Both Charles Murray and Steven Pinker have self-help books out for this summer. Both of them spend a lot of time focusing on writing but these guys are so good, it’s like a young Sophia Loren giving you beauty tips. What about the rest of us plebes?
You”re never going to be a Christopher Hitchens or a Mark Steyn. You”ll never even be a Jim Goad or an Ann Coulter, but that doesn”t mean you can”t make a living writing. I have the IQ of a schoolteacher and my writing is subpar at best. Despite these handicaps, I successfully edited a magazine for 15 years and have been paying the bills with crappy articles like this since I left college. Here are ten basic tips that will help you get to the point where you won”t get fired.
1. WORK ON YOUR INTRO
The two worst intros are: Defining your topic by quoting the dictionary, and saying, “Since the beginning of time.” I have a dictionary and I speak English. No need to remind me what words mean. You might as well say, “Think about it” like I”m not thinking about it as I read your article. I also know prostitution and boxing have been around for a very, very long time. You”re here to tell us something we don”t know.
Without using any extra words, sum up what your article is going to be about. We need to know if this is worth our while and a huge part of your job is not wasting people’s time.
2. BE YOURSELF
I”ve never hired a journalism student in my life because they always write as some kind of character. “I woke up two hours late for my interview. Luckily, Ghostface was just as fucked up.” Stop trying to be Hunter Thompson. Stop talking about how wasted you are; I can see your picture right there. You”re clearly a nerd.
I always tell people to write like they”re writing a letter to their brother and then take out all the inside jokes. Writing is like acting. It’s only hard if you think about it.
3. THINK ABOUT IT IN ADVANCE
I was editing a book once and the author wrote, “What’s the moral of the story? How the hell should I know?” Um, we bought your book and just spent four hours with it. Can you do your homework please? If you”ve thought hard about what you”re writing, you should be able to summarize the whole article in one sentence. The same goes for writing a TV show. Can you imagine the tagline on the billboard? If not, you”re not ready to pitch.”¨
If summarizing it all seems too daunting, write out the whole article and then throw it in the garbage and start from scratch. Bad ideas don”t last.
4. LET IT SIT FOR A DAY
Essays should always be completely finished a day or two before deadline. I”m writing this within minutes of the deadline and you can tell. After you”re done writing something, the momentum of your thoughts will still roll for another five hours or so and that’s when you can go back and fix your mistakes.
If you”re doing a list article like “10 Things I Don”t Get About Young People,” you”re going to need more than a day of mulling. Keep a list open in your phone and write them down as they occur to you. It might take six months to get to 10 but the final list will have a huge variety that spans over lots of different topics.