Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 30, 2011 9:48 AM

The Best Piece Of Writing Advice

What is the best piece of advice you ever got about how to get better at writing?

For me, it wasn't so much a piece of advice as it was a self-realization. I got better at writing (much better, in fact) by reading books that we were written by comedians... and that's no joke. Just this past week, I finished reading Tina Fey's book, Bossypants and I'm currently in the middle of Adam Carolla's In Fifty Years, We'll All Be Chicks (yes, I realize the polar opposite sides of the comedic galaxy that these two geniuses orbit). It's not just about dick jokes or how these people scrapped and fought to get their ideas out in front of an audience (but those were also powerful business and marketing lessons), it's in the creation of the words, the flow of the story and how ultimately, it all leads up to some kind of punchline (by the way, not all of the punchlines are funny. In fact, the best lessons often come from the more serious, smart or heartfelt conclusions).

There is truth in comedy.

Marketing is about telling a story. Brands all have narratives. Great advertising tells an amazing story. Great writing is the ability to grab and keep an audience's attention. Nobody knows how to construct and move an audience more than a comedian. From improv groups to telling jokes on stage and from writing bits for morning radio to trying to sell an idea on Saturday Night Live, if these people don't know how to grab an audience's attention, who does? In the past, I've read books like Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Dennis Miller's The Rants - again, two very different books that both helped me to realize that great stories need to have a unique personality (or voice) leveraged with references that will help the audience understand the story on a personal level.

It's not always the content... sometimes it's just the style. 

The generalization is this: the best comics are even better writers. They spend time tinkering with each word, the punctuation, the flow and how it all comes together. The difference between a joke that kills and one that dies can be the placement of a comma or the use of an adjective. It is subtle and it is nuanced. If comedians know this and constantly focus on writing and re-writing a joke or story until it's perfect, it's equally important for writers, Bloggers and Marketers to do the same.

The big trick.

The best piece of writing advice is not to read the jokes of comedians. The best piece of writing advice is to read the books that these comedians have written. Writing a book is a beast of a job. It's the concentration effort and flow that these comedians are putting into their books that will give you a much better appreciation for what it takes to be a great writer (and yes, I also realize that some books written by comedians are weak and boring, so guide yourself accordingly).

What's the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Richard Pachter
    Mitch Joel

    Best advice? Writing is re-writing, therefore I just get the thoughts down and don't worry about the art or craft — at first.

    If I can say it well, fine. If not, just plow ahead. Get it down on paper (or pixels.) That's the hard part, but it doesn't have to be!

    As they say in the music biz, we'll fix it when we mix it!

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    The best piece of advice I have every gotten (actually two related pieces of advice) are a) write the way you speak and b) read your writing out loud when you edit.

    I wrote about the first one here: http://bit.ly/mcoRG7

    Reply
  • Posted by Ken Honeywell
    Mitch Joel

    Best advice: write for money. Too many people take advantage of writers these days.

    Reply
  • Posted by Joanne Probyn
    Mitch Joel

    Great article, thanks! Being authentic is an important communication tip. Whether writing or creating art, your message is more powerful when you know and care about it.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ryan Olson
    Ryan Olson

    Write once - edit 5 times.

    Reply
  • Posted by ricardo
    Mitch Joel

    Best advice I ever got was from my cowboy writing instructor in Jr. college Mr. Pucket. Everyday he wore the same thing -cowboy boots, Wrangle boots cut dress pants, and a collared shirt. He chain smoked between classes and was as tan as his brown boots.

    He drilled into us - "be specific, tell 'em what you wanna tell 'em" he would say. He taught me to be clear, to write what I wanted to get across and avoid clutter and unnecessary embellishment.

    This was in the mid 90's, before writing for the web.

    Reply
  • Posted by Wayne
    Wayne

    My advertising professor said "You only get three exclamation points in your lifetime. Use them wisely."

    Reply
  • Posted by Sarah
    Mitch Joel

    Best piece of advice also came from a book: Rewrites by Neil Simon. While Neil Simon is a great storyteller, it is also a very educational read. Changed the way I think about the entire writing process.

    Reply
  • Posted by Jim Taggart
    Mitch Joel

    Let your writing marinate. Too many people, especially bloggers, let it rip, producing a hodge podge of disjointed ideas, leaving the reader to piece together the story. Well established journalists do this as well, Thomas Friedman of the NY Times being a case in point. Treat your readers with the respect they deserve.

    Reply
  • Posted by Scott
    Mitch Joel

    Don't laugh, but 1-2-3-2-3-1, power paragraph 8)

    Reply
  • Posted by Kevin Martone
    Kevin Martone

    The best lessons I received re: storytelling is from screenwriting. Learning how to implement the basic story structure and story arc can help with all sorts of writing: articles, presentations, and screenplays. Honing this skill on actual screenplays really forces you into this frame of mind.

    Story by Robert McKee is a great resource for learning how to implement this.

    @Wayne - I use up my allotment of exclamation points before breakfast! That's something I need to try to remember.

    Reply
  • Posted by Alex Churchill
    Mitch Joel

    My dad has an Irish colleague (both are surgeons in the same field) who is a brilliant surgeon, and an exceptional research scientist. He is also a very, very funny man and an excellent writer. My dad maintains that this Irishman's impact and standing in this field ultimately should be much greater than it has been to this point - brilliant physician and scientist that he is. My father maintains that his impact has been lessened because when he presents papers at conferences - and I've been to a few, Def Comedy Jams they ain't - they are just too well presented and too damn funny. People walk away from them saying - wow, that was just great - having overlooked much of the solid science/work/scholarship that is the basis of them simply because of the quality of the presentation.

    And that is in a serious profession where there is no doubt that anyone in the room does not deserve, or is unqualified, to be there.

    Contrast that with marketing. There is no college, no common language, no accepted format for orthodoxy or hierarchy and no real barrier to entry other than having gotten yourself a job in something approximating the field.

    The result? Writing whose primary purpose is not to broadcast information or opinion in any real way, but rather to legitimize the author's place as an adult.

    So while it wasn't the intended lesson, what my dad told me stuck with me for one reason - my DAD knew how brilliant his Irish colleague was and is. If lesser audience members can't see through the style to the substance, too bad - they're not worth influencing anyway.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kris
    Kris

    An advice from a Russian classic - do not write until it becomes impossible not to write. Most of the crap is written by people who write out of boredom, not because they are meant to.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mark Fournier
    Mitch Joel

    Don't presume to know your know your clients' business. Get to know them.

    Reply
  • Posted by Samuel Breton
    Mitch Joel

    William S. Burroughs said: Write about what you know.

    It makes perfect sense. How can you write about something you don't know, and therefore, are not passionate about?

    Passion and authenticity will help you find your "voice" as a writer. This "voice" defines your personality. It makes you a unique content creator amongst a sea of other people. It also acts, as a form of invisible path a writer should follow.

    Out of respect for your readers, but also for artistic integrity, your goal should be to refine that "voice" throughout your career.

    As most of you have a marketing background (myself included), we could say it’s a simple question of segmentation, but there’s much more to it. Add personal growth to the equation. Writers, painters, and movie directors all try their best to stay true to who they are, and what they represent (through themselves and their work).

    It is also a question of branding, but then again, not in the traditional sense of it. Some writers acknowledge THEY are a brand, and put enormous energy into perfecting it. For others, being a brand means being an evil corporate entity and they prefer to reject that idea.

    So I guess the takeaway here is that being a great writer starts with knowing you well. Oh yeah, that and also having the commitment to work hard e-ve-ry-day. Passion alone is not going to do it.

    Reply
  • I LOVE Tina Fey!!! I can't believe I haven't gotten her book yet! (remedying this immediately after writing here).

    If you love reading books written by comedians, you'll definitely want to get your hands on Chelsea Handler's three books - My Horizontal Life, Vodka, Are You There? It's Chelsea and Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. Everyone of these books are filled with hilarious stories.

    Another couple of books written by Tucker Max - "I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell" and "Assholes Finish First" also are filled with stories that made me laugh out loud.

    Now to get to Tina after I've been neglecting her so long! And I'm gonna snag Sarah Silverman's too.

    Reply
  • Posted by Joy M.
    Joy M.

    Since you are on a comedian kick, he hasn't written a book yet but... I am fascinated by Louis C.K. From the business aspect, how he got his deal with FX and from a creative standpoint, how he went his own way and bucked conventional tv formulas. I am shocked at how I've gotten over my distaste for some of his word choices because he is so refreshingly honest in his comedy. As a study in turning own's creativity into a multiple platform offerings, he is a true genius--who is also quite HILARIOUS!

    Reply
  • Posted by Louis Shalako
    Louis Shalako

    'Write what you know' would cut out 99.9 % of all journalism. If you can't tell a joke to save your lfie, please don't become a writer.

    Reply
  • Posted by Bill Laidlaw
    Mitch Joel

    In a Cegep on the second floor above a lunch-counter Woolworth's at Somerled and Cavendish. Mr (whistling incisors) Bernard taught me to love the English classics. "Too many words, say it with less!"

    Reply
  • Posted by Trish Fischer
    Mitch Joel

    I love reading books by comedians as well. Tina Fey, David Sedaris, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron and others all write concise, effective and enjoyable prose that is embellished with astute observation and detail. That's why I read them. Three best bits of writing advice I received during my career: 1: Know what you're going to say before you say it; 2) Show, don't tell; and 3) Write what you know.

    Reply
  • Posted by Liesl
    Mitch Joel

    1. Paraphrased from Tom Robbins, master humorist: "Never leave a sentence until it's as perfect as you can make it." http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/robbins.html

    2. I second Ilana's "read writing out loud" advice. Whether you're writing a blog post, presentation, novel, tweet or menu it should sound as good to your ear as it does in your head. And if you've never had someone else read your work: it's well worth hearing what someone else does with your words, especially an actor or decent orator.

    The best quotations (Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Churchill, Mae West) are ruthlessly red-inked (#1) and yet read or sound light and effortless (#2), so the art is most definitely in the edit.

    Reply
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