Writing lessons from Tom Wolfe

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

When you write, write. Don’t distract yourself with concerns about publication. That was the lesson Tom Wolfe learned with his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

When veteran writer Tom Wolfe died at the age of 88 last week, I reflected on the first time I had heard the term “new journalism,” some 40 years ago. Mind you, the style had existed for more than 10 years before that day and had been codified by Wolfe in a collection of articles he published as The New Journalism

The four techniques that Wolfe and the other new journalists employed were:

  • scene-by-scene construction,
  • full record of dialogue,
  • third-person point of view, and
  • descriptive details to round out the characters.

As a result, Wolfe wrote in Esquire Magazine:

“[New journalism] is a form that is not merely like a novel. It consumes devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened. The disclaimers have been erased. The screen is gone. The writer is one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader that Henry James and James Joyce dreamed of but never achieved.”

You have undoubtedly read many pieces of ‘new journalism’ over the last 10 years, even if they didn’t carry that label and even if you didn’t recognize them as such. In fact, I’d argue that many of the techniques, such as detailed story-telling, are now so commonplace on the internet that we might change the name of the style from “new journalism” to “sophisticated blog writing.”

I listened to an NPR interview with Wolfe this week (you can hear it or read the transcript, too, if you like.)

But I hit “pause” on my device when I heard Wolfe’s description of the origins of his book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Even though I was already familiar with the (generic) account of its genesis, I was intrigued to hear Wolfe’s telling of the story. Here’s what he said:

Hired by Esquire Magazine to write a piece about customized cars, Wolfe had travelled to Los Angeles and spent four weeks running up an enormous bill at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. But when he returned to New York, he was faced with an indefatigable case of writer’s block. He told the magazine he couldn’t write the assignment.

Having already invested so much money on the piece, however, Esquire editor Byron Dobell asked Wolfe to write a memo about his research, which he would then turn over to another writer. Here is how Wolfe recounted that experience:

What had happened was, in writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age — Byron Dobell — that I had somehow liberated myself from all of the fears and all of the constraints that you feel when you are going to write something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience. I had reached that kind of tone that a lot of people are able to reach in writing a letter to a friend.”

The punchline? The magazine removed the “Dear Byron” salutation from the top of the memo and ran the piece word-for-word, to much acclaim.

Here’s the part that might interest you. It strikes me that what had happened to Wolfe happens to many of the writers I currently work with. They become so fearful of being published, of being seen by authority figures such as editors and, after that, by readers, that they clam up and become unable to produce a single word.

The mistake here, is many-layered. First, these writers are confusing the act of writing a crappy first draft with the act of editing that draft into something much better. Second, they are confusing the act of writing with the act of being published.

When we write, it’s important to focus on the one task we are doing, writing. What happens to that writing later (the rewriting, the editing, the publishing), we should deal with later.

When I make these comments, I’m not suggesting you need to follow the style of Tom Wolfe, or even his writing habits. As I’ve posted recently, there is little merit in mindlessly following the rituals of other famous writers.

But learn from his experience with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby that divorcing yourself from concerns about publication is an effective way of keeping writer’s block at bay.


My video podcast last week aimed to help you eliminate your verbal tics. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How do you separate your concerns about publishing from the act of writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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