(Sunday Thought) Anything easy to read was hard to write

The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said of one of his letters that he did not have the time to make it shorter, by which he meant that writing well, which surely includes writing clearly and succinctly, takes effort.

The idea that something very easy to read was very hard to write is often attributed to Hemingway, but then on the internet, any adage about writing is automatically attributed to Hemingway, including the ever-present “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

In fact, that phrase was coined by the sportswriter Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, as quoted by the infamous journalist Walter Winchell in 1949. “Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …’Why, no,’ dead-panned Red. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.'”

Quote Investigator attributes the earliest version of the “easy reading” adage to Thomas Hood, who mused in an 1837 edition of the London periodical The Athenaeum that “the easiest reading is damned hard writing.”

But there’s no shortage of contenders. In 1990, Maya Angelou gave The Paris Review an entirely different provenance:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’ I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.”

That really is one of the most important lessonsfor spring writers, yes, but also for anyone attempting anything genuinely worth doing.

In the age of the internet, there’s a tendency to connect quality with immediacy and to assume those at the top are there not just because they can write wonderful jokes, novels, or songs, but because they can do so quickly.

I doubt it. If something is easy to enjoy, if it flows, it was probably very difficult to write. Even an off-the-cuff joke or tweet stands atop a pile of a thousand corpses.

Novels in particular require repeated kneading and polishing. You go over the text, and over it, and over it, and over it until you can practically recite the damned thing by heart. I’m not exaggerating.

Quality is not bounded by talent. The most talented writer in human history never once produced a masterpiece on the first draft, nor even probably the second.

Quality is a cousin of talent but the daughter of effort. The very best writing is not produced by the most talented writers but by the most committed ones.