You Don’t Need a Decoder Ring or Special Undies to Write

Great advice from Harlan Ellison

Creative Commons

A writing legend Harlan Ellison died last summer. Ellison wrote in just about every genre but known for his Sci-Fi and speculative fiction stories. He also produced work on about every platform possible (novels, short stories, TV, film, and audio).

Ellison was a brash man who had strong opinions about writing and the industry. He also was married five times and maybe not a guy to invite over for Sunday brunch.

Regardless of Ellison’s temperament and multiple failed relationships he offers solid advice for writers. Behind the rough veneer of Ellison he tried to champion the ordinariness of writing. Remove the mythical nature of word slinging and bring it down to the bottom shelf of mere mortals.

Ellison wanted people to know that writing didn’t require super powers or specialized degrees.

In fact, he once said:

…the hard part of writing isn’t becoming a writer, rather, staying a writer.

For all of Ellison’s controversy surrounding his personal life he wanted writers to write. Not only write, but write fast, often, and well.

Ellison was a professional writer for fifty years and made a great living. But what did it take? How did he do it? What insights does he offer us mere mortals?

Writing in Public

In the early 90s, Ellison showed up to a bookstore with a typewriter. He asked the crowds to give him a story idea. As he sat among the crowds, with no outline, no delete button, and amid the clanking of typewriter keys, cash registers, and chatty patrons, he wrote short stories.

Ellison typed out an almost 5000 word story with nothing other than an idea from a customer. He then taped the story in progress on the store window for the public to see. No tricks, edits, rewrites, or polishes. One clean first draft.

Some of these stories won prestigious awards.

What’s the point of Ellison’s public stunt?

O’Neil De Noux from SleuthSayers.org comments on the public-writing experience. He paraphrases what Ellison said:

“He explained he wrote this way to rebuke the belief writing is mystical, a special process reserved for the few who know the rules, know the secret handshake, wear the invisible super-secret decoder ring. He wanted to show a writer did not need an outline or writing in support groups, critiquing, did not even need re-writes.”

Die to the Writing Myths

Did you catch that? The myths and dumb ideas and traps many writers fall into are right here:

1. Writing is mythical and reserved for a special group of people. A group I’m not part of.

2. You need an outline (If you’re writing nonfiction a good idea).

3. You need a support group, critique group, or beta readers. Nope.

4. You need to re-write your work to death (A polish and editor is wise).

I’m not saying we all need to follow the advice of Ellison hook, line, and sinker. Do you, and work according to your place in the writing journey, gifts, abilities, etc.

But what Ellison wanted to show by writing in public is that much of the common wisdom and advice shared in the writing community is flat wrong:

Writing is for special snowflakes, you need critique groups to shred your work, you have to re-write your stories to death, and being prolific is a bad idea…

Professional working writers use none of this bad advice. Much of the advice has nothing to do with writerly wisdom handed down from successful writers through the ages.

The advice above is from school teachers, college professors, good-willed parents, and people who have published nothing.

Advice rooted in the fears and insecurities of writers who are still polishing a novel from 1992.

We all have fear and insecurity, of course. But Ellison was a professional for longer than most of us have been alive. He might’ve known something about writing and the industry. Much of what still holds true today.

Write a lot, ditch the outline, tell good stories, send it out, tell others, and do it again.

You don’t need a decoder ring or special undies to do so.

Go get those words on the page…


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Ryan J. Pelton is a teacher and genre-nomad author with over seventeen fiction and nonfiction titles to date. He also hosts a popular writing and publishing podcast, The Prolific Writer. Ryan reads, writes, naps, and nurses a Diet Coke addiction, with his wife and four children in Kansas City, Missouri. Buy a book and send his kid’s to college.