Esquire’s Chris Jones on Being a Professional Writer

Chris Jones, Writer-at-Large for Esquire, is a good writer. His profile of Roger Ebert in February of 2010 is perhaps his most popular piece, but he’s been churning out quality work for Esquire for years. Jones’ writing is the kind that causes you to reread the article because it made you think, then read it again just to see how the hell he put together words like that. So when he started a blog about writing, it got people talking. Then yesterday, when he wrote a post called “How to be a professional writer,” and nailed what it’s like to be a journalist today, while also blasting Jason Whitlock, the Fox Sports writer in the process, it got people yelling.

In his post, Jones discusses what he thinks makes a great professional writer, and names Whitlock as the antithesis of that:

Well, here’s the stone-cold truth, kids: Jason Whitlock has no soul. He’s neither a good reporter nor a good writer. He’s a bloviator who’s somehow carved out a niche for himself as a kind of anti-establishment figure by making references to The Wire and pretending he’s the second coming of Ralph Wiley, when Ralph Wiley would be fucking mortified to be associated with Whitlock’s brand of self-serving buffoonery.

Jones tells FishbowlNY that he singled Whitlock out because he encapsulates everything that is wrong with writing today. It worries him that Whitlock’s style is what young writers think will lead to success in the industry.

“Here’s a guy who was a newspaper guy, who did some good work, who hustled and who, if he could stand to be honest anymore, would admit that he once dreamed of being old-school great. Then he drifted into TV and the Internet and he became addicted to his audience. Whatever validation he received from that trumped his old motivations. And instead, he’s become a bilious presence, eviscerating people for no good reason and calling himself brave for doing it. He’s learned that’s how he gets hits and pokes and followers and all that other bullshit we confuse with success these days.”

That dependence on numbers, Jones explains, is one of the big pitfalls of journalism. Because people can quantify themselves – no retweets means it’s bad, two means it’s good, five and hell, you’ve got a Pulitzer-worthy piece on your hands – writers start to forget that the quality of work is what’s important, not the numbers. “I think we’re reaching a bit of a tipping point there,” Jones says. “I taught at the University of Montana in 2009, and I was worried then that too many kids made a direct connection between being famous and being good. I just hope that somehow, enough kids decide they would rather sleep at night knowing they did something meaningful and important. I hope they choose to be Billy Bragg, to go for the long, slow burn rather than the easy pyrotechnics.” And what if there are more pyrotechnics – perhaps from Whitlock responding?  Jones says he might reply, but he might not, because he feels he’s heard it all before.

Jones goes out of his way to say that he didn’t include his writing in his post about being a pro because he doesn’t even consider himself one. When asked to be more specific about this concept of “being a pro,” Jones says that it all starts with honesty. “I would say the best thing a writer can do to advance his or her career is to always be true: to your work, to yourself, to your audience, to your profession. If you’re right, no one can touch you.”