Bark's Bites: I Am A Writer, And So Can You!

barks bites i am a writer and so can you

“How do you get a job like that?”

Since June 13th, 2012, I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. That was the day that my f irst post appeared on TTAC. Between then and now, I’ve been fortunate enough to be published on several sites around the internet and in print. As a result, I can’t sit next to somebody on a plane or work a corner at an autocross with a group of Tilley-wearers without being asked some variation of that same question.

I typically respond in the same way. “Start writing.” You can’t be a writer without writing — seems simple enough, but that’s where most people get stuck. Never fear. Your Uncle Bark is here to help you get started. If you want to get free flights to Tenerife, I can’t help you. But if you want to share your love of cars with the world, keep reading.

Don’t write what you know. Write about your passion.

I got my start at TTAC writing about my Boss 302 that I purchased in 2012. At that time, I had just started working in the automotive advertising business, and I didn’t have much first hand experience in the world of journalism. Other than autocrossing (which I had been doing for six years) and my yellow Mustang, I didn’t have a wealth of subject matter to draw from.

I didn’t try to have some grand insights into Elon Musk’s business dealings (because writing about such things from outside the industry would just be stupid), nor did I wax poetically about the differences between turbochargers and superchargers. I don’t care about the inner mechanical workings of automobiles, and no amount of learned technical knowledge can replace passion.

When I started to see how this business worked from the inside, that’s when I found my passion. I realized that most people don’t know anything about what truly goes on in the worlds of automotive journalism or retail automotive sales, and I realized that most people are completely lost when it comes to buying cars — even those who can tell you everything about them. Helping people see behind the curtain and revealing the secrets of this business has become my raison d’etre.

Just writing about the three years you were a Ford tech isn’t interesting, especially if you hated every minute of it. But it could be if you tell the reader why you hated it. Maybe you saw customers who were hoodwinked. Perhaps you were witness to false accounting practices. That’s got the potential to be interesting.

You’re probably not any good at this whole writing thing yet — and that’s okay.

My first few articles weren’t that well received. In fact, I had single-digit comments on some of them. I think I was called arrogant and uninformed (some things never change). I learned what aspects of my writing were good, and what needed improvement. I submitted some ideas to my brother and to some other people I respected. I even wrote for free for a little while, because I didn’t think it was fair to ask people to pay for my trial-and-error methodology.

Before you submit something, find a friend who knows his way around the language. Ask him or her to read it for you, and ask for advice. Furthermore, when you get it — take it. It’s easy to get protective of your work and to take criticism of it personally. If you can’t handle a buddy saying you need to improve, then you’re definitely not going to appreciate it the first time an editor chews up your submission and spits it back to you with great prejudice.

Find somebody whose writing you admire, and use it as a guide — but do it with caution.

I have no problem admitting that I think Sam Smith is a wonderful writer. He might be a couple of years my junior, but I make it a point to read nearly everything that he writes. (Which isn’t that much. Come on, Sam. Write more stuff.) He’s an intoxicating storyteller, not to mention a hell of a wheelman. I often find myself referencing his work when I am stuck on an idea. Please don’t tell Sam that I said any of this, because I don’t want him to tease me when we race together in October. But there’s a fine line here.

I cannot count the number of people who tell me that my older brother’s writing inspires them. I can’t go to a single automotive-related event without somebody hunting me down to tell me that he or she admires Jack’s work. I even had one guy show me a legal pad in which he had written down quotes that were particularly meaningful to him.

Even though I tire of dealing with my brother’s fanboys, it pleases me to know that he’s so well-regarded. However, I’ve yet to come across the writer who can replicate what he does. I can’t write like Jack, because I haven’t lived like he has. I don’t communicate with the reader as openly and easily as he does — there are parts of my life that I’m just not willing to share with the world.

But even Jack isn’t an original creation, born fully-formed as a writer. He often mentions the inspiration of Setright. We both grew up devouring the works of writers from various genres — Asimov, Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, and George Orwell among them. Feel free to take inspiration from your heroes. Just don’t try to be them.

Grammar, usage, and vocabulary all matter.

Don’t even bother submitting a piece unless you’ve checked and double-checked your spelling and punctuation. Microsoft Word isn’t going to catch all of your errors, I promise you, especially not your usage errors. Try to avoid using simple, informal language — but don’t wear out your link to, either. Shoving a word that you don’t normally use into a sentence can seem awkward to your readers. There should be a balance between using the word “good” sixteen times in a single submission (see Esterdahl, Tim) and inserting the word “plethora” out of nowhere (see Esterdahl, Tim).

Don’t ever use the words “really” or “very”. I’m sure that you can CTRL+F my posts and find some examples where I’ve done it, but I shouldn’t have. Robin Williams’ character had some thoughts on this in the film “Dead Poets Society.” His fictional character was correct. Using such modifiers makes your writing appear childish and unsophisticated.

Write, write, and rewrite.

Few people can thump out a thousand words, click “submit,” and have the end result be anything decent. Your first draft is going to need help. Maybe you’ll need to draft an outline first. There’s nothing wrong with that. I can’t tell you what process will work best for you, but you’ll need to have a process of some sort. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something that I thought was particularly good, only to click “trash” on my second reading of it.

Having a good idea isn’t enough. You need to be able to communicate that idea in terms so clear that a stranger would be able to understand exactly what it is you’re saying with no prior knowledge of the subject. I often ask my wife, who knows nothing about the automotive landscape, to read my work. If it makes sense to her, then I know I’ve done at least a decent job.

Practice your writing daily. More of your ideas will end up in the trash than in print, but you’ve got to work through some of the duds to find the gems.

But what about automotive writing in particular, Bark? Everything you’ve said has been applicable to all forms of writing.

That’s a fair point, Mr. Empty Chair. But it’s at this point that I’d point out that the barrier-to-entry for automotive writing is lower than the High Jump bar at your local middle school track meet. The vast majority of automotive writing — to call most of it journalism is inaccurate — is poor, and that’s being kind.

In fact, close to 100 percent of the writing you’ll find online are car reviews, which take approximately no talent to write — at least not the way most people do it. (By the way, if you thought my Jeep Patriot review last week was a real review, then you’re banned from ever sending a letter to Ask Bark. Come on, people.) Unless you’re blessed with an editor who lets you write long-form reviews of cars ( thanks, Patrick), all you can do is rattle off specs, publish, and be damned.

I don’t think that there’s any particular secret that’s unique to writing about cars as opposed to writing about anything else. If you can tell a story about a soccer game, or a plane ride, you can tell a story about a car. And that’s what the writing I’ve enjoyed the most has been — a brilliant telling of a personal experience. I don’t care too much about the 0-62 mile per hour times of the Subaru Forester, and I suspect that once most of us leave high school, we’ve all outgrown that sort of thing (which the exception of the one guy who always comments “BUT WUT ABOUT LAPTIMEZ”).

So how do I tell a story?

The first and most critical element in telling a great story is determining what your ultimate message is going to be. As Stephen Covey said, you should begin with the end in mind. Think about the one thing that your reader should know or understand when he’s done reading your piece. Once you figure out what that one thing is, then you have to figure out how you’re going to communicate it.

You can’t do that without knowing your audience. It’s no secret that the Jalopnik audience isn’t the same as the TTAC audience, for example — while there’s some overlap, there isn’t much. I don’t write the same way there that I do here. My TTAC writing style isn’t better or worse than my Jalopnik style, it’s just different. Just like you wouldn’t tell your mom a story in the same way that you’d tell it to your best friends, you need to customize your message so that it can be received and appreciated by your anticipated audience.

If you’re telling a personal story, be vulnerable. Struggles are always more compelling than victories. Talk about the darkest feeling you had during that time. Tell us what made you afraid. Tell us how you failed. Then tell us what you learned and how your life has changed as a result.

I’m sure that I read this somewhere, but I’ve tried to live by the “Hero/Zero philosophy.” If you’re telling a story about a mistake or a weakness, talk about your own flaws. If you want to tell a story about somebody who accomplished something great, tell it about somebody else’s greatness.

Finally, don’t be afraid to tell us what it is you wanted us to learn from your story. Don’t use a sledgehammer, but don’t be vague either.

As Jack has famously said, everybody on Oppo has five good stories. What do you do when those five good stories are gone? Well, you have to go find new ones. You have to experience new things. You have to live. You have to be able to find a story where none exists, to create content without having a press car delivered to your front door.

Like I said to start this off, I’ve now done it over 200 times, but I can’t say that I’ve done it successfully in each instance. There are posts and articles of which I’m quite proud, and others I wish I could go back and delete. But each and every time I write something, I have my name on it (or my pseudonym, which, oddly enough, is much more recognized than my actual name). And when you send your submission to TTAC, or anywhere else, your name will be on it, as well.

So before you send that e-mail, be sure that you’re proud of your work. Be sure it’s the very best you can do. I imagine you’ll find that it’s much easier to comment on the work of others than it is to create your own. As such, I leave you with this quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Now go write something.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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2 of 59 comments
  • -Nate -Nate on Aug 12, 2016

    @ Mark : yes , your writing has gotten much better , it wasn't bad to begin with , you're advice to listen and adapt is bang spot on . . @ gtemnykh : I love the technical aspects of the articles and the comments too ~ I suspect there are many here who'd read every thing more technically based , doesn't mean stop the articles about new cars , racing and so on , just add more , something for everyone . . -Nate

  • Sid SB Sid SB on Aug 13, 2016

    Great article. I have tried to write article length pieces on forums, looking back though, most of them make me wince. Main cringe worthy elements were some of the naive comments, soapbox preaching and a meandering structure (jump all round the topic). That said, writing a good piece takes time , thought, and lots of checking but must be a great rush when published and you get good feedback. While I envy the car journalists job, I am not kidding myself into thinking it is easy work, far from it, looks time consuming and bound to have ups (please review the new 570S) and downs (please review the mid cycle refresh of the Versa or worse write a piece about NHTSA latest crash test protocol). Smith and Baruth (the elder) and others at R&T help make the current magazine a great read. To be fair they do get some great material to work with (Smith drives some awesome old racing cars) and the photography (especially in R&T) is amazing at times.

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