How Being Unprepared Makes You a Better Writer

There’s great value in being a little ignorant

Susan Orlean

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Photo by Nick Seagrave on Unsplash

The piece of advice I most often give to journalism students— which also happens to be the piece of advice that makes most journalism professors regret that they invited me to speak to their classes — is to commit yourself to being unprepared.

Allow me to explain myself. I would argue that the most important stage of writing takes place early on, while you’re researching and reporting, rather than when you’re putting pen to paper. What you need most during that research stage is the capacity for noticing. By that, I mean noticing the setting, the people you’re talking to, the way they talk about things, what they look like, the way you feel as you immerse yourself in the experience of whatever you’re writing about.

Noticing seems so basic, but it’s actually quite hard. It requires an openness that doesn’t always come easily. Humans are sensitive creatures. We tend to enter new environments with a bit of defensiveness; we curl up into ourselves to shield off the shock of the new. We are also terribly prone to confirmation bias — that is, we see what we expect to see, rather than what is really before us. If we’re told something is going to be big, or tasty, or scary, or dirty, we are much more inclined to see it that way, rather than letting our actual reaction dictate our sense of it.

These tendencies are disastrous for a writer. To write well, it’s essential to be open — not just a little bit open, but vigorously open, taking in as much as you possibly can. It’s important to surprise yourself, to notice that things aren’t at all what you expected. Sometimes, when I’m reporting, I feel like I’m actively unlearning what I thought I knew about something or someone, replacing my expectations with what I’m truly seeing. You might feel off-kilter as part of the process, maybe even confused, but that’s great. In fact, you are most open and see things with the most freshness when you accept the vulnerability that is part of being in a new situation.

So how does preparation undermine this? Think of travel: If you’re planning a trip and spend hours and hours reading guidebooks, you’re going to land in the new place with a preexisting idea of what you’re going to see and what…

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Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)