Writing anything is hard work. Writing humor—and being successful at it—is an entirely different, insanely challenging beast.
Which is what makes American humorist David Sedaris so damn unique.
It’s seems as though it’s almost impossible for Sedaris to miss the mark. Case in point? His 2000 essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day—the book which probably solidified Sedaris as a bona fide comedic juggernaut—was the recipient of practically flawless reviews.
In the 15 years since, Sedaris has been everywhere. In addition to releasing five newer collections of essays and stories, his work has appeared in the New Yorker over 40 times, as well as countless other places, and he’s lectured all over the country and made rounds on the late-night circuit.
It’s one thing to hit one out of the park from time to time; there’s a reason the phrase “one-hit wonder” is in our collective lexicon. But Sedaris seems to crush it every time he puts his pen to paper.
So how is Sedaris so prolific? Consider six lessons he’s shared with aspiring writers.
Narrow your focus.
Life is busy, and it’s full of distractions. Great writing won’t come from penning a sentence here and there in between watching television, checking social media and texting your friends. For your writing to be successful, you’ve got to focus.
One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The gist … was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.
While you might not have to shun your friends, family or health to become a successful writer, you will have to rid your life of as many distractions as possible.
For writing to be engaging, it’s got to be conversational. Sedaris found himself struggling with the cadence of some of his sentences, scratching his head after pieces had been published wondering why sentences just sounded so wrong.
That all stopped when he started reading every sentence he wrote out loud:
I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like ‘damn, how did I not catch that?’ But you pretty much always catch it when you’re reading out loud.
Take it to the crowd.
You might think that every line you pen is golden. Unfortunately, your opinion of your own work is not the one that matters.
Sedaris routinely takes his material on the road, reading it in front of audiences to gauge their response. Based on that reaction, he knows precisely what he has to work on:
When I’m in the theater it’s my job to be as entertaining as a person can be just sitting behind a podium and reading out loud. I mean it’s the laziest form of show business that there is. But if a laugh feels cheap to me or it feels like it’s going to date really quickly, I try to take it out as soon as possible and replace it.
Write every day.
It’s easy to say you’re a writer. It’s another thing to, you know, actually write.
Sedaris forces himself to write every day. He responds to fans thusly in a Q&A in the New Yorker:
I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day. At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking. It helped to have jobs that involved running around, pushing things like dish carts and wheelbarrows. It would be hard to sit at a desk all day, and then come to sit at another desk.
While it might be hard to find the time to write, stories, articles and essays will never get finished if you’re not actually working on them.
From time to time, it affects every writer. In a Reddit AMA, Sedaris revealed his trick for conquering writer’s block:
Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll open an English textbook, and do the homework. There are a lot of college writing textbooks that will include essays and short stories, and after reading the story or essay, there will be questions such as … “When was the last time you saw YOUR mother drunk?” and they’re just really good at prompting stories. You answer the question, and sometimes that can spring into a story.
It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t put undue stress on yourself. Don’t trap yourself into thinking that you’re penning the next War and Peace every time you sit down to write a sentence.
More from the New Yorker Q&A:
It helps to abandon hope. If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence. It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun. At least if you’re writing humor.
Sedaris is a pretty straightforward writer, and he takes a straightforward approach to his craft. To write successfully, the humorist says, you need to regularly set aside quiet time and force yourself to put words down on paper. Once you’re satisfied with those words, bounce them off of other brains. Then use what they say to make your writing better.