The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

Why are all writers lazy bums?

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room: why does writing take so long?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee. Even quicker with headphones blasting, or on deadline. 

Coffee plus headphones plus a deadline? Fuggetaboutit. That keyboard is gonna sing. 

The thing is, all the speed in the world doesn’t really matter.

Here comes the math

Let’s say you write full-time, all day, every day. No day job to worry about, no cramming in writing at 4 in the morning when the kids are asleep or scribbling forty minutes a day on a yellow legal pad (are there other colors? why yes, there are, including PURPLE) as you ride the train from New Jersey to the NYC.

Say you’re not that fast. Fifty words a minute. 

Fifty words per minute =

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • Up to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • Up to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 60,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 120,000+ words = novel

Of course, people don’t type every second of the workday.

Let’s say half your day is eaten by meetings, research and other things, and you only write four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. Even then, we’re talking about 60,000 words.

That’s most of a novel, four screenplays, 20 keynote speeches or 100 opeds.

In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and other substances.

In fact, writers of all sorts are happy to produce between 500 and 2,000 good, usable words a day.

I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 weeks, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week and, I kid you not, less than 300 words per day.

I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week and columnists who do one or two opeds a week.

There are pro speechwriters, brilliant people I’ve known for years, who take two solid weeks to nail down a 30-minute keynote speech (3,000 words).

Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting for the day when they hit 1,000–or even 500–that day.

But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.

Where are the missing words? Why are all sorts of pro writers–reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters–producing about 20 percent of what the math says?

Suspect No. 1: It’s not really eight hours or even four hours

This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.

Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.

Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.

Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research, travel and attend meetings. Nobody is chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.

HOWEVER:  A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.

Let’s say even more of the day is toast. Research. Phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.

Fine, let’s go all the way down and say six of your eight hours are toast, and there are only TWO HOURS of actual banging on the keyboard.

3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.

And yet the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.

Where are the missing words?

Also, I know writers who spend six hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard at least four to eight hours a day because they’re working crazy hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too. Writing is often a daily habit.

Yet 2,000 words per day seems like a kind of universal wall for writers of all stripes. Why?

Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles

This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.

I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed of the general population.

Serious and professional writers are typically a lot faster, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.

If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.

But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.

25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour.

Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Most Hours of the Day Get Wasted) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.

Four hours at the keyboard at 30 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day. Two hours is 3,000 words, which is closer, but not plausible. Professional writers aren’t much slower than average typists–they’re a lot faster.

We need a better theory of the crime.

Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking

Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.

It’s evil. Hard to refute.

How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?

How can you deny the art required, the creativity?

This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory where we churn out widgets. Writers create something original, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.

Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.

Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe I type 80+ words per minute (true) and separate writing from editing (also true).

But I know writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it, and just about everybody who writes for money bangs on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they’re all faster than 50 words a minute. That’s 3,000 words per hour.

Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, we should be at 12,000 words a day. Except we’re not.

Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying

This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.

I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.

We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.

Why do we writers destroy more than we create?

Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.

It’s because the structure is wrong.

I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the roundfile. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.

We spend so much time trying to fix these things because we nobody teaches us structure.

Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.

Creative writing professors teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.

Rhetoric professors give us logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.

Journalism profs teach us hard and soft headlines and the different types of ledes.

Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.

Building a house one room at a time, without blueprints

They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time. Winging it, without any blueprints.

Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.

Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.

Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.

Where should the living room go? OK, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.

That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.

You start at the beginning and work your way through it, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.

My old friend and mentor, Robin, was guilty of this. He’d spend a week on an oped, which is only 800 words. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest I’ve ever known, and a good example of why mixing research, writing and editing into a single process slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. He’d create and destroy thousands and thousands of words before he had 800 on a final draft.

Doing research, writing and editing all at once is no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints, blindly hoping the beginning will magically connect with the middle and an end you haven’t figure out yet.

I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.

So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.

Question is, how do you DO structure — and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

Remember this Iowa college kid, the Eagle Scout with two moms? He just won a primary for the state senate

Zack Wahls was 19 when he came to the Iowa legislature to testify.

Now he’s 26 and a likely state senator after winning the primary last night.

It’s worth rewatching his speech and why it went so viral. Take a look, then we’ll take it apart.

A few thoughts:

He obviously practiced this speech a good amount, enough so he didn’t need to refer to his notes except for a couple of times early on.

There were a few spots where he stumbled, but those were also early. That’s an important point. If you make a few mistakes early, the audience often hopes you finish better. They root for you. And if you deliver on that, and don’t just smooth things out but finish quite strongly–like Zack did–that contrast between the beginning and end makes the speech stronger. It feels less slick.

In this speech, delivery mattered far less than the structure and emotion. As a speaker, you want to feel and express what you want your audience to feel. It would be easy and natural for him to show up angry, given the proposal he was testifying against. Anger wouldn’t be persuasive. That kind of speech wouldn’t have been effective or gone viral.

So: this speech isn’t memorable for impeccable delivery or for having beautiful phrasing, line by line.

It’s great because unless they removed your heart and replaced it with stone, you feel proud of this young man and the obvious love he has for his moms and sister.

Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Robin Boyes: ‘The heart must be moved’

Robin was brilliant. That’s the first thing to know and remember.

The second thing to know is this isn’t an obituary, where you list facts like the dates a person was born, where they lived and when they died. I’ve written plenty of obituaries for newspapers. This is different. It’s about what Robin meant to me, to his coworkers and the lawmakers he helped.

And we all agree on this: he was brilliant.

I’d bet my house there are fewer than five people on the planet with as much knowledge about speech coaching, speechwriting and Greek rhetoric.

Four, now that he’s gone.

He translated ancient and obscure texts from Greek into English on his website, which we kid around he wrote in machine code. (Visit classicpersuasion.org to see his work.)

Except we’re not really kidding. Robin did things like that.

Because he could.

Because he felt like it.

And for almost twenty years, he taught me everything I know about speechwriting and rhetoric as we worked together in the House of Representatives.

This place was his home, and we were his family. That’s how he treated staff and lawmakers alike: like brothers and sisters in arms, working for a noble cause.

And in Robin, you could see the nobility of it.

He didn’t work here for so many years because of the money. State workers don’t get rich, and Robin could have made a lot more if he’d remained in the private sector, flying across the nation to do speechwriting and coaching.

He stayed here to make a difference. This wasn’t something he said out loud. It was something you saw, every day, when he popped in your office to talk over a speech he was sweating over.

And he sweated them. He’d bug a lot of us about the latest oped or speech. Day after day. I used to make him swear at me by writing a bad first draft of an oped in ten minutes, just to show him the merits of turning his giant brain off and getting some words on paper without driving himself mad. Didn’t matter if they were perfect. Just get some clay to work with.

Robin wasn’t like that. He wanted perfection on the first draft. Maybe it took him a full week, but by God, that first draft was beautiful.

We wrote a booklet together on rhetoric and speeches, a guide for lawmakers and staff. There’s a line from Robin that still resonates in me every day, when I walk into my office, which was Robin’s before he retired: “Before statistics can prove, the heart must be moved.”

Robin swore by that. Despite his addiction to data and numbers, he never forgot that if you didn’t make your audience care, the finest statistics and facts would have zero impact.

The heart must be moved.

He was stubborn and prickly, generous to a fault and always, always thinking of how to fix the latest problem. If he didn’t pop into your office to talk about his latest speech or oped, he’d stand in the doorway and sigh until you stopped banging on the keyboard to turn your chair.

Then he’d ask, as if we were already in the middle of a conversation, “What are we going to DO?”

And of course you had to ask what he was talking about, which was always a problem facing the state or the nation.

That was his instinct. No matter how many years he’d worked in politics, he’d never gotten the memo about becoming cynical or selfish.

“What are we going to do?”

He wanted to fix things. Every day.

There are special quirks unique to him: when lawmakers weren’t in town and we didn’t have to wear suits, Robin always, always wore a Beatles baseball cap. We joked that when suits and ties were required and hats verboten, Robin got a haircut once a year, whether he needed it or not.

Despite his prowess with programming in Java and working with computers, he still called making copies “photostats.”

If he said something particularly witty, which happened often, he’d slap his hand against his mouth to make a loud pop. His version of an exclamation point, or dunking the rhetorical basketball.

Nobody in the office has figured out how to replicate that Robin pop. We’ve tried. Dan Frizzell comes close, but he’s not quite there.

I miss that noise.

I miss Robin’s intensity. It was his weak spot and the source of his strength. He focused on things. Obsessed about them, really. And it’s hard to be truly great at something you don’t care about and don’t spend time working on.

Robin took the time. He put in the work, and it showed. When he was a college debate coach, his team won the national championship.

When he taught me rhetoric, I soaked up more from him in a day than any of my years doing speech and debate. The man’s brain was sharper than a Ginsu.

He was easy to tease because he cared. Robin may have weighed 100 pounds after getting caught in a rainstorm, but that small frame packed a giant brain and an even bigger heart.

Another thing to know about Robin was his loyalty. Earning it wasn’t easy. He didn’t get impressed by many people. If you were his friend, or one of the lawmakers he wrote for that he truly clicked with, that relationship was for life.

Now he’s gone, and if this were an obituary, there’d be a lot of nonsense about funeral arrangements and donating to Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the American Cancer Society—but this isn’t an obituary, so I don’t have to pack it with all that dry nonsense.

Here’s the thing: Robin was larger than life and now he’s gone. That sucks.

The heart is moved, and this one hurts.

I wish we’d been a little tougher in trying to get him to socialize after he retired. I wish we could have more time together, to bullshit and learn and tease each other.

I wish.

And I know wishes along with $4.50 will buy you a latte.

The only way to honor the man is to remember him.

So here’s to you, Robin.

Watch this rare and beautiful graduation speech – DO IT NOW

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Most graduation or commencement speeches put the B in Boring and fall into three categories: (1) standard “go change the world!” blah-blah you’ve heard 20 times before, (2) people trying to be very Deep, and Meaningful, but are mostly Confusing as they push their personal pet thing and (3) speakers trying to be funny when they have no experience or business being funny, ever, if their life depended upon it.

This man avoids all of those pitfalls.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s actually funny, and that he used to write speeches for some woman named Hillary and some dude named Barack.

For the actual words, or as many as exist on the Series of Tubes, here’s a link to the main body of text from the speech in The Atlantic.

Also: We need a similar magazine on the West Coast full of such smart things about literature and politics and life. I say we call it The Pacific.

Also-also: Hat tip to my speechwriter buddy Jen Waldref (on the Twitter: @olywordsmith) for sending this my way. Jen, you rock.

Also-cubed: If you know of an epically bad graduation speech, I’d love to see the text or YouTube clip.