Outliers Masterclass — Verlyn Klinkenborg: The Yale Professor on Becoming a Better Writer (Outliers with Daniel Scrivner Ep. #18)

Why is writing simply and clearly so difficult? I sat down with Verlyn Klinkenborg, who teaches creative writing at Yale, to find out. We explore his incredibly popular book Several Short Sentences About Writing, his approach to reading, and why everything we’ve been taught about writing is wrong.
Last updated
February 18, 2021
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Verlyn Klinkenborg holds degrees from UC Berkeley, Pomona College, and Princeton University, and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
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“So what I do now is essentially help students escape from their education. That's my enterprise every year. And it's always fun, because they escape quite readily. They all know that what they're making in their classes is an artificial product that doesn't actually have any particular interest for anyone except them.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg 

In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Verlyn Klinkenborg about what he’s learned from years of farm life, his reading habits, and why writing simply can be so difficult.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of six books, including The Last Fine Time, winner of the American Book Award, and The Rural Life, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He was a member of the editorial board of The New York Times for 16 years, where he published a regular column on rural life. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, National Geographic, and Mother Jones. He has taught literature and creative writing at Fordham University, Bard College, Harvard University, and most recently at Yale University.

Topics Discussed

  • 00:00:35 – Rural life and the “home place”
  • 00:03:56 – Raising animals and eating meat
  • 00:09:20 – Learnings from farm life and work
  • 00:13.48 – Verlyn’s reading habits
  • 00:19:51 – Physical vs. digital books
  • 00:26:53 – Verlyn’s book Several Short Sentences About Writing
  • 00:33:01 – What is academic prose?
  • 00:38:21 – Why people should use shorter sentences in writing
  • 00:42:56 – Finding rhythm in writing
  • 00:47:01 – Self authorization and noticing the world around you
  • 00:53:38 – Writing cliches that are untrue
  • 00:58:16 – What to expect from a class with Verlyn
  • 01:04:56 – Writing is rooted in experience more than language


For more, explore the
transcript of this episode.


Links from the Episode

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s books:

A selection of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s articles:

Make Reading Work for You

Verlyn explains that reading can be episodic. There are periods when you might read a lot, and those when you may not read at all, and both are okay. You don’t have to finish every book that you start, and you don’t have to read only one book at a time—you can have several books going at any time and read based on the nature of your attention. While physical books tend to be better designed for a great reading experience, digital books have the added benefit of a global search, allowing you to look up any word or concept you’re unfamiliar with. There is no right or wrong way to read; so do whatever works for you and keeps you reading.

A Few Tips on Writing 

In Verlyn’s creative writing courses, he strives to help students unlearn what they’ve been taught about writing. Many students start with what he dubs “insincere writing”—assignments with a given word count on topics they aren’t interested in. Writers are often sold into academic prose, with long sentences, lots of clauses and dependent phrases, and anxieties about transition between sentences. As Verlyn says, “In this country, the assumption is the longer the sentence is, the smarter you are. As you grow older, you begin to emulate the sound of your professors more, and more, and more. But what if your professors can't actually write, which most of them can't? What if most of them are afraid of writing, which most of them are?”

To get past this, writers can:

  • Remove the need for formality and academic prose. Without the anxiety of these rules and strict formats, writers can actually reveal their own authentic voices. If a writer sounds relaxed, confident, and interested, and they engage the reader, they create just as much sense of authority on a topic as formal writing would.
  • Use short sentences. It allows you to control the language and keep a sense of rhythm to the writing. 
  • Read your writing aloud. This helps ensure that you are writing for the reader, and that you’re aware of any clunkiness or lengthy sentences.

Write about what interests you. Verlyn notes, “What you notice is important, and it's important because you noticed it. What if you pay attention to the pattern of the way you notice the world around you? What if you pay attention to the perceptions that you have and the character of them, and trust their validity?”

Correction: In the audio intro for this episode, Daniel mistakenly said that Verlyn had been a member of the Editorial Board at the New York Times for 6 years. He was a member for 16 years. Our apologies for that mix up.

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