Several years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me a book in the mail. I wasn’t expecting it, and he didn’t tell me he was sending it, so I was intrigued when a mysterious package landed on my front step.
I ripped open the medium-sized envelope, and out fell his gift, entitled, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Written by Cal Newport, the premise of the book was simple: skill trumps passion when it comes to doing work you love.
I devoured the book, in part because I needed to know if Newport’s thesis held weight. I was pushing further into my writing career, and while I believed I was good, I wasn’t objectively certain. My passion, however, was beyond question.
A few New Year’s have come and gone since that book landed on my doorstep, and it sits now on my bookshelf. And I understand one thing with crystal clarity:
You can be so good people look right past you. At least, as a writer.
In fact, that’s kind of the goal as a writer. To remove yourself from the reader’s mind.
I’ve been deep-diving into a lot of books lately, trying to work out something in the non-fiction/business book realm, and one of the worst things that I can say about a book at this point is that I can feel when a writer is trying too hard.
Too clever. Too cute. Too fluffy. Too wise.
For better or worse, the writer doesn’t want to share knowledge. The writer wants to be seen. To be noticed. To be lauded.
And dammit, I’m starting to notice that I’m no different.
It’s an easy fix, of course. An excess of personality is cured by a focus on content. Think deeper. Write cleaner. Whittle those crafty little writer tricks down to their bare essence and leave only the cold, hard truth on the page.
But then you run the risk of being boring, so you try to add in something. A joke here, a pun there. You sprinkle in metaphor, anthropomorphism, or some other rhetorical flourish, maybe some Queen Anne legs on that squat argument you’ve constructed about colonialism.
Nothing too showy, just enough movement and sex appeal that people won’t walk away yawning. The trick is finding that balance — crafting words that people can’t wait to read while simultaneously staying out of their way.
This is, of course, purely my opinion, my thoughts on the craft of writing. It’s the underpinned theme of my writing journey — to add value without being intrusive, to teach without having to stand still in the spotlight.
Perhaps the tension I feel is the actual tension of my own internal desires: to be known as a good writer, someone others want to read. To write books that people will pick up because my name is on the cover or in the byline.
So, yeah. Irony.
It’s all good though. I’ve been fortunate enough to see what happens when the author becomes the feature instead of the author’s words. It’s not a bad life, it’s just not the one I think I’m suited to live.
So I’m pressing into my theory. That I can be so good I can become, to borrow from the brilliant podcast by Roman Mars, 99% invisible. It’s a longer road. A difficult road. As one of my new favorite writing quotes says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
But it’s the road I’m made to take. Sometimes I wish it were otherwise, but that’s only when the account balance is low and there’s checks outstanding. Most days, I’m content with building a career one day, one piece, one word at a time.
Maybe you can be too.
Craft matters. Being good matters. It may not be an easy sell, but it can be sold. You can be so good they look right past you — but I’m banking that being that good for a long time will bring us right back to Cal Newport’s premise.
After years of invisible work, we’ll be so good they can’t ignore us.