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"We Can Do Better": Dr. Seuss on Writing

By

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)

USPS commemorative postage stamp, issued March 2, 2004

In this article, we collect some grownup advice on writing from Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to children and adults as Dr. Seuss.

It has often been said
there's so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That's why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader's relief is.

In the spring of 1984, Ted Geisel was startled to find out that he'd been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. "It comes right out of left field, particularly after all these years," the then 80-year-old author said. "I'm a writer who has to eat with the children before the adults eat" (quoted in Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography, by Judith and Neil Morgan, Da Capo Press, 1996).

Known to readers everywhere as Dr. Seuss, Geisel hadn't always been a writer of children's stories. Early in his career he published satirical articles, wrote advertising copy, and drew political cartoons. But even after gaining fame with books about Horton, the Grinch, and other comic characters, he kept his older readers in mind as well. Oh, the Places You'll Go! (1990) may have a reading level of ages four to eight, but it's most popular as a graduation gift for high school and college students.

Geisel's thoughts on writing may also be more appropriate for grownups than for kids. After all, the key to good writing, he once said, is "meticulosity"--a peculiarly Seussian quality that takes years to learn.

Winnow Out and Write Tight!

You can fool an adult into thinking he's reading profundities by sprinkling your prose with purple passages. But with a kid you can't get away with that. Two sentences in a children's book is the equivalent of two chapters in an adult book.

For a 60-page book I'll probably write 500 pages. I think that's why it works. I winnow out.
(quoted in "Dr. Seuss's Green-Eggs-and-Ham World," by Judith Frutig, The Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1978)

Keep It Alive!

We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it alive and vital. Virtually every page is a cliff-hanger--you've got to force them to turn it.
(quoted in A Writer Teaches Writing, by Donald Murray, Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

Learn by Yourself!

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
("On Becoming a Writer," The New York Times, May 21, 1986)

Exaggerate!

I tend to basically exaggerate in life, and in writing, it's fine to exaggerate. I really enjoy overstating for the purpose of getting a laugh. It's very flattering, that laugh, and at the same time it gives pleasure to the audience and accomplishes more than writing very serious things. For another thing, writing is easier than digging ditches. Well, actually that's an exaggeration. It isn't.
(interview in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1976)

Do Better!

In late 1990, Ted's biographers asked if, after all that he had said in his books, there was anything left unsaid. Several days later, Ted handed them a sheet of paper on which he had written: "Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I'm doing, I always tell myself, 'You can do better than this.'

"The best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: 'We can . . . and we've got to . . . do better than this.'"
(Melissa Kaplan, "Theodor Seuss Geisel: Author Study," Sonoma State University, 1995)
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