Ken originally wrote this piece in one of my journalism classes at Harvard. It’s such a terrific satire of all the advice flung at writers that I thought it would be a funny follow-on to the posts we’ve been running at TW about style rules. So toss out your Strunk and White for a vicarious moment or three—and relax! Martha
Yes—you can become a writer. You just need to follow a few simple guidelines.
I’ve taken to heart my professors’ admonishments on the importance of journalistic values such as honesty, integrity, verification, and so forth—along with some other very important principles that I’m pretty sure I wrote down in my notes during class but can’t seem to locate at the moment.
Fortunately, in my quest to become a writer I’ve acquired some useful rules-of-thumb myself. So, from one aspiring writer to another, I humbly offer these five hard-earned nuggets of wisdom that may help you in your own pursuit of literary stardom:
1. Learn the fine art of procrastination
It’s inevitably part of being a writer, so you might as well embrace the reality.
For example, when you finally clear your schedule and sit down with great resolve to begin your new life as a writer, don’t become alarmed if you suddenly feel the pressing need to clean out your garage that very moment. Or if you are certain that this is exactly the right time, at long last, to get around to organizing the thousands of digital photos stored somewhere on your old hard drive.
When you have these urges, immediately discontinue any attempt to produce actual written work and give into them wholeheartedly. They’re a good sign that you’re well on your way to becoming a successful writer.
2. Stay uninformed
Despite what your professors might say, you should avoid reading newspapers at all costs. Too many depressing stories about the imminent demise of the newspaper industry. And since you want to be a writer, you’re likely to be genetically prone to bouts of depression anyway. Why exacerbate the problem?
3. Strive for rejection
According to Wikipedia (pssst…here’s a bonus tip: Wikipedia is awesome, and it’s the only source you’ll ever really need as a journalist—just don’t tell anyone you heard it from me, OK?) it was Albert Einstein who once said “If you want to increase your chances of success, then increase your failure rate.”
I’ve made this my highest priority and am personally trying to accumulate as many rejection letters as possible. I’ve purchased a new file cabinet to hold the thousands I anticipate receiving. You can also make a chart to post on the refrigerator and give yourself a gold star when hitting certain milestones—the 10th, 100th, 1000th.
(I do admit I may have a slight problem with this one, though. I’ve gotten so addicted to receiving rejections that each time I submit a finished piece, I pray that it won’t be accepted for publication. That would blow my streak of failures, and I’d have to start all over again.)
4. Practice being completely alone
To prepare for life as a writer, spend as much time alone as possible, so you can train yourself for the day when you can finally spend all your time engaged in the solitary pursuit of stringing words together.
Before attempting the actual process of writing, I recommend sitting by yourself for hours at a stretch with nothing other than a desk and chair to see what it’s like.
(Just be sure it is in a windowless room. You need to cut down on the time that would inevitably be wasted by gazing outside into the distance. Serious writers must constantly guard against the temptation to engage in idle daydreaming, which is the sure mark of an amateur.)
5. Ignore the so-called “experts”
Don’t trouble yourself with those prim little know-it-all books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which was written like a hundred years ago anyway. They’re full of high-minded rules about ensuring that participial phrases are preceded by proper prepositions, and using the “active” rather than the “passive” voice, whatever that means.
(Believe you me, the fact of the matter is that there can be no doubt whatsoever that by learning to ignore these self-proclaimed authorities and instinctively trust your own writerly instincts, that will surely be the most important idea I can convey to you, so to speak, which will allow you to climb through the great wilderness that is the golden highway to becoming a writer, and, as luck would have it, from the very first time that you first hear about this particular piece of advice with your own eyes, that I am telling you, you will just know for sure, without any doubt, that it is exactly the very type of the sort of this kind of information that will not be forgotten by you, without any doubt whatsoever in your mind.)
Speaking of The Elements of Style, have you seen their “Rule 17”? It says: “Omit needless words.” This makes no sense—don’t they realize that most magazines pay by the word? That Rule 17 is proof Strunk and White had no idea what they were talking about.
Ken Hertz is a Boston-based airline pilot who has written for several aviation magazines. You can read an article he wrote for Flying Magazine here.