People who are better than you at the stuff you’re good at

Speaking of writing, I just read a very short book called The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane, whom I met at a conference in Minneapolis this month.

I read it with a growing sense of happy jealousy. Great writing is, well, great. It’s fun to watch someone take a difficult task and make it look really clean, clear and easy. (I harbor a secret hope that she has to work really hard to write this way, but having seen her speak in public, I think she’s just a great communicator and lucid thinker.)

Which reminds me of my first chess game against GM Alexander Ivanov. I had black and played the French defense. First he gained a little space, then I got a backwards pawn, then he snuffed my kingside play, then he expanded on the queenside, then he broke open the center, and then I was losing material and/or getting mated. So simple, you see – he just put his pieces on better and better squares, and even in a 40-move game there was never the tiniest hint of black getting any play whatsoever. As much as I hate losing, it was kind of beautiful to watch and you just have to tip your hat.


9 thoughts on “People who are better than you at the stuff you’re good at

  1. My one GM game was against Ivanov too. I felt good about the fact that I got all the way to a king-and-pawn endgame against him before resigning, until I realized that he saw it coming ages ago and just simplified to it because it was so clearly winning; no need to make things complicated.

  2. I read the sample chapter. It’s edited well. I couldn’t find one serious punctuation problem in the first few hundred words. That’s something. But I would call her an expert writer, not a GM. Don’t be fooled by what a good editor and a good writer can do *together*. These days, most editors are actually too busy marketing, to edit. This publisher seems to take their books seriously. So some credit must be given to them, too. Derek, I think you just have a crush on Ms. Kissane — not too difficult given her credentials and talent and looks — nothing which to be ashamed. :) I mean, look at Kosteniuk and Pogonina’s popularity with the men folk. Here we have female talent in a different field.

  3. I assure you my admiration is purely professional :)

    I have a pretty good sense of the interplay between editor and writer (*cough*). Entirely true about editing vs. marketing these days. Kissane actually WAS the editor at that publishing house for a number of years. Anyway I read the whole 72pp and I think she is a great writer in this context. Wasn’t really arguing she should be ranked among the greatest of all time – would be most keen to see a list of a few writers you consider truly and universally great, but maybe that’s another post/thread.

  4. Let’s start.

    Ed Falco: violence, sex, great realist style — but weaves great back-story and plot.

    Dave Eggers: His “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is just that, genius.

    Steve Almond is the best short story writer I’ve ever read. Great pacing, great showing (not telling), great style, word choice, etc.

    Paul Auster is a fantastic all-around writer.

    My all-time favorite short story was written by a guy named JD Dolan. It was a story titled “Pool: A Love Story.” Included in the 1999 Best American Sportswriting anthology. About a guy who is on and off again with his g-friend, as he gets more serious about becoming a pool ‘master.’ Perfect style from Dolan. Perfect plot. Perfect metaphor. Perfect showing. A gem, A+ work. I asked him to write for my anthology, as many of these guys. (Only Falco obliged — unfortunately Falco’s contribution to MOT was not representative.)

    Atul Gawande is a great non-fiction writer. He writes about medical issues.

    I’ll add Malcolm Gladwell to the non-fiction list, but he is a bit too gimmicky to be my favorite, although he knows how to tell a good story.

    Some of my favorite old-time writers include George Orwell and E.B. White.

    Richard Feynman writes entertainingly and smartly about science. Great stuff from him in the past. He was a genius, and it shows in his writing.

    Let’s add Leonard Michaels and Gay Talese for good measure. Michaels’ prose is pure poetry. Talese is a master of non-fiction.

    Gee…I could go on and on, but will stop.

    Looking through my library, I recall that Fred Waitzkin, Josh’s dad, was a writer, and I really enjoyed his biography of Kasparov (“Turbulent Genius”), as well as his memoir about fishing (“The Last Marlin”) and his classic “Searching for BF.” Fred W. was a very decent writer (there’s a reason they turned his stuff into a movie), better than his son (if you liked Josh’s new book).

  5. Howard – fantastic. Thanks for this. I have read very few of these folks (can I borrow a few books… ?) I have to read Content Strategy for the Web and then In the Heart of the Sea first, for different reasons. Then I’ll see about digging into some of these.

  6. Feynman was a great communicator, but it’s worth noting that pretty much everything he “wrote” was produced by a third party editing his talks.

  7. Feynman wrote every single word of his memoirs, collected letters, many articles, and collections of essays. I can list a biblio if you care, Dan.

    Derek, yes, you can borrow books, but I recommend purchasing your own copies. I can recommend specific writers to learn specific styles and techniques. Different writers excelled at different things.

    I’m happy to critique your own book, but I’m very frank. Are you seriously writing a book? I don’t believe it. I didn’t realize that you were so serious about writing.

    I, too, am working on a chess memoir, but it’s mostly in the note-taking stages right now.

  8. BTW, the “Feynman Lectures on Physics” were likely compiled by someone else, but, as far as I know, he wrote a ton of stuff by himself. It’s all very lucid.

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