Writing for the Rest of Us

May 02, 2014

Multiple Pages
Writing for the Rest of Us

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.

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.

“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.” 

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.

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.

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.

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.

There are certain words that just scream amateur. Adding “ic” to words is icky. We’re not a capitalistic society or a communistic one and misogynistic is an ugly adjective. Misogynist will do just fine. Your whole goal as a writer is to be concise and trim the fat. The same goes for entire words. Why tell us “She thinks that she’s fat” when you could drop the “that”? Film editors cut every scene that isn’t relevant to the plot. You should too.

Maybe it’s the Internet age where going back and changing a name is easy, but I am consistently stunned by how few writers get people’s names right. This problem is especially common among liberals.

I always encouraged interviewers to stray from their subject and pull in the big picture. If you’re interviewing Lance Armstrong, we don’t need to know about the nuances of bicycle races. The fans are already hooked. Talk about the ethics of lying and how that plays out next to the millions of dollars he raised for cancer. Are we better off in the long run? That’s a question people with no legs are interested in. I always said to writers who did rap interviews that I want something my mom wants to read.

This is my biggest weakness and I thank God for all the editors who catch it. If you use a big word like verisimilitude, you should bid adieu to that word for several months. Even colloquialisms like “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” can only be used once in a blue moon. After you’re done, go back over your article and make sure you don’t use anything uncommon more than once. I wish Microsoft Word had an app for that. Maybe then I wouldn’t have written “summarizing” right after “summarize.”

If you’re typing while still looking at your keyboard, you’re not a writer. You’re a typer. It took the Beatles 10,000 hours to get that good but it’s going to take you about ten times that many words before you can type as fast as you think. This is crucial to maintaining a flow that’s easy to read.


When you’re writing anything substantial you need to involve outside sources. I’m not talking about the Dewey Decimal System. I’m talking about drugs. Adderall gets it out, bourbon gives it balls, and pot makes it funny. Each of these states of mind gets an entire pass with no other drugs involved. When you look at it the next day you’ll see a ratty piece of prose with lots of spelling and grammar mistakes but that’s what a big breakfast and a large coffee is for. A good article is an amalgam of all the angles you’re capable of and you can’t do that all by yourself.


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