How-To

Writing for the Rest of Us

May 02, 2014


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, “€œSince 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, “€œThink 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.

“€œI 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.”€ 

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. “€œI 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, “€œWhat’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 “€œ10 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.

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