Write It Like Letterman: Finding Your Voice by Copying Others

September 12th, 2012 by Steve Maloney

RNC Viral Piece

Graphic by Kate Voisin

So a couple of weeks ago we had a little thing called Hurricane Isaac roll through New Orleans. In preparation, we took a divide and conquer approach to all the work that still needed to be done regardless of the gale force winds howling down the deserted streets. On a regular day, we’re all comfortably seated relatively near one another in our spacious Oak Street office. For Isaac, we all went home to prepare for the hurricane and work until the lights went out and our laptop batteries died.

Just as the storm was gearing up, our staff writer Pat Sugrue needed to punch up a few jokes in a viral piece about the Republican National Convention that he was working on for a client. Usually, we would convene a meeting of a few writers and creative people to bounce ideas off the walls of a conference room until something stuck, but we couldn’t do that thanks to Isaac.

Instead, Pat and I went back and forth over Google Chat until the jokes had been appropriately sharpened. Since I actually have a record of that conversation in the chat transcripts, I thought I’d shine a light on a process that has always seemed to help me in situations like this.

What it boils down to is this: sometimes you have to try to write like someone else to find your voice.

Convention Without Walls

Pat was working with one of the themes of the RNC, that it was a “convention without walls.” The first idea that popped into his head was the cognitive dissonance between wanting a convention without walls while simultaneously wanting to build bigger and increasingly more fortified walls between Mexico and the United States. My brain went a different direction.

My first thought was “what would David Letterman say?” Now, I know he is a creepy old man who has been on television so long that his relevancy waxes and wanes on the lunar cycle, but the man can tell a joke. Earlier in the week, he had said that Isaac heading toward the RNC was “further proof that God is a woman.”

That, my friends, is a well-crafted joke.

So, hearing Letterman’s voice in my head the entire time, I sent Pat this: “Delegates at the Republican National Convention say they want to have a ‘convention without walls.’ And of course by walls they mean uteruses.”

BOOM.

Pat said he was looking for more of an Onion headline, so this came next: “RNC’s ‘Convention Without Walls’ Disrupted as Al Gore Sends Hurricane Isaac to Knock Down Actual Walls.” Next I did Jay Leno: “This whole ‘convention without walls’ idea was great. Yeah. Really great. Yeah. Until the real walls blew in.”

Notice how I withheld all actual humor from the Leno joke to mimic his actual complete lack of humor. Next came Conan O’Brien: “Anthony Weiner tried to crash the RNC. Did you hear about that? He thought their motto was ‘A Convention Without Pants.’”

And that fourth one was the one we ran with.

Mature Poets Steal

Now, I know you may not often find yourself in situations where you will need to emulate late night talk show hosts, but the concept can be applied to anyone. If you are looking for something clear, concise, and with a dose of 1950s nostalgia and an edge of horror, try to think about how Stephen King would approach the subject.

Want brainy and so impossibly complex that no one can finish the book without needing another book of footnotes to explain what was going on? Try David Foster Wallace, James Joyce, or Robert Browning. (Personally, I think everyone should always try to write like Joyce in Dubliners, but pick your poison)

This kind of writing exercise may not produce the exact results you are looking for every time, but it will definitely start you off on the right track if you give it an honest try.

What are your favorite writing tricks when you get stuck?