Secrets of popular writers

Look for These Popular Books on the Shelves
(Photo credit: Enokson)

Why are some writers popular while others aren’t?

A very difficult question with a myriad different answers I’m sure. Merit, context, luck, things outside of the writer’s control. Yes.

But on the whole, popular writing is popular because it’s smart.

Admittedly, a lot of smart writing never gets popular (or even gets unpopular enough to be popular) but all popular, even infamous writing has something about them that sets them apart and makes people want to read them.

Popular writing is usually writing with some substance (smart in the American sense) and writing that is savvy (smart in the British sense). That substance may not seem conventionally intelligent, even quite the reverse sometimes, but there has to be something that stands out.

And before an ivory-tower reader sniggers at popularity, let’s not forget the super-popular folks who are now stars of the ivory tower, Shakespeare and Dickens, who were popular with the populace in their day (and shunned by those with refined “tastes”).

It’s not for all to aim to be popular, but the essence of popularity (or that which makes writing popular) is one of the qualities worthy to be studied, along with the other attributes of writing.

So what’s the secret of popular writing?

I wish I knew.

For now, I can only say that I have observed the following attributes in popular writers:

I. Popular writers love themselves. They never set out to work on something they’re not interested in. At least you don’t feel like that’s what they’re doing when you read them.

It’s hard to have an interesting perspective regarding something that the writer’s mind is impervious to because of lack of interest. So popular writers either develop a passion for or drop a subject instead of putting themselves through the wringer. But more importantly, they rarely sacrifice their own perspective on a particular matter completely.

In other words, they are rarely complete sellouts. If they are, they seem not to be.

II. Yet, they love you, the reader,  too. This, the “you” perspective, is something that often makes more mediocre writers’ hackles rise. More ordinary writers will tell you “I don’t want to be a sellout to readers’ opinions” or “I don’t care what people think. I write for myself.”

But really, readers’ tastes sometimes serve as a check against self absorbed concerns–more than some writers would like to give readers credit for.

There’s a fine line where readers and writers meet  and each pushes against the other as a convincing game goes on. Gentle nudges with entertaining distractions are tactics popular writers use rather than sudden confrontations that break contact (unless the writer is exceptionally talented).

III. Popular writers make it obvious that you, the reader, are not exclusively loved. Sigh. But you can live with that if the writer is good.

Popular writers have an audience with a relatively broad spectrum . Just because you, who consider yourself part of the intelligent crowd, are a fan of a particular writer does not mean that s/he must not appeal to the fun-loving populace as well! Just because s/he appeals to your sensibilities regarding the interests of a particular train of thought (choose an -ism or an -ology here) does not mean that s/he won’t irk you by appealing to people who are your opponents (say, the abhorred anti[blank]ists or the horrible anti[blank]ologists).

Popular writers are charmers!

IV. They make their individual mark. Whether they’re crazy or sombre or insightful in a particular way, they have a style, a tone, a perspective that others don’t. That’s why you remember them and want to go back to read them. This is key.

When you’re done with their piece, many popular writers don’t leave you with much to think about. To build on. To reflect on. Only those with more substance do.

But all make you remember what fun you had reading them. Or how you hated them.

For hate, they say, is very close to love.

©bottledworder, 2013. https://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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35 thoughts on “Secrets of popular writers”

  1. I found this an interesting post however I think you miss the obvious answer. Popularity is fleeting. It’s not based on much more than the flavor of the day. One day you’re the best thing to come along after the ball point pen and then before you know it you’re yesterday’s news.

    For me, the writer who span the test of time, who feel like their words are freshly written even though it may have been decades since they put any words to print, are not “popular” but timeless.

    Oprah makes someone popular. Excellent writing, interesting subject matter and a special way with telling a story makes someone timeless.

    Just my two cents 🙂

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  2. It seems that you are pretty popular, and this is a popular topic. Everyone on the blogosphere wants to be popular to some extent. Some more than others. I think you covered some characteristics of popularity, but it still is a mystery. I was encouraged by something you said in another post about living a boring life, and being able to produce good writing. I think really good writers have to be able to see something unique about their ordinary circumstances. – even if their ordinary circumstances are extraordinary to others. There has to be a connection. 🙂

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  3. It can be hard to determine exactly what makes a writer popular (or unpopular). I especially agree with your description of writers writing about what they love. When you really care about a subject (or your characters/plot, as with fiction), the writing tends to be markedly better. Great, thought-provoking post!

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  4. Thanks for this post. I agree with you and with Adamjasonp. I can’t help being reminded of the Academy Awards and the films nominated. Many are not the “popular” choice–the ones that raked in the cash at the box office. As they say, beauty (or popularity) is in the eye of the beholder.

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  5. Popularity is gained by way of being able to alter the language or find a way to speak to others in a reasonably broad enough manner so that the material appeals to more than your own group of people.  Needless to say, it isn’t easy to produce, initial sources to end; educated enough to write, seasoned enough from background to reflect in a resonating manner, it may become a hit when it’s right.

    It’s always the stronger material of this nature that hits the shelves, even if the end-result is unreal to the author. J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss even made up words.  (Their share are fantastical—children’s books, of course, but the point of the language had truth.)

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  6. Not sure if you’re talking about pop fiction or pop(ular) writers. Pop fiction(writers), to me, is popular because of externalities such as a great cover, marketing, previous exposure, a curious tale, marketability for mass production. Popular writers, on the other hand, are as you described, those who have that certain style, tone, readibility, turn of phrase, and just empathetic enough so as to not to be pandering but not so self-absorbed as to be aloof. Unfortunately, not all are marketable in these tough times.

    I guess it boils down to whether or not you want to be rich or popular, and have the will-power and capability to choose.

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  7. I don’t really understand the premise of this article. It seems to me that your aim, to explain why popular writers are popular, is a fundamentally flawed one. It groups together a huge number of people who actually have nothing in common whatsoever except that “most people have heard of them”.

    Popularity is not a trait that people share like having blue eyes or liking cheese. It’s just something happens. It happens to all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. The exact same truth carries with movies, cars, food and…writing. Shakespeare (who, as it happens, was not shunned as a populist in his own time) and Stephanie Meyer are not read by lots of people for exactly the same reasons. They are not both “charmers”.

    They are appreciated (rightly or wrongly) for massively different reasons. The clue to this being they aren’t read by the same “lots of people”.

    There in lies the second problem. Your writing carries with it the implication that popularity is universal…when it is obviously not. The 30 million people that loved X about The Hunger Games could easily hate Y about Fight Club and vice versa.

    Thirdly, and most troubling, you equate popularity with good writing and reference “mediocre” as the opposite. That’s not only faulty logic but also massively wrong. Mediocrity will always be more popular than genius. Especially contemporaneously. You say “smart writing” is popular and then prove this by stretching out the word smart so it can be applied to popular works of fiction that frankly…aren’t smart.

    You simply can’t say: “This is why writers are popular.” any more than you can say “This is why food is popular”. Listing all the abstract and made up ways that pasta and apples are alike doesn’t mean they’re the same.

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    1. Thanks for your involved comment. I appreciate the criticism. While I do agree with you that the reasons for popularity may not be universal, there could be common elements in the art between writers who are widely read and it might be beneficial for us to look into them. All widely read writers, obviously, cannot be bunched together but groups can be examined. As for Shakespeare, he wasn’t shunned as “populist” but he was certainly shunned for being popular for a time. As for some popular works not being smart–I do beg to differ. I think different sets of tools are required for different kinds of writing and it is our privileging of certain kinds of texts as being valid sources of knowledge production that make us believe that they’re smarter than the rest!

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      1. I appreciate your thoughts and, having re-read my original comment, apologize for the combative tone. It was not my intention to come off so aggressive.

        I will always disagree with your point about popular works all being smart though. Some books, I won’t name any to stop the argument becoming specific, are definitely not smart. Unless you count being cannily written to appeal to a specific market as “smart”. But I wouldn’t.

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        1. 🙂 Sounds like the start of a healthy argument. Blog posts are short. Hard to cover everything (especially counterarguments). But, to quote you, “All writers are, inherently, confused people. All trying to figure things out through some sort of typed catharsis. ” So I’m trying to explore some ideas myself here.

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  8. Thought provoking blog. Good comments. Has anyone writing those comments made their living by writing – fiction non-fiction?? I made my living writing for one quarter of a century. I wasn’t writing fiction, but I was writing and I loved every minute of it. Virginia

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  9. Good points.

    I read both popular and classic works and I have noticed that the difference, for me, is in how noticeable the prose is: I will read a popular book and come out of it with a vague recollection of the story but not any specifically well written parts; I read a literary classic and I might not care about the story but will be thinking of well-written sentences or paragraphs.

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    1. Yes, I also feel that the prose in a lot of mass-market fiction is designed to be as transparent as possible focusing on plot movement or action. But another way of looking at this is that you need a master craftsman to pull this off successfully. And even though you may not remember specific sentences etc., you do remember the style of individual popular writers.

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  10. I liked in your About section you let the blog grow and develop on its own. As a neophyte I’m trying to grow some patience along with my blog, so thanks for trekking over and reading it.
    One question that intrigues me: how do blog posts end up being read? Statistically any one blog seems to be not only a needle, but a hay-colored needle, in the haystack of the blogosphere. Thoughts?

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    1. How do blog posts end up being read? Too difficult a qs. Not sure I know the answer. For me, I think some substance delivered in a conversational tone and reorganizing the page using widgets to display some of my good posts helped draw in new readers. And then working very hard at at least a few good posts a month and then some impromptu posts to keep the spontaneity helped. The secret I think is to keep at it not just in short bursts but over a period of time. Because you never know what people will like as far as individual posts are concerned but you do see trends over long periods if you maintain tenacity.

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      1. This is I think the question that has been constantly in my mind, ever since I started blogging. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips. I think it’s true that writers will never know what people like. We can’t please everybody, so we might as well please ourselves by writing something we’re passionate about.

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      2. I’m trying to do a lot of what you mentioned here. Still too early to know, and I’d rather write good content than put forward a bunch of “reaction-prompters” just to gather attention. Thanks for your input!

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  11. Good post, thanks for sharing it. I especially liked when you said “There’s a fine line where readers and writers meet and each pushes against the other as a convincing game goes on” Nicely put!

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  12. Popularity will most definitely mean different things to different people – all that aside, I think what is important about your post is the qualities of writers that readers are attracted to – these writers are individuals, passionate about what they write, they care about readers and express that through their craft, they write what needs to be written (even if some might find it inappropriate) and they are true to themselves. Thank you for such a clear list of characteristics to aspire to. As always, bottled-worder, you rock the blogosphere 🙂

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  13. When you say popular, do you mean the Barbara Cartlands, with over a hundred books on slushy romance with their highest market in India, or someone liker Salman Rushdie or Michael Ondaatjie ( may have spelt that wrong) whose quality prose is best-selling????
    Lovely thought provoking piece, that begs to be discussed in person!!!!

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    1. I admit I’ve read some Barbara Cartland in my school days! And someone else called Victoria Holt (a pseudonym I believe). Thanks! I think when I was writing this post I was more intrigued by the intersections of these kinds of writers–writers who defy classification as popular or “serious” because they are both!

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  14. Interesting post. I write survive and thrive stories, get great reviews and have seven books to my credit. Not yet what you call popular but we’ll see. I have lots of ideas and a great supportive publisher. Again, we’ll see. Thanks.

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  15. Broad audience with an individual mark! Sounds difficult to manage. I think there’s some of the right place at the right time stuff going on with popular writers too. Most of them will admit to not really knowing how they ended up where they are. I’m hoping for a little of that.

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