If you’ve ever followed an old, longtime newspaper columnist, you may have noticed that eventually they start to write more or less the same column, with only the immediate news hook changing. Or, more precisely, they seem to develop a rotating stable of columns, which you don’t really notice as a casual reader, but which you very much do if you read them religiously. (“Oh, this week is this column again!”)
The thing about a classic column is that it sort of encourages this. It’s basically a five-paragraph essay. The format wants a tightly argued, unsubtle, straight-line argument. Now, obviously, I have a stable of topics I write about frequently, but I try not to write the same article over and over.
And as I spend more and more time “newslettering,” I’ve come to really appreciate this format. Initially, it just felt like a blank canvas. “Okay…so I write something every day. It can be short, long, bloggy, formal…whatever I want?” But over time, the general shape, incentives, and “rules” of the newsletter format—which is, basically, a polished blog—have started to become clear to me.
Newslettering is like telling a long story in many pieces. Each article stands alone but isn’t necessarily meant to stand alone. The really fun thing about a newsletter is getting to write almost the same piece over and over—not beating the dead horse and filling column inches, but slowly sharpening an idea until it’s just right.
I guess I think of a series of newsletters on a topic—say, the urbanity of small towns—as a series of manufactured or handcrafted items, each a bit better than the last, reflecting the process of learning by doing. If the column is a mass-produced identical item, the newsletter/blog is an artisan one. And eventually, the idea gets there. When you’re baking something, there’s always a point in time when it’s half-baked. This is a really valuable thing for writers to have.
Here, for example, is one of the first times I wrote about small towns as tiny cities:
It’s always striking to me when I’m out on the road far from the D.C. area, usually in central or southwestern Virginia, and I drive through a little rural town with beautiful public and civic infrastructure, and, more to the point here, classically urban buildings which the vast majority of suburban zoning codes now prohibit. For some examples, check out a photo essay I did last November, driving four hours south on the Virginia stretch of U.S. Route 11.
This should be food for thought for those who see Manhattan or Levittown as the only archetypes for America’s built places.
Here’s an intermediate piece:
Once it clicks that all of these settlements are fundamentally the same thing, the notion of “the city vs. the country” starts to feel like the wrong frame. Urbanism starts to feel like an American heritage, far beyond those places that happened to become large, mature cities. It sketches what might be the right frame: that the big difference is not between “the city” and everything else, but between urban settlements of all sizes versus the suburban development pattern.
And here’s my most recent, where I feel like I finally put this into the words I’ve really been looking for (it’s a magazine article, but it builds on the ideas I’ve developed here):
If you strip away the culture-war overlay—“coastal elites” and “flyover country,” debates and conspiracy theories over “15-minute cities,” identifications of “cities” and “suburbs” with political ideologies generally—you will find no evidence that there is actually any such thing as a “small town,” as we currently conceive of it.
If you look at the history of towns and cities, in the 18th and 19th centuries, you will not find any clear demarcation between those settlements which we now call “cities,” and those which we now call “towns.” You will really only find urban settlements, which grew or shrank or stagnated or died for any number of reasons. You will find large, lovely civic buildings; the mixing of housing and commercial uses; a variety of housing options; and dense settlement patterns. And you will find these bits of urban DNA in places ranging anywhere from a few hundred people to hundreds of thousands of people….Today, when we talk about “towns” and “cities,” we make the same error as the paleontologist who accidentally categorizes a baby dinosaur fossil as a small dinosaur, and an adult fossil of the same species as a large dinosaur….
Some time between then and now, we underwent a revolution, which not only transformed American land use, but also wiped out the memory of America’s urban settlements, and the mindset which built them and understood them as such.
If hadn’t written several previous iterations of this, I would not have been able to put it just right here.
This process of working through, sharpening, developing an idea via public writing, with each particular article being a waypoint or an installment of sorts, is so different from how opinion/magazine writing used to be. I sometime encounter this attitude from older folks that you shouldn’t publish something until you’re sure you fully understand the topic through laborious research; that getting your work seen is a treat, a reward for hard work. Some of this is an old-fashioned viewpoint; some just the way publishing actually worked. And this is probably true of, say, writing a book.
But it’s not true of this; in fact, operating that way would make this impossible. Much, if not most of the development of my ideas and knowledge is because of readers and commenters agreeing, disagreeing, adding counterpoints or adjacent points, recommending books or authors that might be interesting or useful to me, etc. In some ways the whole point of writing in this format is that I don’t know everything there is to know, and putting it out there helps me complete it in concert with my readers.
Which is you. So thank you!
Getting Good at Doing Things Wrong
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Love this! I completely share this sentiment- writing in this way is like building a conversation slowly over time. I have enjoyed watching your ideas evolve and develop and I recognize this in my own writing too. I set off to write a little blurb about something (say Sears or Radio Shack) and it ends up inspiring many more ideas later as I learn more and readers share ideas too. Well put!
So appreciate this reflection! I’ve been struggling a little with my own writing, stumbling a bit between the figuring-out-the-words-as-we-go concept and the don’t-speak-till-you-fully-know-what-you’re-going-to-say.
As a writing coach at mid-highschool level, I love to encourage this kind of writing process you’re talking about. There’s nothing like the energy and growth of ideas through writer-reader interaction! Yet I haven’t known for sure how acceptable it is to do this in a more public, published way myself. I’ve been following you long enough now to see exactly what you’re talking about in this newsletter. Thanks for this example to confirm what I’ve known in my gut but couldn’t pull out into the light without others’ input :)