“True glory lies in doing what deserves to be written; in writing, what deserves to be read.”
–Attributed to Pliny the Elder
Well, it’s finally time to say goodbye to the organization that midwifed me as a writer and a thinker. This December 2017, I’ll (hopefully) graduate from USC and, with so many others who’ve been shaped by it, leave Glimpse From the Globe behind. It’s been a good run, and I’m sad to be leaving.
Sometimes I joke that I’m the “Henry Kissinger” of Glimpse- my time in the spotlight has passed and I offer unsolicited advice to the current leadership in a desperate bid to remain relevant; I also write about the Nixon Administration. (Just kidding, Dr. Kissinger!) But in all honesty, I’ve been around too long. I’ve been in Glimpse for four and a half years, and worked under five editors-in-chief and five presidents of the organization. I was mentored by one of its founders, Samir Kumar. I was the first Senior Correspondent, and have been in the organization longer (and I would assume produced more content) than any other single member of Glimpse. It’s past time to move on.
But I owe it to the organization that shaped me to give something, however meager, back to it, and help future generations of Glimpse writers along a path that I once set off upon, and still follow to this day. So I present some rambling reflections on writing, for future Glimpse correspondents’ perusal at their pleasure. We learn best through personal experience, and second-best through reflection upon the experiences of others. In the effort to help you to learn more quickly what it took me years to discover, I offer my less-than-sage advice.
A BRIEF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
I was one of those high schoolers and college freshmen who just couldn’t shut up on Facebook. Eventually Samir Kumar and Reid Lidow, upperclassmen at the time, told me something to the tune of “stop posting 2,000-word statuses and start writing 2,000-word articles for us!” and invited me to write for a publication they were then working on reviving and expanding. I accepted the opportunity, and set up a personal blog around the same time to publish things I couldn’t publish elsewhere. Thus, with Glimpse From the Globe and ABiasedPerspective, did my amateur writing career begin.
It’s the tendency of every ambitious young writer who thinks they know everything to speak in grand platitudes about the nature of reality, and the singular historical importance of whatever meager event happens to catch their eye. That was me to a “t” from 2013 to 2015, and honestly probably still a bit nowadays. I quickly discovered, through voracious reading, concepts like “Hamiltonianism” and “grand strategy” and regurgitated, in slightly fancier form, whatever conceptual theorizing I could soak up from writers like Michael Lind and Robert D. Kaplan. This led to a bunch of interesting but basically unoriginal pieces under my name.
Over the years, I gradually grew slightly more interesting and original, but only through practice of writing, professional mentorship from experienced writers, and wide reading. One of my Glimpse articles was my ticket to an editorial internship at The American Interest magazine in Washington D.C., and there, under the tutelage and editing of Adam Garfinkle and the TAI staff, I published my first professional, behind-the-paywall piece in a trade publication. Such events tend to boost young writers’ egos, and soon I was submitting essays to various editors every few months, and even founding various policy blogs (all of which eventually failed.) All this time, I continued to write for Glimpse, which provided a great intellectual community and a nice outlet for foreign policy publishing.
My writing was always basically some mix of commentary, analysis, and opinion- the construction and application of worldviews- rather than “objective” news reporting and analysis. This was especially true of my later essays, particularly on the Trump Administration’s foreign policy team, and gradually I went from somewhat-readable to slightly-original. (I still have a long way to go on that front.) Glimpse, furthermore, gave me the opportunity to meet and network with lots of interesting people- I’ve interviewed legendary journalist Robert D. Kaplan, Ambassador Cofer Black, Kissinger aide Winston Lord, and CIA analyst Paul Pillar through opportunities afforded by Glimpse (it really does help with networking.) And through it all, I’ve gleaned an appreciation for what political and analytical writers do, in ways I never would’ve been able to understand when I first got in.
So there’s a little bit about me in my time with Glimpse. Now for some of the lessons I’ve learned.
SOME ADVICE TO YOUNG WRITERS
The biggest, most important thing I’ve realized through writing for Glimpse is that writing is not merely a skill, or even a trade- writing is more like a craft, something that can be learned and cultivated, but which requires quite a bit of self-shaping alongside for true excellence. It’s possibly to be technically good at writing and not be a good writer, and it’s possible to have writing talent without being a good writer. Being a good writer involves constant work, constant practice, constant self-examination, and a true passion and self-identification with the act and the work behind the act. Yes, it is great as a tool; but it is greater as a craft. I’m still learning it.
So rather than being a mere, instrumental means to various ends, truly excellent writing involves some form of ethics, certain kinds of character-shaping, and a lot of neurotic, constant habits. The three most important habits for every writer are as follows:
READ EVERYTHING. By reading lots of things- daily newsletters and blogs, op-eds and essays, reports and books- you get a sense of the ideas of the day, in all their nuance and significance or insignificance. You form your own instinctive opinions on them over time, while learning the conventions that define contemporary good writing. And if you read particularly good writing, you get exposed to techniques you can emulate to further improve your own writing.
WRITE CONSTANTLY. By writing constantly- blogs help, as does being a staff writer on a student or other youth publication- you get used to shaping your voice and expressing ideas; Adam Garfinkle calls it the search for your “internal standard of excellence.” You polish off your rougher edges, build up good strategies and habits, and generally get into what I call a “battle rhythm” that suits your own writing strategies and goals.
TALK TO EVERYBODY. Talking to people- peers and fellow students and coworkers, established writers and intellectual mentors, who both agree with you and disagree with you- exposes you to different ideas, and it also forces you to engage with them, giving you opportunities to become a better communicator on the spot. This helps form the habits of mind that help you when you write, because good writing is always-in moderate degrees, of course- somewhat conversational in rhetoric.
Read Everything, Write Constantly, Talk to Everybody. This trifecta, in my opinion, is the most important set of habits to get into if you want to be a good writer. You should be doing these subconsciously, and you’ll start improving in your writing subconsciously and slowly as well. It helps to turn these habits into routines- write a think-piece daily for your blog, subscribe to daily briefings and newsletters, make a point of having three or four conversation meetings a week. Change your lifestyle to some degree, and become not just better at writing- become a better writer.
There are other strategies to actively rather than passively improve, of course. You should look into those too (and Adam Garfinkle’s excellent little book, Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials is probably the best book-length guide out there for those.) But I’ve always thought that at a fundamental level, it’s the passive habits that really help you advance.
Figure out which writers you admire, both ideologically and stylistically. Read, religiously, all their books and web archives. Track them down and meet them in person, if you can, and beg them to share their wisdom or give you an opportunity to be their research assistant or something else. Mentors are crucial in the writing game. If you can’t have them as a living, breathing, talking guide, let them speak to you through their writings- sometimes these guides are the most useful.
Ethics is important in writing, because like any tool or art or craft, writing can be weaponized. More often than being weaponized, it can be abused, and done poorly and destructively. You should always take care to hew to certain standards- intellectual humility, honesty regarding your principles, respect for one’s audience and even for those one writes against, respect for facts and truths, general standards of decency- so that you never have to be ashamed of it, and can cultivate a reputation as both a good writer and a “good” writer. It’s hard to explain just why, but as other professions- law, medicine, warfare, business, etc.- have honor codes of their own, so there is an honor code and an ethics to the profession of writing as well.
It’s very important, too, to be epistemologically humble and realize that at any point, you are not the complete thinker- you are on an intellectual journey, and you will change, deepen your understanding, perhaps adjust or alter your principles, come to new ways of seeing things, perhaps understand them in ways that are impossible to put into words. As you grow as a thinker, your writing will change- hopefully for the better! When you look back on the works you write this year, five years from now, being a changed person, you’ll be able to discern where you’ve grown and where you’ve remained the same. This isn’t a deterrent against writing “until you know everything.” Rather, it’s a caution against youthful overconfidence in writing- overconfidence many of us come to regret.
Don’t expect too much from your writing in the “real world,” either. Particularly in politics, some young people run into the conceit that if they write the perfect op-ed or report, they’ll change the conversation and be able to steer governments and publics toward particular policy goals. (I was certainly gung-ho like this.) The fact of the matter is, political and social reality is a lot more complex than that; writings are usually reflections of thinking informed by experiences and other writings, rather than drivers of direction themselves. The written word can sometimes be influential in steering movements, but more often the most a piece can do is explain things and help shape readers’ individual worldviews. So don’t be disappointed when changing the world takes longer than the time between first draft and publication.
Finally- and this is related to the trifecta earlier- you should read at least ten times as much as you’ll ever write, and outline, draft, or otherwise plan at least five times as much as you will ever actually publish. This constant practice helps you weed out the less high-quality things, while still being in constant think-mode. A hard truth to swallow is that not everything you write is worth publishing. So with that in mind, keep on your journey, but only share with the world the best and most important highlights of it.
This, in not-particularly-organized format, is my advice for you, the things I wish I had been told before I ever published a word. Take it as you will; you’ll learn other lessons, too, as you get further through the writing life.
SOME REFLECTIONS ON GLIMPSE
Perhaps my most important bit of advice to you, though, is this- if you would like to work to build and cultivate yourself into an excellent writer, and if you hope to develop your mind and become a better intellectual, if you would like to enter the world of the political and foreign policy commentariat- stick with Glimpse! It’s a great opportunity, and there are few other college-level publications like it anywhere.
But it’s more than just a teeth-cutting blog for young, green writers.
On the Tommy Trojan statue in the heart of USC’s campus, there is an inscription in Latin and English: “From these seats of meditative joy, shall rise again the destined reign of Troy.” That, in a nutshell, encapsulates what Glimpse has always meant, in my opinion. It is a training ground for leaders and thinkers to learn to think and write, develop their thoughts and style, and in due course move into the professional world. It’s never been a mere writer’s club; here, our correspondents learn and practice the dark arts of research and writing, so that they can become better and more effective thinkers, leaders, and doers in the complicated world approaching us. It has always been a transitional proving ground from one reality to another.
I am honored to have been among the first recruits, and seen its development thus far. But I am confident that its development will only continue, and that future generations of Glimpse leadership and correspondents will carry on with this fantastic organization. There’s a long way to go; so let’s keep moving.
I don’t intend for this to be the last I have work with Glimpse and its members. If there are ever any ways I can be of use to any of you incoming generations of writers as a professional contact, a pair of eyes for a draft, or an advisor for anything, always feel free to reach out. Here is my personal website; do not hesitate to contact me.
Remember, you’re part of a great tradition. So go forth and write great things!