This is strange and entertaining. I neither agree or disagree with the following. I just thought it interesting.
Back in college, my friend Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it. Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds, and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours. Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me and said, “The girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.” We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since, but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.
33 other tips for being a better writer
Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph. Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.
Take a huge bowel movement every day. And you won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.
Bleed in the first line. We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but can’t write a novel. If you want people to relate to you, then you have to be human. Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.
Don’t ask for permission. In other words, never say “in my opinion” (or worse “IMHO”). We know it’s your opinion. You’re writing it.
Write a lot. I spent the entire 90s writing bad fiction. 5 bad novels. Dozens of bad stories. But I learned to handle massive rejection. And how to put two words together. In my head, I won the Pulitzer Prize. But in my hand, over 100 rejection letters.
Read a lot. You can’t write without first reading. A lot. When I was writing five bad novels in a row, I would read all day long whenever I wasn’t writing (I had a job as a programmer, which I would do for about five minutes a day because my programs all worked and I just had to “maintain” them). I read everything I could get my hands on.
Read before you write. Before I write every day, I spend 30-60 minutes reading high quality short stories, poetry, or essays. Books by Denis Johnson, Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, Ariel Leve, William Vollmann, Raymond Carver, etc. All the writers are in the top 1/1000 of 1% of writers. It has to be at that level, or else it won’t lift up your writing at all.
Coffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.
Break the laws of physics. There’s no time in text. Nothing has to go in order. Don’t make it nonsense. But don’t be beholden to the laws of physics. This post on my personal blog is an example.
Be honest. Tell people the stuff they all think but nobody ever says. Some people will be angry you let out the secret. But most people will be grateful. Otherwise, you aren’t delivering value. Be the little boy in The Emperor Wears No Clothes. If you can’t do this, don’t write.
Don’t hurt anyone. This goes against the above rule. But I never like to hurt people. And I don’t respect people who get pageviews by breaking this rule. Don’t be a bad guy. Was Buddha a Bad Father? — another one from my blog — addresses this.
Don’t be afraid of what people think. For each single person you worry about, deduct 1% in quality from your writing. Everyone has deductions. I have to deduct about 10% right off the top. Maybe there’s 10 people I’m worried about. Some of them are evil people. Some of them are people I just don’t want to offend. So my writing is only about 90% of what it could be. But I think most people write at about 20% of what it could be. Believe it or not, clients, customers, friends, family — they’ll love you more if you are honest with them. So we all have our boundaries. But try this: for the next ten things you write, tell people something that nobody knows about you.
Be opinionated. Most people I know have strong opinions about at least one or two things. Write about those. Nobody cares about all the things you don’t have strong opinions on. Barry Ritholz told me the other day he doesn’t start writing until he’s angry about something. That’s one approach. Barry and I have had some great writing fights because sometimes we’ve been angry at each other.
Have a shocking title. I blew it the other day. I wanted to title this piece “How I torture women” but I settled for “I’m guilty of torture.” I wimped out. But I have some other fun ones. Like “is it bad I wanted my first kid to be aborted” (which the famous Howard Lindzon cautioned me against). Don’t forget that you are competing against a trillion other pieces of content out there. So you need a title to draw people in. Else you lose.
Steal. I don’t quite mean it literally. But if you know a topic gets pageviews (and you aren’t hurting anyone) then steal it, no matter who’s written about it or how many times you’ve written about it before. “How I Screwed Yasser Arafat out of $2mm was able to nicely piggyback off of how amazingly popular Yasser Arafat is.
Make people cry. If you’ve ever been in love, you know how to cry. Bring readers to that moment when they were a child, and all of life was in front of them, except for that one bittersweet moment when everything began to change. If only that one moment could’ve lasted forever. Take them back to that moment.