5 Rules on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld
Ridiculously simple instructions to get your ideas on paper
In an interview with the New York Times, Jerry Seinfeld shared a bit he was working on about Poptarts. Of all the articles and books I’ve read on writing, this one takes the prize for simplicity; it’s the Lego instruction manual for how to write something worth reading.
Below, I’ve extracted some principles from his interview which I’ve used to drive my creative process.
1. Get off your phone and waste your time.
“That’s what I do. That’s what people want me to do–spend a lot of time wastefully.”
Seinfeld attributes his success to simply wasting his time; being lost in thought is how he comes up with his material.
Although he doesn’t talk about getting off his phone, I added that part because that’s what prevents us to waste our time. Studies have shown that endlessly scrolling through content and entertaining ourselves is killing our creativity because it doesn’t allow our minds to rest, meditate and make connections.
As writers, it’s when our minds wander like Seinfeld that we notice the idiosyncrasies around us and realize that in reality, Poptarts are just, “frosted, fruit-filled, heatable rectangles that are the same shape as the box they come in.”
2. Write whatever comes into your head
“In comedy, what you do is, think of something that you think is funny and then you go from there.”
If Seinfeld thinks something is funny, he writes it down. You should do the same. If you think something is interesting, write about it. Stop thinking that your idea isn’t worth writing about. The first iteration may not be the most interesting, but sticking with it is guaranteed to make it better.
3. Put in the time no matter how long it takes
“I know you think people are probably going to be interested in this, but they’re not…I’ve probably been working on this [joke] for two years…I mean, usually I write a bit in a couple days. It’s a long time to spend on something that means absolutely nothing, but that’s what I do.
What makes him so good?
Even though he’s incredibly talented, he doesn’t delude himself that his writing is super important. He’s taken to heart what Hemingway said: “All we are is writers and what we should do is write.”
His humility allows him to submit himself to the drafting process, write over and over, and put in the required time to develop his ideas regardless of how long it takes.
4. Don’t overthink it
Seinfeld rehearses a line from the bit which goes:
“It was the 60’s and we had toast. We had orange juice that was frozen years in advance that you had to hack away at with a knife just to get a couple of drops, and it felt like you were committing a murder before you got on your school bus.
[Then] the Poptart suddenly appeared in the supermarket. And we just stared at it like an alien spacecraft, and we were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.”
After he shares the line from his routine, he explains what makes it so funny.
“What makes that joke is you got chimps, dirt, playing, and sticks. [The end of the last line has] seven words. Four of them are funny.”
This principle is deceptively simple.
On one hand, Seinfeld doesn’t overthink what he writes. If he knows a word works, he uses it. Yet even though he doesn’t overthink it, he’s very thoughtful and ruthlessly economical about the words he uses and how he arranges them.
It reminds me of something Stephen King said:
“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true…”
There’s nothing special to writing other than picking the right words and arranging them properly.
5. Save the best for last
Then Seinfeld shared how he ends his bit:
“Then I had to figure out how to end the thing and that’s the hardest part. The biggest laugh has to be at the end.”
And this is how he sticks the landing:
“We had two in the packet and two slots in the toaster. Why two? One’s not enough and three’s too many. And they can’t go stale because they were never fresh.”
His line tells me our ending should do two things:
- Save the biggest laugh or insight for last
We’re asking people to value our thoughts. We should reward them at the end.
- Leave people feeling enriched
Seinfeld’s main idea throughout the bit is that Poptarts are trash, but he still thinks they’re an ingenious invention in the realm of breakfast cuisine. Like any good writer, he restates his main point in the conclusion.
Yet his conclusion doesn’t just regurgitate what he already said, but culminates to his ultimate point that they were never fresh which gives me a feeling of enrichment.
That’s what we should aim for when we wrap up our work. We should leave our readers with a feeling of enrichment because the truth is, we’re asking people to use their time and pay attention to us.
Like any good comedy routine, people should be clapping at the end of our writing. Not because they think we’re geniuses, but because we made their day.