Seth Godin Reveals the Writing Secrets That Made Him a Bestselling Author

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Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner may spend a lot of time working for his goal of helping us all invest better, but that's just part of his ambition. Really, he wants to help us all live better, and financial security is just one piece of that.

Another piece: Introducing us to fascinating new ideas and the authors who share them. So this month, the Rule Breaker Investing podcast's theme is "Authors in August," and to lead off, he's got author, entrepreneur, blogger, and marketing guru Seth Godin, whose popular nonfiction books include The Dip, Purple Cow, and Free Prize Inside.

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In this segment, Godin talks about something that will particularly interest anyone with ambitions toward becoming a published author: the process by which he turned himself into a good writer, his style, and the process he uses now to keep producing. Also, if you've never read any of his 18 books, he recommends (at Gardner's request) the one that would be best to start with, and gives his thoughts about which of his works is most likely to stand the test of time.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 1, 2018.

David Gardner: Seth, I told you this is my Authors in August theme for the podcast this month. You are a prolific writer. I'm not just talking about books. The daily content on your blog is something that you pretty much flawlessly, thoughtfully provide every single day. I can not start by asking somebody who's a wonderful and prolific author, what's the process that you use, both for sourcing the ideas that you write about, but also in terms of writing itself?

Seth Godin: Stephen King, one of the great novelists of our life, goes to writer's conferences all the time. Regularly, someone raises their hand and says to him, "What kind of pencil do you use?" He's very patient. But the thing is, it doesn't matter what kind of pencil you use. That's not the issue. For me, there are several parts about this.

Now, I need to make it really clear, I only took one English class in college. My high school English teacher wrote in my yearbook that I was the bane of her existence and I would never amount to anything. When I got in the book business, I got 800 rejection letters in a row over the course of 11.5 months. I have no gift. I'm not even ready to call it a talent.

I do think that several things are true, though. No. 1, perhaps the greatest achievement in any culture on the face of this Earth that's filled with humans is when we shift to be able to read and write. Reading and writing are asynchronous and permanent, and they enable us to be rational in how we describe things. We all have the same 26 letters to use, and we can leave behind, even if it's just one day, this message to somebody else that they can read when they want to read it, about where we are and what we know. I think that's magnificent.

What I brought to writing is this: write poorly. Write poorly, write more. Write more, write more. Sooner or later, if you write poorly long enough, you will write well.

Gardner: Have you ever read Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want To Write?

Godin: I have not. I'm worried that'll jinx me.

Gardner: [laughs] She has the same message. She taught writing last century. It's a book that's often suggested for people on creativity. She spent a lot of time with adults who were in writing classes, maybe remedial, or just professional people who hadn't written. At the end of the book -- no spoilers here, feel free to blow this one off -- she basically says, "If you want to write, then darn it, just write." [laughs] You read about 220 lovely pages in order to hear what you basically just pounded home right there. It's just the act. It's getting those reps in. It's a muscle. If you're using it, it gets stronger. If you don't, it gets weaker. Is that fair?

Godin: It is. Isaac Asimov was a friend of mine years ago. He wrote 400 books that got published. Try to imagine that. The way he did it was, every morning, he sat down in front of his manual typewriter and he typed until noon. It didn't matter if it was good, he just typed. Once your brain knows you're doing that, it can't help but want to do it better.

It's similar to the advice you'd give somebody who wants to do investing -- invest in make-believe portfolios for a long time. You'll learn the act of doing it. Well, you don't have to have anyone read your blog. You don't have to put your real name on your blog. But blogging every day is the most important thing that I can imagine telling someone to do if they want to be cogent and clear about how they're being in the world.

Gardner: Seth, if it's OK, if you're going to let us get into your process a little bit more, is that what you're doing? Do you wake up every morning and it's blog time?

Godin: I used to blog live. Once I made the commitment to be the Lou Gehrig of blogging, I didn't want to leave that up to the winds of the internet and whether I had a cold or not. I do blog every single day. For every blog that I post, I write four or five blogs that you don't see. They all end up in the queue. Every night before I go to bed, I look at tomorrow's blog post and often rewrite it. Knowing that a blog post is going to appear tomorrow causes me to think really hard about whether I'm happy with that, and it also causes me to write another blog post, because either you're falling behind on your queue, or you're not.

Gardner: Since you mentioned email earlier, and whether it would even be a thing back in the day, how much email do you get? How do you handle email? Does email interrupt your creative process? Do you let it or not?

Godin: E-mail is my worst vice. I don't drink, I don't do drugs, but I do email, and that's a mistake. I hope no one who listens to this sends me one. The last time I checked, I'd answered 137,000 emails, one at a time. It doesn't make me more productive. If someone cares enough to raise their hand and non-anonymously talk to me, I'm willing to listen, but it doesn't scale. If I had to get rid of a bad habit, that would be one of them.

Gardner: I once heard email described by AWAG as open permission to the world at large to add to your own to-do list. Is that a fairly cynical and appropriate definition of email?

Godin: [laughs] Yeah. It's a little technical, there's this thing called an API, which is software that talks to other software. When you have an API, you can make really sophisticated pieces of software work. The problem is, email is the original open API. Anyone can plug into your email. You can't stop them. That's why we have spam. That's why, if you want to be productive, you're going to have to figure out a way to live with that.

Gardner: I'm pretty confident that many of our Rule Breaker Investing podcast listeners already know Seth Godin, probably have already read at least one of his books. No doubt reads his blogs, or has them forwarded from time to time, ones that have really touched somebody else. I know you get a lot of shares out there.

I'm wondering specifically about your style. You're so terse, you're so economical with your words. It sounds like part of the reason is, you've written so much, and you do a 4:1 ratio of what you write to what you publish. I'm wondering, where did that terseness come from? In my own case, I had Mr. Carrick in 11th grade, who basically started striking out three out of every five words I was writing. It was an incredibly great experience. Did you have that in your life? How did you get to be the tersest writer that I know?

Godin: It's expensive. The extra time I put into blog posts is always to make them shorter. This is something I will be happy to teach people how to do. It comes down to this. There's this concept of design thinking. Design thinking is, what's it for and who's it for? Everything that we do. You got in the car and went to the supermarket, why did you do that? You put a sink in your house, what's it for? If you can ask yourself the "what it's for?" question on a regular basis, you'll do better work.

The question is, this blog post, what's it for? This sentence, what's it for? This word, what's it for? If it doesn't pass the "what's it for?" test, what's it there for? Get rid of it. Often, what it's there for is to defend myself, to hide, to not be clear. If I'm not clear, no one can be angry at me. I can show people how smart I am. All of those what's it fors aren't interesting to me.

If you read a scholarly journal, if you read a medical journal, the what's it for is, to let other doctors know that you're as smart as they are. You have to use certain kinds of words and certain kinds of terms and certain kinds of sentence structure. But, if the what's it for was, to explain myself, I probably wouldn't write it like that.

Gardner: Seth, do you feel, because you're such an economical writer, pressure when you speak, that people expect that you are just as perfect with your spoken word?

Godin: Well, my writing isn't perfect at all. It's rife with typos and sloppy and repetitive. That doesn't mean I'm not trying. The thing is, I write like I talk. That makes it easier to write. I don't have to adopt a new voice. Often, I talk in complete sentences. I think that's something anyone can learn to do, and I try to do it in real life, when I'm brainstorming or when I'm with a friend or when I'm teaching something. If you can teach yourself to speak in complete sentences, it's much more likely that you're thinking is going to be organized, and you're probably going to get better results.

Gardner: One more question about your books, Seth. Of all the Seth Godin books, two questions. Which is, A, the Seth Godin book to start with for somebody who's just hearing about you for the first time? B, which is the Seth Godin book that, most confidently you'll say -- I know you're too humble to even claim this would ever be the case -- 100 years from now, people will be reading?

Godin: My new book comes out in November. It's called This Is Marketing. My publisher would like me to tell you that that's the book people will be reading in a hundred years.

Gardner: [laughs] I'll even add the subtitle, because it's, This Is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn To See.

Godin: It's about work that matters for people who care. It gets at, people like us do things like this. It's the book I would have people who haven't read my work and want my professional insight to read first. Purple Cow is certainly the book most people read first. I stand by every word in it.

In terms of a hundred years from now, historically, Permission Marketing represented a substantial shift in our economy. I didn't cause it, but I was there at the right time. You can look at the before and after, of the stock market, of the economy, of our culture. Permission Marketing was in that moment there, for sure. Then, I would say, Linchpin is the book that I am the proudest of as a testament to what human beings are capable of.

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