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Comedy Rule of 365
June 16, 2010 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Joe Janes is a writer, director and teacher for the Second City Training Center and Columbia College Chicago. While in the classroom, Janes always had advice for what his students should avoid. His best advice on how to be a better writer? Write. Every. Day. And that's what he decided to do starting January 19, 2010, for 365 days.

Of course the idea of creating a new piece a theatre daily isn't new. However, some have argued that writing a new piece of comedy every day is a different beast altogether. During the process, some sketches were made into video, translated, made for radio, and even performed for Sketchfest. Now that the project is over, the entire lot has been rewritten, published, and performed. Even if it's art, it isn't above lampooning.

Janes is well known in the Chicago comedy scene and even received an Emmy for his work on a children's show in Cincinnati, but to the rest of the world he is probably better known as Raul from You Don't Know Jack.
posted by twintone (24 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whoops. He started in 2009. Ended in 2010.
posted by twintone at 11:23 AM on June 16, 2010


This is one of those popular bits of wisdom passed from bad writer to bad writer that never demonstrably makes somebody a better writer, like "write what you know" and "keep a notebook to jot down your ideas" and "writing is rewriting."

The key to good writing isn't graphomania. It's developing an editorial sensibility, and that often accompanies having one -- or, preferably, several -- great editors that you work with. But writing every day will teach you to write fast -- although writing under a deadline will teach that ever better. Being able to write quickly and lucidly is a useful and marketable skill, although not necessarily a mark of good writing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:35 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do I need to start keeping a blog about how I check Metafilter 365 days a year? I'll say it was a dare, and then every couple weeks or so I'll have an epiphany to write about.
posted by redsparkler at 11:36 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Audio versions of a couple sketches and an interview with Janes from May 2009 can be found here. Full disclosure, this is my site so I didn't post it in original post.
posted by twintone at 11:52 AM on June 16, 2010


AstroZombie has a point regarding the role having the experience of working with a tough editor can add to the writing. but writing everyday helps with faster writing as the words, concepts and ideas and how to frame them are already at your fingertips. the editor helps you figure out how best to lay it all out

in other news, joe janes is also a very nice guy
posted by infini at 11:56 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is one of those popular bits of wisdom passed from bad writer to bad writer that never demonstrably makes somebody a better writer, like "write what you know" and "keep a notebook to jot down your ideas" and "writing is rewriting."

Eh, I've got to disagree with you here. "Write what you know" is garbage advice; I much prefer "Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto" as being the writer's creed. But both "writing is rewriting" and "write every day" are solid pieces of advice. I'm not sure how you could think teaching people to rewrite couldn't make them better writers unless you honestly take "first thought, best thought" as a maxim. As a former editor, I do not. "Write every day" as a general rule is a good one because it keeps you in practice, and while I cannot say it works for everyone, it demonstrably (to me) makes me a better writer to keep the fire burning between serious projects.

Of course, I might just be a bad writer.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:04 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


The key to good writing isn't graphomania. It's developing an editorial sensibility...

Um, perhaps both these conditions are 'necessary, but not sufficient', as they say. As someone who does a hell of a lot of editing of other people's novels and scripts, I've seen my own creative output dip. I suspect this is because sustained practice has turned my internal editor into a great slavering hulk of a guy, while my creative side has atrophied and become something of an anaemic weakling. Adopting some kind of creative regimen would probably help to redress the balance. On the other hand, I have no evidence for this. I guess I'd like to believe my muse still lives, albeit in a dormant state, and it hasn't perished like a coffee jar full of sea monkeys left in the attic.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:08 PM on June 16, 2010


'm not sure how you could think teaching people to rewrite couldn't make them better writers unless you honestly take "first thought, best thought" as a maxim.

Sometimes a story benefits from rewriting, sometimes it suffers from it. An editorial sensibility is recognizing what is required to make a story better. I have dealt with editors who thought their job was to endlessly suggest revisions, because, after all, writing is rewriting, and this continued long after the revisions had started to destroy the original story.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:14 PM on June 16, 2010


The advice on what to avoid is solid. I haven't been able to watch SNL in years because the writing breaks every one of these rules.
posted by lekvar at 12:33 PM on June 16, 2010


I have dealt with editors who thought their job was to endlessly suggest revisions, because, after all, writing is rewriting, and this continued long after the revisions had started to destroy the original story.

But this is advice for writers. I do agree that developing an editorial sensibility is important, but writing every day and then rewriting it is a very good way for a writer to develop said sensibility. I've personally never written anything that couldn't be improved at least somewhat by a second draft. "Writing is rewriting" also frees the writer from fears during their first draft. You don't need to stop and ponder every sentence as it comes, you can fix it later.

Anyway, back when I was in advertising I heard this phrase, "nobody likes the taste of the soup until they've pissed in it," which I've since seen demonstrated to be true in newspapers and television as well. Of course rewriting can kill something. Drinking water can kill a person, but I still drink water every day.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:35 PM on June 16, 2010


Another thing to avoid: close-set white Courier on a black background. Head pain, head pain!
posted by bicyclefish at 12:42 PM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


But this is advice for writers.

Some writers would probably benefit. But if you read blogs regularly, there is ample evidence that writing every day encourages bad writing habits, and in no way guarantees that somebody will improve as a writer. I don't think there is any easy advice as to how to improve as a writer, and I tend to rankle at these little pearls of untested wisdom that are handed to new writers as being tricks that will make them better, as though writing is a muscle and all you have to do is exercise it to make it big and strong. I have been a writer and an editor my entire adult life, and the only environment I have seen that seems to really improve somebody's writing is a rigorous tete-a-tete with a very skilled writer or editor. And even this can be counterproductive if the pairing is wrong.

I don't discourage it daily writing -- I write every day. I just don't think it improves most people's writing skills. As to getting people over the fear of a first draft, I don't know what to say. It's like stage fright. Some people will always have it, some people just get over it, and some never have it. I used to have that buzzing editor in my head who interfered with a first draft. I killed him with alcohol instead of obsessive writing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:55 PM on June 16, 2010


I believe the "writing is rewriting" is a paraphrase of "There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” –Louis D. Brandeis
posted by twintone at 12:56 PM on June 16, 2010


I would hate to argue with the author of Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It , but there are entire categories of writing, such as the creation of surrealist stories and Taoist poetry, in which the whole point is spontaneous creation, and extensive rewriting would be counterproductive. And there are writing experiments in which the process of creating writing is paramount, and the resultant writing is informed by the process, so rewriting in these cases would be to eliminate evidence of the process. To believe that something must be rewritten to be made better is to start from a limited approach to the varieties of approaches to creating a written piece.

But "writing is rewriting" was not the intention of this particular experiment. I take no issue with the author having made it, just the assumption that is will necessarily produce better writing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:05 PM on June 16, 2010


Yes, a limited approach to the varieties of approaches.

I didn't say that I don't personally benefit from rewriting.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:06 PM on June 16, 2010


But if you read blogs regularly, there is ample evidence that writing every day encourages bad writing habits, and in no way guarantees that somebody will improve as a writer.

But if followed it does guarantee that a person actually writes. Literally not writing is what keeps a hell of a lot of people from being writers.

I agree that writing every day won't make all writers good writers--though I do think it plus revision helps many people improve. But you definitely can't improve as a writer unless you're writing in the first place, and for a lot of people "write every day" works because it's an established routine that helps push away self-doubt or procrastination or whatever is keeping people from actually writing. It's what people do in addition to writing every day that largely determines whether they're writing things other people want to read.

I think the problem with some blogs is that "write every day" becomes "make your daily pages public every day."
posted by sallybrown at 1:25 PM on June 16, 2010


"Nulla dies sine linea -- but there may well be weeks." - Walter Benjamin
posted by daniel_charms at 1:39 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I tend to rankle at these little pearls of untested wisdom that are handed to new writers as being tricks that will make them better, as though writing is a muscle and all you have to do is exercise it to make it big and strong.

I agree that there's no magic formula and any pearl of wisdom taken literally and with no critical thought can be ill-used. And you can find exceptions like Taoist poetry, sure, although they strike me as exceptions that prove the rule.

the only environment I have seen that seems to really improve somebody's writing is a rigorous tete-a-tete with a very skilled writer or editor.

Well sure, the problem being that very skilled writers and editors are extremely hard to find. Look at the dreck churned out by so many creative-writing-degree holders (Among my pearls of wisdom for aspiring writers, "don't go to college" would be near the top.) The difference between "writing is rewriting" & "write every day" and "find a really skilled and unselfish person who will work with you" is that the first two can be done by anyone who can afford a pen and a notebook and the third cannot.

Again, nothing in this world is a miracle except aspirin. But I just don't have the problem with these pieces of advice that you have. Then again, I don't drink, so maybe that's my problem.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:44 PM on June 16, 2010


Don't drink and take aspirin, I'll tell you what. That's just begging for an ulcer.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:47 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the "write every day" advice often fails to make people better writers not because it's bad advice, but because people usually don't follow it for very long. I've known loads of people like my friend Sarah who woke up one morning and decided to become a writer, immediately bought a fancy leather journal, sat down every morning for 3 months and wrote Morning Pages--or whatever the hell they're called--and then got tired of it because she hadn't written the Great American Novel yet. Even if someone keeps a daily blog for a year, that still isn't very much time, or very much practice.

I read somewhere a couple of years ago that scientists now think it takes 10 years to truly master any discipline--to build and strengthen all of those pathways in your brain--and that a lot of the geniuses in our time (and out of it) put in an unusually large amount of practice compared to their contemporaries. That dedication to practice was a large part of their genius--not all of it, obviously, but an important part of it nevertheless--
posted by colfax at 4:41 PM on June 16, 2010


Well here's the thing: Write every day (or nearly), sure, but also make it a point to learn from your writing. Don't keep writing the same damn thing every day. That, in my opinion, is why many bloggers don't seem to grow as writers-- they are churning out the same thing, in the same format, every day. I digress.

So yes, do write often. It becomes a habit of mind, and some things do become easier. But at the same time, go back and read your stuff. Learn from it. See what you'd like to do differently.
posted by Mister_A at 6:15 PM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think there's only one, unpopular and useless, rule for writing: Whatever works. It if works, do it; if it doesn't, stop it.

Kind of ambiguous, particular and equivocal, but there you go. Just like self-help books, if writing tips worked, you'd only need the one, and then you'd be a successful writer. Alas, it takes both more and less than a banal one-liner to 'make it', whatever your standard of success happens to be.

Writing every day may very well be the thing that 'works' for some people - and power to em - but to assert that it's of intrinsic worth to those who wish to write is like my insisting that feature articles are best written to the accompaniment of the Mouse on Mars album that helped produce most of mine at one time. Worked for me, may not for you.

I dunno, the proof is in the pudding, I suppose. I'm less interested in telling other people how, what and when to write (when I'm not editing) than focussing on my own writing, and garnering some satisfaction from that. A challenge enough, on some days.
posted by smoke at 6:54 PM on June 16, 2010


Stephen King preaches this gospel, although the word count varies (between 1500-3000 per day); he takes three to four days per year off. Been doing it for decades now.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:11 PM on June 16, 2010


Writing on your own, no matter how often or persistent, is like working in a vacuum. I can practice writing computer code, or working on a car, or playing bridge, but I'd have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, and I wouldn't be learning anything.

The example that always gets me is when poker pros say "just follow your instinct." That won't get you very far if you have a crappy, undeveloped instinct to follow. It's easy advice to give when you're already a pro. And even playing a million hands daily online won't make you great just by itself.

But persistent practice along with actually learning from external sources (and some level of innate talent)... that gets results.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:42 AM on June 17, 2010


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