The fatal mistake most new writers make
By Chris Gillespie, Founder of Find A Way Media
On Writing Well
It was Hemingway who coined the iceberg analogy. But like an iceberg, it’s deeply misunderstood.
In short, readers can spot a fake. But too many new writers believe that online research is enough to plug those holes. At Find A Way Media, I receive frequent applications from individuals who claim expertise in subjects from dog walking to pool noodle manufacturing who tell me they are nevertheless equipped to write about tech startups.
“I love learning,” they insist. "I can figure out any topic – quick.”
But their writing almost always rings hollow and fails to excite our audience. They fail because they lack the principle element that makes articles buoyant: first-hand experience.
Why icebergs float
The average iceberg is more than 10,000 years old. And despite the common belief, they don’t form at sea. Icebergs are chunks of snow that have built up over tens of thousands of years and have calved from glaciers and ice shelves in primarily two parts of the world: Greenland and Antarctica.
Their birthplace makes them buoyant. It’s only because they form on land that they accumulate sufficient density to clear the sea’s surface once submerged. And it takes eons for them to reach that state. Even the smallest icebergs, called bergy bits and growlers – the size of small houses and pianos respectively – have been accumulating since before early man domesticated goats.
When a writer claims that they can create an iceberg on the fly after perusing the first page of Google search results, what they’re telling me is that they’re selling ice cubes. Small, insubstantial frozen bits formed free from the pressures of gravity and time. And to my readers, it’s always obvious. Manufactured writing, like manufactured ice, gleams a sterile, homogenous white, whereas the real thing doesn’t look like that at all.
Real icebergs have blue, gray, and red scars from their journey. "As glaciers creep over land, meltwater fills the crevasses and later freezes,” said a spokesperson from the Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism Board. This leaves hardened layers that glimmer aquamarine. Some bergs are dusted by the gray offal of volcanic eruptions. Others blush a watermelon red from algae.
Icebergs are fresh enough to drink yet are trimmed with authentic imperfections. To even amateur readers, there are signs in your writing that cannot be faked. They’re the stranger-than-fiction anecdotes – like how three of the tech company HP’s happiest customers emailed the company a photo of them baking pizza together. They’re the inside jokes, like those about the nihilistic drudgery of trying to decipher an analyst report. They’re the industry axioms, such as “right message, right time, right place.” And they’re the concise ledes written for audiences who the author knows will groan at another philosophical treatise on the value of customer retention.
Writers who haven’t spent time in an industry don’t know what is commonly known. They don’t know what they don’t know. They lack the verbiage, vernacular, and a sense of what sources are deemed credible.
One cannot calve bergs from nothing. There’s only one way true icebergs form, and for writers, there can be no substitute.
Search by standing still
Writers who want to reach iceberg depth in their writing must do more than research – they must beach themselves on the shore of a singular topic and gather the snowfall, ice, dust, and algae that brand their writing with the unmistakable hallmarks of truth.
Do more than search Google. Close your laptop and visit clients’ offices to look around. Hear what the company’s employees complain of, learn their lottery plans, get their stock picks, hear about their kids, and see the Thai spot where they lunch. Interview your customers and ask questions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand and get to know what they do on days off.
Find your niche and commit to writing for several customers in the same space. Everyone’s stories will become your stories. Their experiences will grow intertwined with yours. Over time and years of buildup, long after you’ve stopped thinking about it as an active practice, you’ll find that you can calve articles that float – well above the waterline, no less, for the tip rests high a mountain of first-hand experience.