The Jerry Seinfeld Guide to Writing

Writing and editing should be separate activities. 

When I’m in this creation mode, I shoot for a flow state. I keep my fingertips on the keyboard and measure progress by how many words I put on the page. 

My physical environment helps me be generative too. If I’m sitting down at my computer, I’ll turn on the kind of electric music you hear at Ultra Music Festival. Doing so turns writing into a party, which turns off the judgmental part of my brain and helps me be generative. If I’m not feeling the computer, I’ll go for a walk. While outside, I’ll either listen to upbeat music or turn on an interesting podcast. I have one rule: write down every epiphany immediately. The more, the merrier.  

If this creation mode is defined by quantity, the subsequent editing mode is defined by quality. 

When the editing phase begins, my body chemistry changes. I change my physical environment so I can adopt a calmer and more deliberate mindset. With these new goals in place, I follow a three-step editing process:

  1. Structure: Organizing my ideas is first priority because they’re a mess after the creation phase. I use the Islands and Bridges Strategy to organize my ideas into a logical order. Sometimes, I’ll print out individual paragraphs, throw them all on the floor, and organize them by hand. 
  2. Clarity: Ultimately, I want to make my writing so clear that my reader forgets they’re reading. So in this stage, I remove anything that would cause friction for the reader. If an idea is confusing, I reorganize it. If a sentence is confusing, I rewrite it. And if a word is unnecessary, I remove it. 
  3. Style: In this final phase, I don’t add new ideas. Instead of being generative, I search for the perfect way to describe the ideas I’ve already come up with. To do so, I diversify my vernacular, add colorful details, and give my writing rhythm by changing the length of sentences and the words inside of them.

I developed this writing system organically, during the course of writing hundreds of articles. Only later did I discover that it’s the same process that Jerry Seinfeld uses to write jokes. 

Like me, Seinfeld treats his writing self and editing self as two separate people. He treats his writing self like a baby. He nurtures it, loves it, and supports it. But once the editing phase begins, he changes his personality. He turns into a “harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch” who says “that is just not good enough. That’s got to come out or it’s got to be redone or thrown away.” 

Both of us divide writing and editing into separate activities. We see the act of writing as a process of switching back and forth between two modes of being. The creation phase is a delirious dance of action and exuberance, while the editing phase is slow… calm… and peaceful.

Create first, edit second, and never do them at the same time. 


Cover Photo by Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons