So, You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.

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(Photo: Sybren A. Stüvel)

Neil Strauss has written six New York Times bestsellers and is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. From the standpoint of most aspiring writers, he’s reached the pinnacle of success.

That’s why I first sent him an e-mail in 2005.

I attached a draft book proposal and asked for his feedback, hat in hand. To my astonishment, he responded with words of encouragement, and that book proposal later became The 4-Hour Workweek.

We’ve since become good friends and — who would have imagined? — have even taken retreats together while on deadline. Our latest jam sessions took place in a beach cabin in Malibu. I was finishing The 4-Hour Body and Neil was wrapping up his latest opus, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness.

Evenings were spent force-feeding Neil protein (that’s when he gained 10 pounds), drinking Cocoladas, and trading war stories from publishing and writing.

Neil wrote one chapter in his new book about the trials and torture of editing. I almost died laughing (crying inside) when I read a draft, and I made him promise I could put it on this blog…

The bigger picture: Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead shares the insights and outtakes from Neil’s most amusing celebrity encounters, and it shows how to achieve rapport with the super-rich and super-famous. How do you make a connection with them and get them to open up? If you’re Neil, you shoot guns with Ludacris, get kidnapped by Courtney Love, go to church with Tom Cruise, make Lady Gaga cry, and go shopping for Pampers with Snoop Dogg.

I call the following chapter “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” because it covers one of the often-comical frustrations of writing professionally: copy editing. Though a critical part of the process, it is arguably the most maddening.

These are real examples.

Enter Neil Strauss

In a preview of weekend concerts for the New York Times, I wrote about a double bill by the groups the Friggs and Jackass. When I picked up the paper the next day, the preview just mentioned “two bands” and, although the description remained intact, the actual names of the groups were nowhere to be found in the story. Evidently, a copyeditor found their monikers obscene and simply removed them. It was just one example of the many challenges of writing about rock, hip-hop, and popular culture for the New York Times..

On another occasion, I wrote about a shady corner deli where “neighbors used to hear the sound of crack addicts having sex in exchange for free drugs.” When I looked at the paper the next day, the sentence had been changed to read in its entirety, “Neighbors used to hear the sound of crack addicts.”

Here are a few more examples of how decency standards are enforced at the paper of record.

Editing an article that quotes the Courtney Love lyric, “I’m eating you / I’m overfed” . . .

COPYEDITOR: We have to remove that quote.

What’s wrong with it?

COPYEDITOR: It’s about oral sex.

The whole article hinges on that lyric.

COPYEDITOR: If you want, I can run it past the news desk and see what they say.

Ten minutes later . . .

COPYEDITOR: The news desk says it’s about oral sex.

#

Editing a concert review in which singer Francis Dunnery describes himself as “complete scumbag white trash from the north of England” . . .

COPYEDITOR: We can’t use the word “scumbag.”

Why is that?

COPYEDITOR: Because it refers to a condom.

What’s wrong with condoms?

COPYEDITOR: It’s a family newspaper. You and I might like to talk about scumbags, but that’s on our own time.

#

Editing a Rage Against the Machine review . . .

COPYEDITOR: You write here that the band has lyrics attacking misogynists and homophobes.

Yes.

COPYEDITOR: Did the band say “homophobes”?

No, that’s my summary of the lyrics.

COPYEDITOR: We have a rule that “homophobes” is a word that can only be used by homosexuals in the newspaper.

Isn’t that a double standard?

COPYEDITOR: There’s also the case of the religious right. We don’t want to accuse anyone of having a clinical psychological condition that is the cause of their actions.

#

Editing a review of the English group Laika . . .

Why did you remove the sentence where the singer’s talking about how men carry an assault weapon in their pants?

COPYEDITOR: Because it’s obscene and this is a family newspaper.

But there aren’t any obscene words there.

COPYEDITOR: It’s implied.

Come on. There were dead bodies on the front page of the paper the other day. That’s much more damaging to a child.

COPYEDITOR: You sound like you’re pissed off that we’re taking this out. But you can either stay pissed off or realize that we’ll never print something like this, so don’t even bother trying again.

#

Editing an article in which country singer Steve Wariner recalls Garth Brooks signing autographs for “twenty-four hours straight without a pee break”…

COPYEDITOR: We’re going to have to send that to the news desk.

Because of the word “pee”?

COPYEDITOR: Yes, it’s scatological.

Ten minutes later . . .

COPYEDITOR: What do you want to say instead?

You mean the word pee is unacceptable?

COPYEDITOR: Let’s not argue about it.

#

Editing an interview with Master P . . .

COPYEDITOR: Is there any reason why you wrote g-a-n-g-s-t-e-r?

Yes, because whenever I write gangsta, you change it to gangster.

COPYEDITOR: Well, Al [Siegal, New York Times standards editor] has okayed the use of the word gangsta. He found a precedent for it in a 1924 review. So you can use it now.

#

Editing the interview with Mike Tyson, in which he says, “We made the industry, but we have no control over the destiny of the music” . . .

COPYEDITOR: It’s not clear what the referent for “we” is.

It’s obviously African-American people.

COPYEDITOR: Okay, let’s change it to, “Speaking of black people, Mr. Tyson said, ‘We made the industry.’ ”

No, don’t do that.

COPYEDITOR: It needs a referent. It’s not grammatical.

It sounds racist. And my name’s on the article.

COPYEDITOR: Then give me another referent to use.

I don’t know.

COPYEDITOR: Well, who is he talking about if not black people?

Just anyone involved in the culture that rap comes from.

COPYEDITOR: Okay, then let’s make it, “Speaking of the rap world, he said, ‘We made the industry . . .’ ”

#

Editing a festival review of an Irish-themed musical festival with the sentence, “On the main stage, Hootie & the Blowfish—the very name of which evokes a sudden desire to yawn and move on to the next article—rigidly jammed through a version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ that seemed longer than the lines for the Portosans” . . .

COPYEDITOR: I just don’t think it works.

What’s wrong with it?

COPYEDITOR: The last few words.

They don’t make sense to you?

COPYEDITOR: The mandate here is not meaning and content, which is fine, but taste.

What if I said longer than the line at the Guinness tent?

COPYEDITOR: That’s fine.

But that’s perpetuating an Irish stereotype. Isn’t that worse?

COPYEDITOR: Maybe, but it’s acceptable.

Despite the copyeditors’ efforts, a few obscenities still made their way into articles, starting with the Eazy-E song “Nutz Onya Chin.” The word “pussy,” used as an insult, also ended up in the paper. No one seems to have noticed it yet, so if you’re the first person to successfully find it and e-mail me the article at manofstyle@gmail.com, you’ll win a well-worn copy of Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.

###

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is out today. See his video trailer and more here.

Posted on: March 15, 2011.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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130 comments on “So, You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.

  1. i was just reading an article on neil strauss’s website, and he emphasised on how it is important for him to be able to write without a formula. do u think a writer can bring out the best within him by following a formula? is unbridled expression important?

    Like

    • It seems like the most successful authors do have a formula, although I suspect that the formula can get a bit old. Probably the best thing to do if you can find a succssful formula is to stick with it until you have some financial security, then you can branch out in more creative but possibly less profitable directions.

      Like

    • The formula is used because once you find something that works, you stick with it. The idea of a formula for writing is going to be different for every writing.

      Even if you don’t think you have a formula, go back and take a look at your work. I would be willing to bet that you will find one if you’re looking for it.

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    • I think its one of those things that depends on the situation, sometimes the formulas are better for what you are doing. IE to do a romance novel you need to have at least 2 characters that eventually fall in love, to report on a game you need to put in who won and the score. Your creativity isn’t limited in that context, but if you get some sort of we cant use pee break because it could theoretically imply scat porn when utterly taken out of context, you’ve probably gone too far one way.

      So in my opinion formulas as a framework are probably a good idea, formulas that are misapplied are really problematic. Then again we wouldn’t have had Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if all writers just followed formula.

      Like

    • Allen,
      Limitations seems to me a strange word to use with self-publishing? Many of the fiction authors I know make more money and have far more creative control through self-pub avenues, particularly digital, than those who receive royalties through contracts with the traditional six pub houses that are still standing, well as of today, it keeps shrinking and with Borders bankruptcy, a lot of houses are affected, too. (Note that’s the six big houses as opposed to the 50+ in the 1980s). I believe Tim has talked about this in recent articles, so I won’t belabor what’s happening in the paper-based industry. And, while I realize that most writers who participate on Tim’s blog are focused on nonfiction, you should note further down the blog, Darren Michaels talks about some book success worth celebrating! You might also find that science fiction author Mike Stackpole could make quite an argument that “limitations” and “self-publishing” do not logically belong together in the same library, never mind in the same sentence! Another author, Kris Tualla, also comes to mind. She’s self-published in romance with three books out and doing very well for herself. My point here is that I’m getting tired of hearing people outside the publishing industry spread the major misconception that self-publishing is either a last resort or somehow very limited in the areas of freedom or finance. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly with the explosion of ebooks and direct download purchase from author sites. (Stackpole, for example, has written Star Wars franchise installments and has certainly cracked the traditional pubbing path in his long and successful career). Yet, you’ll find he’s one of many authors quite vocal in recent years about how much more money an author can make (60-80% of the author’s chosen price point vs. only 3-6% at the big houses with no control over the price or cover, and little control over anything else). Not to mention, how reader-driven content is moved up the priority list in the new model, delivered when, how, and in the demanded format the reader requests, at the price point they want… (vs. being lost among the many middlemen in the bureaucracy of those hallowed publishing and distribution halls)… all by going the self-pub route. Is it more work? In the beginning, yes it is. But let’s face it, the big six don’t send anyone on tour anymore like they do with Stephen King and Norah Roberts. No one takes out large ads in magazines for anyone in the midlist anymore, and if they don’t think they can sell at least 100K or more copies, you are on your own. The big six have a hard time doing major marketing with their star authors! If you’re not in the top 5% of earners, you’ll get no marketing help from them, which means… guess what? You have to do it yourself anyway!… So, why not make 70% of a cover price whose number you have set if your digital, and reach your demographics “your way,” not the way some dinosaur with a dying business model says you ought? Just my .02 for what it’s worth. My second fiction piece will be out as a self-pub this summer before the first even comes out since it’s in an anthology which has to go to press first. It will take hardly any marketing effort on my part to have it exceed the print piece in less than a month’s time. I’m having trouble seeing this all as a limitation… just sayin.

      Like

      • And, yes, I do have a professional editor who polishes my stuff before it goes out, because I obviously need one badly!… That’s “…if *you’re* digital…” not “your.” LOL.

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      • Agreed with a lot of what you are talking about, but there are holes. Especially when it comes to beginning authors and those that have been at it and have a following. I didn’t know who Mike Stackpole was until I googled him. Only to find out he has been publishing books since the 70’s. I don’t really think he’s a good example of what most of us are trying to do today. We don’t have the years and years of books being on bestseller lists. Starting from the bottom is what most of us are doing these days. And I believe that is what Allen was getting at.

        Anyone given thought to having your own book self published in hardcopy and e-book and then getting it sold on Amazon and other places? Anyone that can talk about their experiences? Cause I’d really like to hear about them.

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  2. It’s hard if you’re really writing for the mass but maybe for a narrower niche, they’d know the drill.

    Of course having a self blog or site won’t restrict writers about what their thoughts. Just thinking. :)

    P.S. Love the new book of Neil

    Like

  3. This is hilarious, I suppose the same principles apply to aspiring writers, well let me rephrase, hobby writers, at least in my case. I kind off play it off as two characters. I write, stay away for a few days, usually a weekend, and then reread the article(my editor hat is on). Its here where I find most of the inconsistencies and the “oh my god what as I thinking entries.” It would be nice if there was a service where simple folks like myself could use the services of a copy editor. I wonder how much would the writing improve or perhaps be tamed down.

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    • Exactly if you leave your work for a few weeks, you seem to read it as another person. Sometimes you think, did I write this? Blogging and networking with writers, intrested in your topic would be wonderful for feedback.

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  4. Neil seems to have done a good job of picking his battles…he probably started his career at the right time.

    What you’re finding now, IMHO, is a combination of “me, too” and “screw you” books, sites and blogs. Either they look exactly like everyone else, OR they say whatever they want and, if you don’t like it, “screw you.”

    This means there will be more nichification, more self-published works about Long Tail subjects that matter very much to 11 people – but those works will be fresher, closer to dynamite and able to squeeze in the “p” word.

    Cheers!

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  5. I find and stick to the premise that it is better to be loved by 50% and hated by 50% than to just be OK to 100%. Unless you are writing a tech manual, your writing will ruffle a few feathers here and there. Take the criticism with the praise and move forward. It’s the only way to stay sane in the world of writing. Especially when you are a professional blogger like me.

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  6. Really interesting stuff. Political correctness is an ideal we portend to care tons about, but are still totally inconsistent. These examples are great.

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    • “Political correctness” is a term that, as far as I’ve concerned, has moved into the realm of You Keep Using That Phrase. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. And I’m not necessarily speaking of the Times.

      Like

  7. So the New York Times can run a blog blaming an 11-year-old girl for her own gang rape and issue a half-a$$ed apology, but this guy can’t mention scumbags in an article? And this is the first I’ve heard that “scumbag” means “condom.” I doubt most people think of contraceptive devices when they use the word–it parses more like “!@#$ing lowlife.”

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  8. Oh brings back memories of trying to make stealth sexual references into painfully dull tech articles in a professional journal. My most unpleasant experiences, though, came from corporate copy editors, most notably from Sun Microsystems. I staked my job, once, on the appropriateness of inserting the word “cool” into a paper for Java programmers. Yes, I was nearly fired for “using a word that is not appropriate for a ‘customer-facing’ document.” I took a day making screen-grabs of Sun’s own website where Scott McNealy himself was describing the new tech as “cool”, but that only pissed off the copy editors even more.

    But the worst problem, by far, was their insistence on writing that was, by their definition, “easily localizable”. In other words, everything we wrote had to be sufficiently neutered to be instantly translatable or at least 100% clear to non-native speakers. All good intentions, but taken to the extreme when we were told we could NOT, for example, use contractions. So, we ended up with writing that did not sound human. I asked them, “What is the first clue in a movie that the character you are watching is either an alien or android?” No contractions. Dead giveaway. (along with reaction of dogs, who Just Know).

    Copy editors can save our life, and they can also suck the very essence of it from our work. The great ones, though, make the reader feel more alive.

    Another geek Sun editing story: when discussing databases that were “not normalized”, the apparently non-technical copy editors felt we should refer to it as “somewhat unusual databases”.

    Like

    • Hey Kathy (and Tim), this is a very entertaining take on the frustrations generated by the Ed. On the topic of contractions (of the grammatical type as opposed to the incredible pain generated by childbirth), I have finally found a space to comment, from the perspective of someone literate, that my pet-hate-of-the-month is the apostrophe used in plurals. Why oh why do person’s think plural’s require apostrophe’s? It’s driving me slowly insaaaaaaaaaaaaaaane! Is this a worldwide pandemic or simply an Australian outbreak? Any advice from anyone?

      Like

      • Bad apostrophe use ticks me off too. I bet Tim sees stuff like “Tim Ferriss’ blog” all the time, but that is technically incorrect, as any reader of Tim Ferriss’s blog probably knows.

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    • Being a non-native English speaker, I have to admit that it is good to read books that are very easy to understand, or 100% clear to me. But, I would not really enjoy books that are written in my mother tongue and 100% clear to non-native speakers. It would be easy but would not necessarily be fun to read. Being an software engineer myself, gotta also love “somewhat unusual databases” part. Speechless!

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  9. So he’s saying that his parent company is more concerned with political correctness & not offending its readership than artistic merit? Gee…welcome to the real world, Mr. Strauss.

    You’re a great writer, but using “COPYEDITOR” as a villain here is more comical than the circumstances themselves. You should simply have known better. That said I dont agree with anything this mystical “COPYEDITOR” did…he’s doing his job.

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  10. Sad, hilarious, frustrating, and funny. This is why I don’t miss writing for newspapers and mainstream magazines. So much real meaning gets lost in the name of being politically correct.

    The people I really feel sorry for though are the copy editors. What an awful job to be doing that day in and day out!

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  11. Hey Tim,

    Just wanted to point out that when I pre-ordered “Everyone Loves You..” for Kindle on Amazon, I got an estimated delivery date of December 2036.

    I’m all for waiting for a good book, but dude.. seriously :)

    PS: I’m on Day 14 of Slow-Carb Diet / PAGG combo.. Kettlebell workouts beginning Monday.. thank you for facilitating my upcoming reunion with my six-pack

    PPS: Turns out we have a mutual friend from Princeton..

    greetings from Istanbul

    CS

    Like

  12. Hello Tim,
    I just wanted to say that I’m a fan. Your blog consistently caters to all my areas of interest. It’s uncanny. I ordered 4HB in Busan, Korea and I’ve lost 18 lbs already in one month, and with almost no exercise. You’re advice on language learning has also been very helpful while learning Korean.

    Hello Neil,
    If you had not chosen to be a writer (as much of a hassle as it may be sometimes) I would probably not have a gorgeous and wonderful girlfriend. I’m sure you get that a lot, but it never hurts to hear it one more time.

    I can’t even imagine what the two of you must talk about when you’re together, but it’s easy to see why you’re friends.

    All the best,

    Joel

    Like