Why I Read It: This weekend happens to be one of those weekends in which I found myself facing more writing obligations than I can possibly get through in a weekend. I need to write for grad school. I need to write lessons for my classes. I need to write for professional development. In truth I could spend 48 hours in front of my computer and still wind up short of my goals. But I have to be productive. And I have to write well enough that no one will read what I have written and question my qualifications as a teacher of English.
So, as I have done numerous times in the past, I have turned to McSweeney’s for inspiration. More specifically, I have turned to Colin Nissan’s “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do,” a humorous take on writing manuals. I’ve probably read this piece two dozen times. I used to have a copy of it tacked to a corkboard next to my desk. In moments of need, I would pluck it off the wall and give it a quick scan. It has always made me laugh and I almost always find it easier to write after reading it.
Who Wrote It: Before I went to write this post, I thought Colin Nissan was the nom de plume of some anonymous contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The site is
known for a stripped down style. It provides no biographical details or portraits for any of its contributors, even those who have attained some degree of celebrity, such as Michael Ian Black and Josh Gondelman. I’d also heard a rumor that many of the early articles on the site were ghostwritten by Dave Eggers, the site’s brilliantly creative founder. I kind of assumed that “The Ultimate Guide” was one of his.
As it turns out, though, Colin Nissan is a real person who really wrote “The Ultimate Guide.” Though he may not exist in the eyes of Wikipedia, he does have a personal website (with an even more minimalistic aesthetic than that of McSweeney’s). He has also been published in The New Yorker, and he has written commercials and advertisements for major companies. Googling him also reminded me that he was responsible for the most iconic McSweeney’s article of all time: “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, M***********s.”
Given my love for “The Ultimate Guide” and “Decorative Gourd Season,” I’m now looking forward to seeking out more of Nissan’s work. But I’ve gotta get through this weekend first.
What It Is: “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do” satirizes the tropes long-associated with writing manuals. The article’s headings, such as “Write Every Day,” “Find Your Muse,” and “Read, Read, Read,” might have been swiped directly from any book with the word “writing” in its title. Nissan even borrows some of the old clichés from these books. For example, the section “Write Every Day” opens with “Writing is a muscle,” a tired and somewhat bizarre metaphor. But then Nissan layers on the absurdity:
Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.
The blend of the familiar and the farcical makes the article tremendously fun.
In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White employ dry British humor to great effect. In On Writing, Stephen King writes about writing with unbridled honesty, holding the reader on the edge of his seat. Nissan’s approach, by contrast, is to take the task of offering instruction on writing as un-seriously as possible. Silliness is his mode of choice.
More often than not, this silliness manifests itself in sudden turns down unlikely alleyways of thought. Consider, for example, what Nissan does with a well-worn admonition in a section called “Learn From the Masters”:
Mark Twain once said, “Show, don’t tell.” This is an incredibly important lesson for writers to remember; never get such a giant head that you feel entitled to throw around obscure phrases like “Show, don’t tell.” Thanks for nothing, Mr. Cryptic.
The fact that the masters teach us nothing about writing in this section is humorous in itself. The fact that Mark Twain never directly said “Show, don’t tell” takes the humor to a different level. It suggests that the author has no basis for his claim, being unfamiliar with the masters’ instruction. But the double irony is that Mark Twain, like Oscar Wilde, was also a master of the sudden turn for comedic effect. So evidently Nissan learned from the masters after all.
If I had to sum up “The Ultimate Guide,” I would describe it as a writing manual that offers no meaningful instruction on the art of writing. However, it is so cleverly written that it actually inspires others to write “better than [they] normally do.”
Why YOU Should Read It: Writing under obligation can be an onerous challenge. It’s hard enough to think of something to say and find the focus and motivation to sit down and say it. Then you have to figure out how to say the thing. You add a thousand rules and guidelines along with the pressure of writing for a particular audience and writing after countless others have likely addressed the same subject before, and pretty soon you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Colin Nissan’s guide to writing is a reminder that writing can be fun. Rules can be ignored or even derided. Truisms are never absolute. In the end, the only style that really matters is the one that feels right to the writer.
The next time you find yourself being crushed by the weight of required writing, give “The Ultimate Guide” a chance. It’s the sort of quick read that makes everything feel just a little bit lighter.