Here's part of "Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, first edition. For newer info, read the second edition at


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:

They were never begun.

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 such as:

She spat at him and pulled the trigger.

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 time.

After writing your first draft and making minor edits (for spelling and grammar), ask yourself:

Is this crap I wrote worth reading?

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.

Get emotional

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 parts anyway.

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

large                                                           big

utilize                                                         use

only                                                            just

somebody                                                   someone

everybody                                                   everyone

upper-left corner                                            top left corner

the beginning of the book                           the book’s beginning

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.

Hey, 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 his/her pocket.

Right: if you’re a police officer, keep your ID in your pocket.

Short paragraphs

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.


Don’t 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 living.

Copyright 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 or Website).

Packaging 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.

Low 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 Graves said:

There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either.

Low self-esteem Poets usually feel nervous about themselves. The famous poet W.H. Auden made this comment:

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.

Teaching 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 speeches.

Famous 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

                                     It takes a heap o’ writin’

                                     To make a poem come home,

                                     To beautify each little phrase

                                     So critics do not groan.

                                     It takes a heap o’ writin’

                                     To make a poem work out.

                                     Ya gotta keep on tryin’

                                     To clean out all the grout.

Strange forms of writing

I’ve explained how to write normally. Here’s how to write strangely.

Poet laureate 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.

                    His boyhood friends all call him lucky.

                    Lucky he is, and Passaic is too,

                    To have 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.

Mystery 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 open areas.

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 wonderful.

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 experiences.

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 stop it.

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 amazingly addictive.

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 is tough.

Elided 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!

Tongue-twisters 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?

Palindromes A palindrome 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:

Step on no pets!

What Adam told Eve when he met her in the garden:

Madam, I’m Adam.

What Napoleon said when he lost the war and was exiled to the island of Elba:

Able was I, ere I saw Elba.

What the US said about the engineer who invented the Panama Canal:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Can you invent a palindrome that’s more up-to-date and fun?

Pig Latin Just for fun, try writing in Pig Latin (English modified to sound like Latin).

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 “artway.”

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 a vowel).

If you’re studying computer programming, try this challenge: program the computer to translate English to Pig Latin.

Politically correct school terms To sound more sophisticated in school, use politically correct school terms, as recommended in this anonymous tidbit from the Internet:

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 time.

You’re not failing, just passing-impaired.

You didn’t get detention, just exit-delayed.

You didn’t get grounded, just hit a social speed-bump.

In class, you weren’t sleeping, just rationing consciousness.

Your homework isn’t missing, just having an out-of-notebook experience.

You don’t have smelly gym socks, just odor-retentive athletic footwear.

Your locker isn’t overflowing; just closure-prohibitive.

Your bedroom isn’t cluttered, just passage-restrictive.

You don’t think the cafeteria food is awful, just digestively challenged.

You’re not having a bad-hair day,

just suffering from rebellious follicle syndrome.

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 office,

just went on a mandatory field trip to the administration building.

Euphemism Harlan Ellison, who wrote some of the “Star Wars” episodes, told a guy:

I recommend you book passage immediately

to the tourist venue where the sun don’t shine.

That was his polite way of saying:

Go to Hell.

Can you invent other polite euphemisms?

Best-man 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,

                 Doing things that end in “uck,”

                 Like holding hands while trying to…

                 Take out the garbage on a rainy day, through the muck.

                 I’m sure his wife will get a kick

                 When looking at his great big…

                 Sick face, grateful when she gives the thermometer a lick.

                 But after wedding and “I love you,”

                 They’ll honeymoon and want to…

                 Sleep, while murmuring “You’re the one for me. I knew.”

Walking 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 snowy evening,

I tripped,

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 hospital,

And vowed never to again be

Walking through the woods on a snowy evening.

or this conservative choice —

                 Walking through the woods on a snowy evening,

                 Two paths diverged.

                 One seemed to have less dung underneath,

                 And that made all the difference,

                 Since I’m Republican.

or this practical choice —

                 While walking 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.”

                 His horse knew the way to come carry the sleigh

                 Through white, drifting snow. Sure beats “pizza to go!”

                 I give him a tip, now that pizza’s on lip.

or this tech choice:

                 Walking through the woods on a snowy evening,

                 Two paths diverged,

                 So I grabbed my nifty cell phone

                 And got directions.

Can you think of other poems to rewrite to be realistic?

Puns 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 are based:

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 fire

7. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.

8. You, and only you, can prevent forest fires.

9. supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

10. no pun intended

Riddles 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 Internet):

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 these:

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 it’s nothing.

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?