career, and the front-page staff worked night after night to perfect it. As I recall, the largest readership achieved by any of those stories was a meager 36 percent.
These results were of less concern to the paper as a whole than they were to me as the front-page editor. On any given day, there was a broad enough range of news that something in the paper appealed to just about everyone in the Journal's constituency. But the front page carried only three stories a day, stories that received dramatic display, took up a lot of space, and demanded a far greater commitment of time from reade