Advice: Don't Try to Write Like David Foster Wallace

The Atlantic

This is bad to admit, but are times in my professional life when, facing some crisis about commas or contributors or other journalistic things, I turn for comfort to Ann Friedman’s now-defunct gif blog “#Realtalk From Your Editor.” And the post I most cherish is this one:

WHEN I READ A DRAFT BY A WRITER WHO THINKS HE’S ON SOME NEXT LEVEL, DFW SHIT

“DFW” is David Foster Wallace, and I feel okay laughing like Ryan Gosling at people who try to write like the Infinite Jest author because it wasn’t long ago that I was one of them. (Sometimes, as when inserting a comically self-scrutinizing and ostentatiously detailed parenthetical, I become one again.)

When I was 17, my aunt got me a subscription to The Atlantic, and the first issue to arrive was the one whose cover featured Wallace’s profile of conservative Los Angeles talk-radio host John Ziegler. The piece exploded my little high-school-newspaper editor brain. Here was journalism’s potential not only as literature, but as form-breaking, highly entertaining art. Growing up as I did in Orange County at the height of the Bush era, KFI AM 640, the radio station featured in the story, felt inescapable. Even a John Kerry supporter couldn't help but be sucked in whenever within earshot. In winding sentences and novelistic footnotes, Wallace deconstructed KFI's appeal, using exhaustive fact-giving and brutal observations to expose the false sense of certainty that Ziegler and his kind used to keep audiences hooked. (Note: The footnotes looked a lot cooler in print.)

Wallace's rhythms and quirks are easy to imitate; his scruples, his point of view, and his sense of proportion are not. I learned that fact the first time I filed a magazine-style feature to a professional editor, who then introduced me to the phrase "gild the lily." What an important lesson: The only writer on some next-level DFW shit was DFW himself.