METICULOSITY IS THE KEY
He sold 222 million books, won two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Yet his first book was rejected twenty seven times and his wife had to dissuade him from burning it. His birthday has now been adopted as National ‘Read Across America’ day.
Who was he? His name was Theodor Geisel.
You probably know him better as Doctor Seuss.
What can we learn about books from a man who sold 200 million of them?
Well, six things anyway.
1. THE READER IS ALWAYS RIGHT EVEN WHEN THEY CAN’T READ
In May 1954 Life magazine published a report on illiteracy in school children. It claimed that children were not learning to read because their books were boring; “pallid primers with abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls”.
So William Spaulding, director of educational books at Houghton Mifflin, compiled 348 words he thought were essential for early readers and asked Geisel to write a book using 250 of those words and only those words.
At first Geisel thought the idea “impossible and ridiculous.’ But he tried anyway. Nine months later, he came back to Spaulding with ‘The Cat in the Hat.’
It uses only 238 words and was written in rhymed anapestic dimeter. This heartwarming story of appalling parental negligence and possible marital infidelity still outsells most new works of children’s books even today.
2. YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW AS LONG AS YOU KNOW IT.
History’s greatest children’s author did not have children of his own. He would say, when asked about this, “You have ‘em; I’ll entertain ‘em.”
3. “MAKE THEM TURN THE PAGES.”
‘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.)
4. ITS NOT THE WORD COUNT. IT’S MAKING EVERY WORD COUNT.
‘Green Eggs and Ham’, which last year sold half a million copies, has just fifty words in it.
His publisher, Bennett Cerf, bet him fifty dollars he couldn’t do it. He was wrong.
Forty-nine of the words in “Green Eggs and Ham” are one-syllable words. (The fiftieth, is “anywhere.” But when you read it to a kid, it sounds like three words.)
“Green Eggs and Ham” was the most successful book Dr. Seuss ever wrote and the fourth best-selling children’s hardcover title of all time.
5. DR SEUSS’S ANSWER TO ‘WHAT IS THE KEY TO GOOD WRITING?’
Yes, you’re right, it’s not even a word.
6. YOU CAN WRITE A MORAL TO YOUR STORY. JUST DON’T BEAT YOUR AUDIENCE OVER THE HEAD WITH IT
Geisel always said that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off,” yet almost all his stories have a moral. ‘The Lorax’ is about environmental issues, ‘The Sneetches’ is about racial prejudice. He also wrote about the arms race (‘The Butter Battle Book’), consumerism (‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’), and isolationism (‘Horton Hears a Who!’). Hitler was ‘Yertle the Turtle.’
But the moral never came first. The story did. The story always must. Doctor Seuss knew that.
Just ask your kid.
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG-13