Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most prolific comedy writers of all time.
While he is most known for his eponymous sitcom, Seinfeld has produced multiple standup specials, hosts the popular Netflix series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, and recently published a book of his work.
This tremendous output isn’t an accident. Jerry has spent decades crafting a systematic approach to writing. In an interview on the popular Podcast the Tim Ferriss Show, Seinfeld shared the nuts and bolts of his writing practice. Here are the 7 best pieces of writing wisdom from Jerry Seinfeld.
Understand You Are Attempting “The Most Difficult Thing In The World”
“People tell you to write like you can do it, like you’re supposed to be able to do it. Nobody can do it. It’s impossible. The greatest people in the world can’t do it. So if you’re going to do it, you should first be told: “What you are attempting to do is incredibly difficult. One of the most difficult things there is”
Writing is REALLY FREAKING hard. This is the crux of Seinfeld’s philosophy. It informs everything else. Each one of his strategy’s addresses this fundamental truth.
It’s a fact that anyone who has even scribbled a “thank you note’’ can attest to. Yet we forget. We curse our keyboards, beat ourselves up, and appear flustered when our first draft doesn’t read like War And Peace.
Clichés like: “speak your truth” and “write what you know” only compound this frustration. They make writing sound so simple, like something we come out of the womb knowing how to do.
This isn’t the case. In order to write effectively we must arm ourselves with the proper tools for the trying task ahead.
The Writer’s Brain Is A Dog That Needs To Be Trained:
You’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained.
Your mind is a supercomputer. Your brain is a schnauzer, and should be treated as such. This canine part of your cranium would rather chase its tail than do a minute of hard work. It is up to you to teach it to sit down and do the near “impossible” task of writing.
What does this training look like? Seinfeld has a four step process for his daily writing routine. He breaks it down like this:
- Schedule A Writing Session. Decide on a specific time and place where you will write.
- Set A Goal: Clarify exactly what you will work on during your session.
- Give Yourself A Time Limit: Set a timer for the amount of time you will write for. When the timer goes off, stop writing.
- Reward yourself: Like the dumb dog in the metaphor you also deserve a treat. When you finish your writing session treat yourself to a bubble bath, ice cream sundae, or your vice of choice.
Set Constraints On Your Writing Practice:
“Don’t just sit down with an open-ended, “I’m going to work on this problem.” That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head.”
Imagine you’ve booked an appointment with a personal trainer. You arrive at your first session and ask the trainer how long the workout will be. To your surprise the trainer shrugs, and says “I don’t know yet”. Now imagine this is not just one day of your workout regiment, but every day. How long would you continue to work out?
Seinfeld believes most writing practices look like this training routine. Unfocused. Unclear. Doomed to fail.
The remedy: constraints.
Seinfeld recommends you constrain your writing by having both a goal and time limit for each session (steps 2 & 3 of his daily writing habit).
You may think constraints hamper creativity, but it’s the opposite. Constraints make room for creativity. Remember, your brain is an excitable puppy. It needs a direction to expend its energy. Constraints narrow your brain’s focus and gives your work a path to follow.
Treat Writing & Editing As Separate Activities
“I have two phases. There is the free-play creative phase. Then there is the polish and construction phase”
Seinfeld’s writing process begins with an idea and a yellow legal pad. It culminates in an incisive standup routine on stage. It gets from pen to stage in two phases:
The free-play creative phase: This phase is loose and playful. You use it to come up with ideas, and expand on ideas you already have.
In this phase the writing is crude. You’re concerned with putting your thoughts on page, not polishing them for an audience. Grammar, punctuation, misspellings should not worry you. Your only goal is to get in a state of flow and write a lot.
The polish-construction phase: The purpose of this phase is to pare down your writing. You want to turn the raw ideas of the previous phase into something coherent. This requires perfecting your word choice. Cutting out unneeded passages. And making sure your work flows and is presentable to an audience.
More broadly, we can think of these phases as writing and editing. They are two distinct parts of the process. You should not combine them into one activity. Trying to edit while you write (and vice versa) will disrupt both the flow of the writing process, and the precision of the editing process. Focus on one or the other during each writing session.
Successful Writing Means Being Both A Drill Sergeant And A Coddling Nanny
The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, extremely nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman and just be a harsh prick
There are two central figures in Jerry Seinfeld’s writing practice: the coddling nanny and the hard ass drill sergeant.
The coddling nanny is an angelic figure. She dotes on you. She knows that writing is difficult and is proud of you just for showing up. She is all too happy to bring you cookies and milk for your effort.
The drill sergeant, on the other hand, is not so kind. He demands the best and cares little about your effort or feelings. He is a ruthless servant of the work. It is his general, and he serves with diabolical duty. He will gleefully tear your precious writing to shreds if it does not serve the work.
Seinfeld claims both figures are necessary for great writing, but you must strike a balance between the two.
Too much of the nanny and you turn complacent. The quality of your work drops because you’re gushing with pride over anything you write.
Too much of the drill sergeant and you run scared. His high standards and harsh tone make even attempting to write a daunting and miserable task.
Always Wait A Day Before Sharing Your Work
Here’s a little — a fine point of writing technique that I’ll pass along to you writers out there. Never talk to anyone about what you wrote that day, that day. You have to wait 24 hours to ever say anything to anyone about what you did
There is an unwritten rule for expecting parents: never share your baby’s name before it’s born. Why? Because sharing the name with someone will solicit a reaction. And anything less than a stellar response will make you doubt your choice.
Like the name of your precious child, your writing must be protected in utero. If you share it and someone has mixed feelings, it spoils the difficult work you put in. You may feel like the time you spent was a waste, and become less motivated to work hard in the future. Why bother pouring hours into something if it sucks?
Seinfeld recommends waiting at least 24 hours before sharing something you’ve written. He believes early feedback jeopardizes that “wonderful, happy feeling you get from doing a difficult thing”. For Jerry, If you had the guts to sit down and write you deserve at least a day to savor it.
Accept Mediocrity And Keep Going
“Learn to accept your mediocrity. No one’s really that great. You know who’s great? The people that just put tremendous amounts of hours into it. It’s a game of tonnage.”
Let’s circle back to the crux of Jerry’s philosophy: Writing is REALLY FREAKING hard. You can think of his advice as a series of stratagems to get you to do this difficult work.
The quixotic few up to the task will spend a lot of time wallowing in mediocrity: devoting years to the craft and still not producing something they are satisfied with. This is infuriating, but necessary.
The people who can’t accept their mediocrity flame out. They want a quick fix for a long and tiresome journey. When this quick fix never comes, they quit.
As Jerry says: writing is a game of “tonnage”. To get good you have to put in a lot of work. Not all of it will be up to your exacting standards, but you still need to show up everyday. The sooner you come to terms with this, the easier it will be to consistently get your ass in a chair and write.