Helen Gurley Brown

Helen Gurley Brown on The Writer’s Rules

VTR Date: September 15, 1998

Guest: Brown, Helen Gurley


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Helen Gurley Brown
Title: Helen Gurley Brown on The Writer’s Rules
Recorded: 9/10/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and for some years now most weeks after this program I receive what my guest today calls “a smile letter” … that is, a letter that always manages to make me smile.

And now, of course, I know the secret behind those weekly letters … and those weekly smiles … because I’ve just read The Writer’s Rules published by William Murrow and written so wisely and well by my ever-loyal correspondent, Helen Gurley Brown, long-time Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, best selling author … and letter writer extraordinary.

The Power of Positive Prose — How To Create It and Get It Published is the sub-title of Helen Gurley Brown’s bountiful guide to all of us who have something to write and yet need to hone much finer the skills to do just that … and then to convince someone to publish us.

Of course, my guest is such a wonderfully disciplined person. I’m not surprised that she actually has rules for writing to be published, whether in books or articles.

Yet even as I ask her to elaborate upon those rules, I’m not sure that I’m disciplined enough to make them work so that what I’ve taken a stab at writing about my years in Hollywood and on the air can ever find the right editor and publisher.

However, maybe you are disciplined enough, and can make Helen Gurley Brown’s Writer’s Rules work for you. Let’s find out. Find out by asking you, Helen, what are some of those rules.

Brown: Well, first I want to say I think that’s rather a fair assumption just to read writing rules and try to use them is a little bit daunting. Rules of grammar are not like reading a wonderfully sexy novel. But they are efficacious; they do work if you want to be a writer. And let me say they came about because at Cosmo all those years people thought we were successful because of the sex, we were successful because we were so outrageous, but really the writing is what did it. Very clear. Very specific. Very literate. It was never boring. I didn’t start out being an editor, but my skill seemed to be that I could tell if something was boring the daylights out of me, it would probably happen to the person who was trying to read it if we put it in the magazine. So long, long ago, without any background for this kind of thing, I really did write down about 20 pages of rules. You asked about 15 minutes ago, what some of those rules [laughter] were. Well, I’ve now decided to tell you two or three of them. Don’t use the same word more than once in a sentence, let along four or five times. Don’t even use the same word twice in a paragraph. Go through and get out some of the “a’s” and the “and’s” and the “the’s”. It will make it much crisper. Another rule: I’m very much against “its” and “that’s” to start sentences. “It made her angry”. “Not getting the award that she expected made her angry”. “He took it out to the dock and threw it over”. He took what out; he took the garage out to the dock and threw it over. So be careful with the indiscriminate use of “it” and “that. Then vary the sentence structure. The verb and noun should be a little different. Gosh I’m sounding pedantic, but let me give you an example.

Heffner: Well, you’re a teacher.

Brown: [Laughter] I never was, I’m jealous of you … and trying to get into your world. “She went shopping. She bought a lot of things. She got into the car. She drove home. She checked into her kitchen. She began to wash the dishes. She got hungry. She went to the refrigerator”. And we’ve got “she” doing fourteen different things. Is that dull. Put a few participles in there and change the sentence structure. Then maybe a most important rule if you’re writing for publication, do please try to remember what you were talking about. Don’t have the reader pounding his or her head saying “what … I don’t know what’s going on here”. Very carefully stick to the subject. Well, there are pages and pages of those very simple little rules and three hundred clichés that you should try not to use. Those rules and the clichés existed and William Murrow said, “why don’t you put them into a little book so everybody can get the good out of them, and not only write for Cosmo, but write for any publication a little bit easier”.

Heffner: You know the only trouble, Helen, when I read the words, the phrases that shouldn’t be used again and again…

Brown: You’re using all of them. [Laughter]

Heffner: Absolutely. In using … in reading them, I thought to myself, I’ve got to keep quiet, I’ve got to get on this program and say, “Mmmmm, Mrs. Brown” and then just wait for you to talk because so many of us, and I’m number one are filled with these clichés.

Brown: Talking is easy, it is easy to use clichés. And if you have to stop and think about not using a cliché, while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re trying to say, that can get kind of complicated. So, I let you off the hook…

Heffner: Off the hook…

Brown: Off the hook…

Heffner: Now there, number 1.

Brown: With talking, which you do a lot of under very eloquently and you’re nice to listen to, but in writing, as an editor, somebody who bought other people’s material, I used to think “this is the dumbest thing you could possibly do”. We would tell all our writers not to use clichés, we would give them a list of clichés and say “check and see if you’ve been using any of these”. And nobody every bothered. But they’re so out there. I’ll just do a little paragraph.

“When Joe told her she was ugly as sin to get her goat. She said, who does he think he is, God’s gift to women? He was a sitting duck, she had his number, she went after him tooth and nail, and pretty soon he sneaked off with his tail between his legs. He was a sadder but wiser person.” There are about 16 clichés in that one little paragraph. But if you’re lazy, that’s the way you’ll say it, instead of thinking of something more original. And there are clichés in every category. Animals are big. “Horse of a different color”.

Heffner: [Laughter]

Brown: [Laughter] “Can’t look a gift horse in the face”, “the cat’s pajamas”, “worked like a dog”; “wild goose chase”; “all your ducks in a row”; “fish or cut bait”; “sly as a fox”; “quick as a bunny”. Animals alone; you could think of about a hundred clichés. So in writing after you’ve writing whatever you’re writing, it wouldn’t hurt you to go through and just meticulously take out this old, tired phrasing that we’ve heard millions of years. It’s lazy.

Heffner: Of course, I think most of us feel there would be nothing left.

Brown: [Laughter]

Heffner: I’m serious about it, too. When I read these clichés on the list. My God if I do what Helen says, there’s nothing left at all.

Brown: What’s left, my dear friend, is your thinking and your logic and your…your writing. Aside from the clichés, and even new phrases like “run it up the flagpole”, or “throw the baby out with the bath water”, or “window of opportunity”. “She went ballistic”. Instead of “she went ballistic”, just say it more simply, “she was really angry” because we won’t have heard it so often before. “Looking for Mr. Right”, “green with envy”, “blue with cold”, even “the good news and the bad news”, I’m getting sick of that. And “politically incorrect”, I guess that’s still all right, but “the old boys network”, or “male chauvinist pig”, it’s tired. Just think of a new way to do it. Obviously the clichés and the rules are not all there is to writing. It won’t hurt to check out the rules but I have a few other things to say.

Heffner: Please.

Brown: It seems a little pretentious for me to write a book about writing. I’m hardly John Grisham or Joan Didion, or…

Heffner: Oh, come on…

Brown: … or Toni Morrison. Although I’ve written a few books.

Heffner: … you’ve written best sellers.

Brown: But…

Heffner: … and you’ve edited Cosmo. How many years was it?

Brown: 32

Heffner: Okay.

Brown: I mentioned those good rules which guided us with all of our articles, and the stuff was so easy to read and that’s because of the rules. So there they are in the book for people to use. But I’m a little bit of a proselytizer in that I want people to be writing who haven’t got around to it. And I do some biographical material in The Writer’s Rules explaining that I didn’t write anything that got published until I was 32 years old and even that was just advertising copy and little block of copy in Life magazine. That wasn’t a book or a magazine article and I was, what, 43 before I edited Cosmo, 42 before I wrote a book. So what’s my point here? It’s that you may have a book in you. And you certainly have magazine article in you. Do you know that there are ten thousand magazines out there being published? That’s an MPA figure, I didn’t make it up. And they all need material, and most of it is not written on the staff. So, if you have the least inclination to be a writer … don’t do it for money … you may need a day job … as well as being a writer. But it’s there for you. So how do you get started? I started at about age seven, keeping a diary, and I kept diaries always. I still do it. That’s not for publication. That’s just to get your thoughts out and your dreams, and your angers and your anguishes and it helps to get it all down in writing. It will never be published, but anybody can keep a journal. And the second thing I think you should do, if you want to be a writer, is to write letters. You’ve already mentioned that. I started doing that when I eight or nine years old and do you know people like to get letters and if it’s done on e-mail, that’s okay. But we’re all waiting for appreciation, we’re all waiting to be thanked. We’re all waiting for pleasant news, you don’t need to write a thirteen page letter about what you and your family did at Lake Wacahatchie last summer, but if you write a letter complimenting the receiver on something that he or she has done, you’re going to be very popular. And it also teaches you how to write.

Heffner: That’s so interesting, Helen, because you make that point so clearly that you learned how to write and you learned the basis for The Writer’s Rules by writing those letters. You were a great letter writer. Do you think it was your letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt that got him to reply the way he did?

Brown: And I was, how old … 14 years old … my sister had polio. She’s in the Orthopedic Hospital in Los Angeles. She doesn’t have many laughs. So I wrote to Joan Crawford and Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked if they would write to her. Joan Crawford I never heard from. Darling Franklin Roosevelt wrote this wonderful little letter, “Dear Mary, Your sister tells me that you’re in the hospital and that you have had polio. I hope you are progressing so very well. I’m thinking about you all the time. All my best wishes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. We took it to a store to find out if it was the real thing. And it was. That’s just one little example. Maybe the President of the United States can’t always get around to answering your mail. But that doesn’t mean you should not write.

Heffner: But you know, Helen, when I read The Writer’s Rules what kept going through my mind, going through my mind … another cliché…

Brown: {Laughter]

Heffner: … what I thought was that Helen probably always could write … letters and then more letters and then articles or copy and then articles and then books. Why are you so sanguine about the ability of those who, let’s say are willing to apply themselves, let’s say are willing to use those rules, who let’s say are able to discipline themselves. Who let’s say have something to say … their ability to write.

Brown: Richard, everybody has something in him or her that can be said that other people would like to read. That doesn’t require self-discipline to know that. Sitting down to do it, if you’ve had a long history of writing something … letters or a diary, at least you can get the words out of your brain on to the word processor or into the typewriter or onto the page. And I don’t say a great deal in this little book about how to write except to say write the way you talk. Or the way you think. You don’t say “he hiked himself down to the hardware store to pick up the commodities he felt might be useful to him. Somewhat later in the day, he went to the hardware store to buy a hammer”. Just try to be a little bit simple. Then when I was a young advertising copywriter, having been a secretary in 17 secretarial jobs for 13 years, what did I know? I had a very benevolent boss who said I could try to write copy in his advertising agency. He thought I was a nice girl and deserved a chance. And we were all given, us copywriters, a book called The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. And in my book The Writer’s Rules I have borrowed generously from Strunk & White and made some of those rules our rules.

Because anybody can profit just from reading that. It doesn’t mean you’re ever going to be William Shakespeare, but you can write more simply, more direct. But I’m back to my original premise which is writing is not a chore, it doesn’t take self-discipline. It’s really kind of an indulgence to write abut yourself, to write your thoughts, to write your dreams, and if you should just happen to put some of those in a letter to somebody else … I’m big on love letters, as you know from reading the book. And by “love letters” I don’t mean Romeo and Juliet. I just mean that when my husband goes on a trip I’ve got a letter tucked into a breast pocket in one of his suits that he will read when he gets to the Belair Hotel. Anybody can do that. I don’t have the franchise on that. Love letters are not mushy and sexy, they’re just sweet. You can leave one under his pillow; you can leave one on the breakfast table. Certainly when he’s away … I know there’s telephone and we do a lot of telephoning. I’m trying to get the written word to be as popular as the spoken word. We know people like to read books, but why don’t you do some writing yourself and get into one of those books. Or one of those magazine articles. It’s out there for you.

Heffner: God, Helen, you and your optimism, pushing abilities. You know I wrote a question just before, before you came into the studio. I wrote myself a question because it was the thing that occurred to me as the most important thing. Is it fair to say, Helen Gurley Brown, to say that you think that writing … well enough to be published is not just for God’s chosen few, but for all of her children who are literate and hard working, have something to say and who follow The Writer’s Rules. If you do think that, then I have to say I think my friend Helen Gurley Brown is kind of naive. That you’re taking your God-given ability, and it is a real ability, and you’re saying, in your inimitable fashion … anyone could really do this.

Brown: May I say that everybody can’t write everything. I can talk a little bit on television if somebody asks me questions. But I can’t do what you do. And we can’t all write…

Heffner: You just demonstrated that you can do anything at all, and I’ve seen you on television do anything.

Brown: Excuse me for bringing up television regarding writing. I’ve heard this cliché … the great American novel. I’ve even known idiot people who take a year off and go and live in Tucumcari, New Mexico in order to write their great American novel. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not talking about the GAN, as in great American novel. I’m talking about writing something and getting it published because it is so much fun to see your by-line there. And the way to get started probably is to write for a magazine. I mentioned ten thousand…

Heffner: Ummhm.

Brown: There are all the airline magazine. There are magazines that don’t have great circulations; you could start writing for your company house organ. If you do that every month, that’s writing. People are reading your writing. I didn’t start on the school paper, I guess that’s one way to start. But just know that you can do it. So I wouldn’t start with Playboy magazine, or Esquire magazine, or possibly even Cosmopolitan. I would start with a lesser magazine that doesn’t have that grand circulation because they need material. And there’s a chapter in this book … very carefully wrought about how to query a magazine as to whether they would be interested in what you’re writing about. And let’s say it’s a 19 year old girl who’s gone kayaking with her four younger brothers and her father and she was so bored she thought she was going to kill herself until she kind of got into it. Who’s going to read a story like that? Well, there’s YM magazine, there’s Seventeen magazine. Read any magazine that you think you might get into about five issues in a row, to see the kind of stuff that you do, and don’t send your kayaking story to Vanity Fair, they ain’t gonna be interested. But there’s some publication out there that would probably be receptive to something that’s happened to you. And there’s a chapter on whom to send it to, how to write the query, how much to write, how little to write and how will your article be different from what has been seen before. If you’ve never had anything published, you can do it on “spec”, that means you don’t asked to be paid. Just sit down and do it. I did two of those for Glamour magazine and never heard a word. [Laughter] So, it doesn’t always work. But it gets you in the habit of writing and feeling like a writer. Because everyone can be one. May I say, you’re so good at listening, you don’t interrupt when somebody’s been talking for thirteen minutes. But you don’t even have to be a great reader. I was never a great reader, I’m not very literary. And … my sister was the reader. We had horrible fines at the Little Rock public library because she was such a reader they would let her check out six books in a row, she never paid the fines. The family had to clean up after her voracious reading habit. I never read anything by the Bobsey Twins, and the Sun Bonnet Girls in Holland. But, it doesn’t hurt to read other people’s work. But don’t suppose that that’s going to make you a writer. All you do is get jealous you can’t write as good as they do. You know everybody reads Angela’s Ashes and thinks, “Oh, my lord, what a book!” And it is. It’s …it’s lovely. But you don’t have to be Frank McCort and write anything that wonderful. You just have to write something. Therefore, comparing yourself to really big, successful writers … big mistake. Why don’t you compare yourself to somebody in a lesser publication?

Heffner: You want me to say something in response?

Brown: Ummhm.

Heffner: I think you’re wonderful, Helen. I always have. And I wondered whether your experiences, you talked about the ten thousand magazines … your experience is that we are more and more or less and less of a people who still want to communicate with the written word. You said, “well, forget about television” before. You think we’re still there with the written word?

Brown: I believe we are still there as witnessed by the ten thousand magazines. Those are words … they’ve got a lot of pictures, but People magazine isn’t just pictures of movie stars, it’s got words underneath saying what those people are doing. All those magazines, and some of them have circulation in the millions, and all those books about a thousand hard cover books are published every week. Some of them are re-makes … they have been out before and they are re-published a few years later. But all those books are still being published. Have you been by Borders or B. Dalton, or the Coliseum Book Store? They are masses of books and somebody’s buying them or those people would not be there selling them. There’s something about reading that’s so yummy, if I can use a girlish word. And for … I’m not the only one … there are a lot of people out there, you might be one, who find reading just sort of delicious. It gets into you a different way than bang, bang, bang with the spoken word. Even children read because it’s a delicious experience. So to answer your very reasonable question in one word…

Heffner: [Laughter]

Brown: Yes.

Heffner: [Laughter]

Brown: Yes. There are still enough readers out there so that people who might like to write for them have a viable thing to do.

Heffner: So you say “phooey” to those who have been warning for, my god, forty years now that we’ve stopped reading or we’re stopping to read and to write and we’re becoming … remember there was a cartoon many years ago about the future … who would be the man or the woman of the future? Someone not with two eyes, but with one eye in the center of the forehead … a Cyclops, cause all you need to do is focus on the picture screen. Your take obviously is that we’re not made for that. We’re made to read and to write.

Brown: And to listen. Of course, there is music and there are…

Heffner: No, I know…I know.

Brown: … there are spoken words. But it’s not just I who think so, I’ve already mentioned, excuse the cliché … the proof of the pudding [laughter] … which is all those…

Heffner: I’ve heard that cliché before today.

Brown: … all those bookstores and all those magazines which are basically words. I’ll take Vanity Fair as an example. That magazine has lots of pretty pictures, but gosh the articles are fascinating and The New Yorker, some of us are still loyal and true. Because that’s reading. I’m reading two issues of The Nation right now … that’s a different kind of publication for me to read. But it’s fascinating. The Atlantic Monthly has the best written stuff that you could hope to see, and then there … hey, there’s a little something we didn’t mention … what about newspapers? There’s a…

Heffner: What about newspapers, Helen Gurley Brown?

Brown: Well, they’ve gotten trashier, but the OpEd pages of the New York Times are still well written and interesting to peruse every day and every weekend. Newspapers have got a lot of writing in them, and I should have mentioned earlier that that’s another venue for your writing possibilities.

Heffner: But you know, you … listening to you I know I have to dismiss the … my senses and what they tell me because what my students indicate to me is that we are reading and writing much, much less … by their performance. And I’m not condemning them, but at least I can take the video of this program, show it to them, and say, “Hey, Helen Gurley Brown says ‘nonsense, all the cries of woe is me, woe is us’,” not true, that we’re still reading and writing.

Brown: But the proof is there in the number of books that are published. They’re not publishing those to make losses and the magazines that are published and the newspapers that are published. At college campus book stores, Cosmopolitan has been the number one seller for the last 16 straight years, and Cosmo, under my aegis, and to a certain extent since I have left, is a reading … r-e-a-d-i-n-g … magazine. From the words that you read, you glean helpful things for your life. And your students may be a little discouraged, but aren’t they reading anything? I doubt that that’s the case.

Heffner: That’s the point, Helen, because I don’t want to answer that question at which I say, thank you so much Mrs. Brown, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Brown: It’s not over, is it?

Heffner: It’s over.

Brown: Oh, rats. [Laughter]

Heffner: And when it’s over, it’s over. Helen, thank you for joining me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to:

The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program