The written word can be artistic.
To become a successful writer, you must learn many secrets.
But here’s the first and most important secret:
The main reason why good books don’t get written is:
If you’ve said to yourself, “I could write a book,” do it!
Take a pen and paper (or a word processor) and start writing your thoughts,
even if they’re still muddled. Once you’ve started writing your ideas, even if
they’re still half-baked or disorganized, you’ve overcome the major barrier to
success: not having started.
If you have trouble writing the book’s beginning, write the
middle instead. You can write the “beginning” afterwards.
Too many writers think the beginning should be profound. They
get hung up in a fruitless attempt to create profundity and atmosphere.
Scott Meredith, a famous literary agent, said he followed this
rule when reading a manuscript from a new author: skip the first 100 pages! The
first 100 pages are usually boring crap, such as “She looked in the mirror
while she combed her auburn hair.” After page 100, the dialogue finally gets
worthwhile; that’s when characters start
arguing with each other about love and beyond, and you get sentences
She spat at him and pulled the
If you’re writing a technical manual that contains lots of
charts and examples, begin by writing the charts and examples. Later, you can
go back and add the introductory sentences that bind them together.
If you’re a school kid writing one of those boring compositions
about “What I did last summer” (or a more inspiring composition about “What I
wish I’d done last summer”), start by describing the most exciting moment. Fill
in the boring stuff later.
Assume your reader is busy and rushed. Don’t waste the reader’s
After writing your first draft and making minor edits (for
spelling and grammar), ask yourself:
Is this crap I wrote worth
Probably some part of it is worth reading. If you find that
part and cut away the rest, you’ve mined your gem.
Then your reader will praise you for being a fascinating
writer instead of a time-wasting hack.
When writing on a technical topic, get emotional about it.
Tell the reader how you feel. If something you’re writing about fascinates you,
explain why. If you’re forced to write about a topic that’s yucky, gripe about
its yuckiness and tell the reader how to deyuckify it.
Showing your emotions will humanize the topic, help the reader
relate, and make the topic and you both memorable.
Scared to be a poet?
If you’re writing poetry, don’t worry so much about exposing
your privacy. Many of your friends probably wouldn’t recognize your private
I recommend that you be brave and use your own name.
Of all the book categories, poetry books typically generate
the worst profit. But poetry can give you fame (through public readings and
lectures) if you’re lucky — though trying to become a “lucky poet” is nearly as
hopeless as trying to become an “famous basketball player.”
If you’re super-worried about privacy, go be a chicken-head:
publish under a pseudonym. For example, you can call yourself “Lo-ann Li,” so
you’ll be known as the Lo-ann Li poet.
Nothing’s stopping you from using two pseudonyms, for two
kinds of poems. For example, you could do lighter verse under the name “Ha-pi,”
so you’d also be know as the Ha-pi poet.
But the best choice is to merge the two. Cry, then step back
and giggle. For example, Robert Frost’s poem called “New Hampshire” goes on for
10 pages about how beautiful New Hampshire is, but then comes his last line: “I
live in Vermont.” You could write a poem full of pathos and bathos then end
with, “On the other hand....”
The challenge is to put a mix of emotions into a poem, to make
a poem rich, without making the poem seem accidentally disjointed.
The typical inventor (or poet) makes the mistake of hiding the
invention (out of fear of being copied). That deprives him of the opportunity
to get feedback on how the invention could be improved. Show your writing to
friends and poets, ask what they dislike about your poems, and use that
feedback to improve your work. You need to be hard on yourself to grow.
Which words to use
Since your reader’s in a
rush and frowning, make each sentence be quick, punchy, fun. To be
brief, use words that are short:
Too long, too formal, too
stuffy Shorter, cheerier, better
I will I’ll
I am I’m
I have I’ve
I would I’d
upper-left corner top
the beginning of the book the
Jack, president of the club,
said The club’s president, Jack, said
This report’s purpose is to
explain taxes. This report explains taxes.
The following examples show
how: These examples show how:
, as shown in the following
examples: . Here are examples:
The reader should press the
ENTER key. Press the ENTER key.
You should press the ENTER key. Press
the ENTER key.
you! Don’t say “the reader”; instead say “you,” which is more
direct and avoids the problem of whether “the reader” is a “he” or a “she.”
So to avoid any “he”-versus-“she” problems, say “you.”
Wrong because sexist: a
policeman should keep his ID in his pocket.
Wrong because stuffy: a police officer should keep his/her ID in
Right: if you’re a police
officer, keep your ID in your pocket.
Keep your paragraphs short. The ideal paragraph has 2, 3, or 4
sentences. If a paragraph has more than 4 sentences, the reader will get tired,
lost, and bored: divide the paragraph into shorter ones.
A one-sentence paragraph is okay if the neighboring paragraphs
are longer. But if a one-sentence paragraph comes after another one-sentence
paragraph, your writing is too choppy: combine paragraphs to form longer ones.
begin a sentence with a list. Instead, put the list at the
sentence’s end, after you’ve explained the list’s purpose.
Wrong: red, blue, and yellow
are the primary colors.
Right: the primary colors
are red, blue, and yellow.
Wrong: Jack Smith, Jean
Jones, and Tina Turner are the leaders.
Right: The leaders are Jack
Smith, Jean Jones, and Tina Turner.
Writing as a career
Here are some surprising truths about trying to write for a
You don’t have to “copyright” what you write, since copyright law now states
that anything you write is automatically copyrighted. To prove you wrote it
before somebody else, you can use many techniques, such as sending a copy to
the Library of Congress or sending a copy to yourself by registered mail. On
the first page of your manuscript, it’s helpful to put your city, year,
copyright policy (“Do not copy without permission of author”), and a way for
the reader to reach you (your street address or phone number or e-mail address
your poetry If you’re writing poetry, your poems might not be
long enough to create a book. It depends on how long your poems are and how
your publisher packages them. If the pages are tiny and the poems are long, you
might succeed; otherwise, add bulk by creating some prose (such as comments
about the poems) or add your own artwork.
income Don’t expect to get rich by writing — especially if you’re
writing poetry. Poetry pays less than all other forms of writing. If you decide
to marry the poetry muse, marry for love, not money. The famous poet Robert
There’s no money in poetry, but
there’s no poetry in money either.
Poets usually feel nervous about themselves. The famous poet W.H. Auden made
A poet can’t say, “Tomorrow
I’ll write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I know I’ll do a
good job.” In the eyes of others, a man’s a poet if he’s written one good poem;
but in a poet’s own eyes, he’s a poet just at the moment when he’s making his
last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was just a potential
poet; the moment after, he’s a man who’s ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.
Writers don’t get paid much, but as a writer you might be able to make a living
by teaching others how to write, through courses, tutoring, consulting, or
As a writer, your chance of becoming famous is about the same as your chance of
becoming a famous basketball player: a writer’s life is a lottery where the
usual result is “You lose.” It’s fun to try playing, though; and the game
improves your mind, which is your most important asset.
Good poets are maids, not burned
takes a heap o’ writin’
make a poem come home,
beautify each little phrase
critics do not groan.
takes a heap o’ writin’
make a poem work out.
gotta keep on tryin’
clean out all the grout.
Strange forms of writing
I’ve explained how to write normally. Here’s how to write
Here’s the easy way to become a famous poet: just write nice stuff about your
town and become the town’s poet laureate. No pay, but you get to ride in a nice
car during the town’s parade. All you need is a humorous, kind eye for the
little folks in your little town.
For example, a guy became poet laureate of Passaic NJ by
writing poems about the townsfolk, such as the fire chief:
I think is
appointment is just ducky.
friends all call him lucky.
is, and Passaic is too,
Chief Willy Jaffe as head of the fire crew.
Though that example is pretty pathetic, the typical poet laureate
is somewhat better and a retired English teacher. You can do better: just think
about how your town is beautifully fun — or become the town’s poet deploreate
by writing about how your town is ridiculously deplorable.
But why stop at “town”? Hey, kiddo, write about your school,
or your friends, or your family, or your whole state, or the universe, or all
that surrounds it, whatever that might be.
subjects To have fun, write about a subject but don’t reveal the
subject’s identity until the very end. Example:
I’m going to tell you
about a drink so amazing that men devoted their entire lives to finding it and
even fought wars about it.
This amazing liquid
consists of such pure goodness that doctors worldwide recommend it as a cure
for most ills. Unlike nasty drinks that mankind imbibes, this refreshing tonic
has no bad side effects: the ideal drink, it’s sodium-free, fat-free,
alcohol-free, preservative-free, and non-carcinogenic.
At times, one drink of
this stuff will make you scream with delight. Its godly beauty has made this
elixir praised by poets and songwriters worldwide. Enlightened towns even go to
the expense of dispensing this wonderful elixir to the public, free, in special
We believe it was
discovered thousands of years ago by unsung ancient heroes.
One of the mysterious
wonders of the universe, it’s analyzed everyday by scientists and other public
servants trying to decipher its amazing properties. It’s saved many lives and
been the subject of sweetest dreams.
Yes, water is truly
This example goes further:
I confess: I’m an addict!
The drug that’s been sweeping the nation has gotten to me, too!
I can’t resist this
powerful drug, which takes over my entire life. Late at night, when my weary body
wishes to sleep, this hypnotic drug seduces me into partaking of it for many
hours, a late-night turn-on controlling my mind and soul throughout the night.
This incredibly powerful drug, invented in secret labs, makes visions dance
before my eyes (visions far wilder than anything created by primitive drugs
such as LSD) and accompanied by sounds giving me the strangest out-of-body
This drug is so powerful
that the US Government has declared it a controlled substance and controls its
distribution. The biggest companies in America and around the world have all
become involved in packaging this drug and changing its nature. But nobody can
It’s been the subject of
many congressional hearings.
Each day in offices
across America, employees whisper about the experiences they’ve had with the
drug during the previous evening and even brag about who had the most
outrageous experiences with it. Teachers complain that the quality of American
education has greatly declined because
students spend too much time doing this drug instead of homework.
To prevent impurities,
the US Government funds the distribution of a “public” version of this drug,
but most Americans get a bigger kick from the “private” versions.
Alas, advertising this
nefarious drug is still permitted in many locales. Billboards lure innocent
American adults and kids into partaking of this drug. According to
psychologists, people who spend too much time doing this drug turn into
vegetables, and are often called “potatoes” or worse.
Yes, television is
This example is the most provocative:
I’m going to tell you
about a certain feeling a male has, a feeling so strong that the average woman
can’t comprehend it.
This male feeling,
arising in a certain part of the man’s body, creates such a burning desire to
stroke it that it can drive a man nearly insane and make him want to rip off
his clothes to satisfy his craving itch. In high schools across the country,
health teachers (and even gym teachers!) warn young men about these urges, but
the flames of passion are irrepressible.
Yes, athlete’s foot sure
sentences Here are two boring sentences:
I love you. You are beautiful!
To have more fun, combine them to form this super-sentence:
I love YOU are beautiful!
Here’s an extended example:
I gaze into YOUR EYES pierce MY
SOUL is putty in YOUR HANDS caress MY EVERY MUSCLE cries out for YOUR TOUCH can
make me MELTing in your arms, I proclaim my love FOR YOU I’ll do ANYTHING is possible IN LOVE with you, I’m DELERIOUSly
delicious raspberry sundae!
Here’s a tongue-twister:
Cher’s chic, short, shrunk
shore shirt sure shocks Sean!
Try to say it.
Here’s a fancier version:
Cher schlepped Sean’s chic,
short, shrunk shore shirt. Schnapps shirked, she
shrieked, “Shucks, sure shows chards!” Shrill shrew shocked Chez Shack!
Can you improve it — and write a whole novel that way?
is a word or sentence that reads the same backwards as forward.
For example, “eve” is a palindrome word. So is “madam.”
Here are four palindrome sentences.…
What the pet-store owner warned his customers:
What Adam told Eve when he met her in the garden:
What Napoleon said when he lost the war and was exiled to the island
Able was I, ere I saw Elba.
What the US said about the engineer who invented the Panama
A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!
Can you invent a palindrome that’s more up-to-date and fun?
Latin Just for fun, try writing in Pig Latin (English modified to sound like
Here’s how to convert English to Pig Latin:
If the word begins with a
vowel, just add “way” to the end of the word. For example, “art” becomes
If the word begins with a
consonant or a bunch of consonants, move such stuff to the end, then add “ay.”
For example, “fart” becomes “artfay.”
For example, “drink up” becomes “inkdray upway.”
Notice that “ill” and “will” both become “illway.” Yes,
“ifelay isway osay ambiguousway.”
Try singing The Star Spangled Banner in Pig Latin.
Here’s how it begins:
Oway aysay ancay ouyay eesay
Technical note: the definition of “vowel” versus “consonant”
is phonetic. For example, “yes” becomes “esyay” (since that “y” sounds like a
consonant), but “Ypsilanti” becomes “Ypsilantiway” (since that “y” sounds like
If you’re studying computer programming, try this challenge:
program the computer to translate English to Pig Latin.
correct school terms To sound more sophisticated in school, use
politically correct school terms, as recommended in this anonymous tidbit from
You’re not too tall, just vertically enhanced.
You’re not too talkative,
just abundantly verbal.
You’re not shy, just conversationally selective.
You’re not lazy, just energetically declined.
You’re not late, just having a rescheduled arrival
You’re not failing, just passing-impaired.
You didn’t get detention,
You didn’t get grounded,
just hit a social
In class, you weren’t sleeping, just
Your homework isn’t missing, just having an out-of-notebook
You don’t have smelly
gym socks, just odor-retentive athletic footwear.
Your locker isn’t overflowing;
Your bedroom isn’t cluttered,
You don’t think the cafeteria
food is awful,
You’re not having a bad-hair day,
just suffering from rebellious
You weren’t gossiping,
just providing speedy
transmission of near-factual information.
In class, you weren’t passing notes,
just participating in the
discreet exchange of penned meditations.
You weren’t sent to the principal’s
just went on a mandatory field
trip to the administration building.
Harlan Ellison, who wrote some of the “Star Wars” episodes, told a guy:
I recommend you book passage
to the tourist venue where the
sun don’t shine.
That was his polite way of saying:
Can you invent other polite euphemisms?
speech At weddings, the “best man” is supposed to give a speech
that ribs the groom then wishes him luck. According to The Wall Street
Journal, some folks make a living by ghost-writing such speeches. They
charge $100 per speech or $5 per line.
That’s ridiculous! If you’re going to give a dangerous speech
like that, why not go all the way, like this:
I wish my best
friend lots of luck,
that end in “uck,”
hands while trying to…
Take out the
garbage on a rainy day, through the muck.
his wife will get a kick
at his great big…
grateful when she gives the thermometer a lick.
wedding and “I love you,”
honeymoon and want to…
murmuring “You’re the one for me. I knew.”
through the woods Robert Frost’s poem called “Walking through the
woods on a snowy evening” isn’t realistic. To be realistic, it should reveal
this sad choice —
Walking through the woods on a
Bumped my head on a tree,
Got covered with blood,
Broke my leg,
Lay helpless for three days
until the snow ended and civilization found me,
Spent three months in the
And vowed never to again be
Walking through the woods on a
or this conservative choice —
through the woods on a snowy evening,
to have less dung underneath,
And that made
all the difference,
or this practical choice —
through woods in the snow, I got tired
From trying to
reach what my body desired.
I got to a
fork. Didn’t know what the fuck
To do, so
turned round and went home. On firm ground,
Got pizza by phone.
“Let the pizza boy moan.”
knew the way to come carry the sleigh
drifting snow. Sure beats “pizza to go!”
I give him a
tip, now that pizza’s on lip.
or this tech choice:
through the woods on a snowy evening,
So I grabbed
my nifty cell phone
Can you think of other poems to rewrite to be realistic?
Here are some famous old puns:
1. A trader sailed to an
island, met the king, and told him, “I notice you have no throne.” The king
asked, “What’s a throne?” The trader replied, “I’ll show you.” On his next
trip, the trader brought a throne. The king liked it, bought it, and ordered
another. On his next trip, the trader brought the second throne. The king got
excited about thrones and started buying more and more of them, until they
filled his grass hut, and he had to build a second floor to hold all the
thrones. But one day, the second floor collapsed and all the thrones fell,
killing the king. Moral: people who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.
2. In a zoo, some penguins seemed to live forever by
dining on dead seagulls. One day, the zookeeper tried to carry seagulls
to the penguins, but a lion sat on the bridge and blocked his way. He tried
stepping over the lion but got arrested for transporting
gulls across a staid lion for immortal porpoises.
3. A Frenchman got robbed
while visiting Ireland, so he entered an Irish bank to get a loan. The loan
officer, Patricia Mack, asked whether he had any collateral. He showed a tiny
cute statue of his dad, Mick Jagger. She
objected, but her boss said, “It’s a knick-knack, Patty Mack: give the Frog a
loan; his old man’s a Rolling Stone.”
4. A dentist noticed that
in his patient’s mouth, a metal plate was corroding. The dentist asked, “Have
you been eating anything unusual?” The patient replied, “My wife learned to
make great Hollandaise sauce, so I’ve been putting it on all my food.” The
dentist replied, “The lemon in the sauce must be corroding the metal. I’ll
replace the metal with chrome.” The patient asked, “Why chrome?” The dentist
replied, “There’s no
plate like chrome for the Hollandaise.”
Note to foreigners and youngsters: some Americans find those
tales funny because the bold words, when pronounced with a foreign accent or
speech impediment, sound like these popular American expressions:
1. People who live in glass
houses shouldn’t throw stones.
2. transporting girls across
a state line for immoral purposes
3. with a knick-knack,
paddy-whack, give the dog a bone; this old man is
rolling home (“Frog” is offensive disparaging slang for “Frenchman”)
4. There’s no place like
home for the holidays.
A friend passed me this list of newer ones:
1. A vulture tried to
board an airplane. He carried 2 dead raccoons but was stopped by stewardess who
said, “I’m sorry, sir,
just one carrion allowed per passenger.”
2. Two boll weevils grew
up in South Carolina. One went to Hollywood and
got a part in a movie. The other stayed behind in the cotton fields, never
amounted to much, and became known as the lesser of two weevils.
3. Two Eskimos in a kayak
got chilly, but when they lit a fire in the kayak it sank, because you can’t have your kayak
and heat it, too.
4. In the Old West, a 3-legged
dog walked into the saloon, slid up to the bar, and announced “I’m looking for the man who
shot my paw.”
5. A Buddhist getting a
root canal refused Novocain because he wanted to transcend dental medication.
6. In a hotel lobby,
chess players were discussing their victories, but the hotel’s manager made
them leave because he couldn’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”
7. A woman had twins but gave
them up for adoption. One of them went to a Spanish family who named him
“Juan.” The other went to an Egyptian family who named him “Ahmal.” Years
later, Juan sends his photo to his birth
mother. She told her husband she wished she had a picture of Ahmal too; but he replied, “They’re twins! If
you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Ahmal.”
8. Friars were behind on
their belfry payments, so they opened a florist shop to raise funds. Everyone
liked to buy flowers from the men of God, but a rival florist thought the
competition unfair. He repeatedly begged the friars to close down, but they refused,
so he hired Hugh MacTaggart, the roughest thug in town, to “persuade” them to
close. Hugh beat up the friars, trashed their store, and said he’d return if
they didn’t close. Terrified, they did so, proving that Hugh, and only Hugh, can
prevent florist friars.
9. Since Mahatma Gandhi walked
barefoot, his feet got big calluses. Since he ate little, he was frail. His odd
diet also gave him bad breath. That made him a super-calloused fragile mystic, hexed by halitosis.
10. A person sent ten
puns to a friend and hoped at least one pun would generate a laugh.
Unfortunately, no pun
in ten did.
Here are the popular American expressions on which the puns
1. I’m sorry, sir, just one
carry-on allowed per passenger.
2. the lesser of two evils
3. You can’t have your cake and
eat it too.
4. I’m looking for the man who
shot my pa.
5. transcendental meditation
6. chestnut roasting in an open
7. If you’ve seen one, you’ve
seen ’em all.
8. You, and only you, can
prevent forest fires.
10. no pun intended
It’s fun to make jokes about death. When I was a kid, the hot topic was “dead
baby” riddles, such as these:
What’s blue and jumps up and
down? A baby in a cellophone bag.
How do you make a dead baby
float? Seltzer water and two scoops of baby.
When the Challenger spaceship blasted off from the Florida
shore and then immediately blew up, killing all 7 astronauts, including the
first woman in space (Christa McAuliffe), these jokes arose about her:
Where did Christa McAuliffe
spend her vacation? All over Florida.
What were her last words to her hubby? “You feed the cats, and I’ll feed the fish.”
Here’s the ultimate death riddle (courtesy of the anonymous
What’s greater than God and
more evil than the devil? The rich need it, and the poor have it; but if you
eat it, you die!
The answer is the word “nothing,” because:
Nothing is greater than God.
Nothing is more evil than the devil.
The rich need nothing. The poor
have nothing. If you eat nothing, you die.
Ask your friends that riddle and see whether they can figure out
the answer. When they get frustrated, start giving them Zen-like hints, such as
If you want the answer, I can
tell you nothing.
When you discover the answer,
you’ll have discovered nothing.
While you’re seeking the
answer, nothing can bother you.
The answer has 7 letters, but
But the biggest hint of all is:
Most kindergarteners know the
answer to the riddle, but most college graduates do not. Focus on the first
question: what’s greater than God? Most kindergarteners know the answer to that
question. If you ask a kindergartener
“What’s greater than God?” what will the kindergartener answer?