Saturday, March 3, 2012

Some Writing Advice From Dr. Seuss

Happy belated birthday Dr. Seuss!

Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would have been 108 years old yesterday. In my opinion, he ranks up there with some of the greatest authors that have ever lived.

I used to have One Fish, Two Fish, Old Fish, New Fish completely memorized. I was bizarrely proud of this accomplishment. Every night, my children and I would sit surrounded by a pile of books and read, and read, and read. When it finally came time for One Fish, Two Fish, I would give a little sigh, shut my exhausted eyes and begin:

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish
Black fish, blue fish, old fish, new fish
This one has a little star.
This one has a little car.
Say! What a lot of fish there are!

This ended up being ironic, since it turns out that Dr. Seuss once wrote, "You'll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut." It's true, Dr. Seuss, but sometimes a mom's just GOT to.

The Dr. Seuss book I read the most often was probably There's A Wocket In My Pocket. It wasn't because it was the best, but because it was the shortest. It was perfect for those days when I wanted to be a good mom and read to my kids, but I wanted to be finished in under five minutes. J

My youngest son was obsessed with Dr. Seuss. We "searched high and searched low" for every Dr. Seuss book ever written--even the 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins and Thidwick, The Big Hearted Moose. My youngest is gifted mathematically, and I think it was the mathematical side of him that was pulled to the cadences of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss wrote most of his books in anapestic tetrameter, which is composed of two weak beats followed by one strong, like this:

On the FIFteenth of MAY in the JUNgle of NOOL in the HEAT of the DAY by the COOL of the POOL. (From Horton Hears A Who).
Seuss generally maintained this meter quite strictly, until late in his career, when he no longer maintained strict rhythm in all lines. The consistency of his meter was one of his hallmarks; the many imitators and parodists of Seuss are often unable to write in strict anapestic tetrameter, or are unaware that they should, and thus sound clumsy in comparison with the original."
He also wrote in trochaic tetrameter, (an arrangement of four units each with a strong followed by a weak beat) or it's opposite, iambic tetrameter (an arrangement of four units each with a weak beat followed by a strong.)

ONE fish TWO fish RED fish BLUE fish (trochaic tetrameter)

My HAT is OLD. My TEETH are GOLD. I HAVE a BIRD I LIKE to HOLD. (iambic tetrameter)

The first book Dr. Seuss ever published was To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and it was rejected 27 times before it was finally accepted by Vanguard Press. Isn't it nice to know that even someone as obviously gifted as Dr. Seuss wasn't universally admired the moment he jumped into the writing scene? Just like us!

Advice for writers from Dr. Seuss:

"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." (A Writer Teaches Writing, by Donald Murray)

"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." ("Dr. Seuss's Green-Eggs-and-Ham World," by Judith Frutig)

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” 
Dr. Seuss

“I'm afraid that sometimes you'll play lonely games too. Games you can't win 'cause you'll play against you.” 
Dr. Seuss

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” 
Dr. Seuss

“If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.” 
Dr. Seuss

 “You can get help from teachers
 But you are going to learn 
A lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room. 
All alone! Whether you like it or not, 
Alone is something you'll be quite a lot!” 
Dr. Seuss
, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” 
Dr. Seuss

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 
Dr. Seuss
, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

“If you want to catch beasts you don't see every day, 
You have to go places quite out of the way, 
You have to go places no others can get to. 
You have to get cold and you have too get wet, too.” 

“Fame! You'll be famous, as famous as can be, with everyone watching you win on TV, Except when they don't because sometimes they won't..” 

“You have to be a speedy reader because there’s so so much to read.” 
Dr. Seuss
, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

 “If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too.” 
 Dr. Seuss


  1. I really enjoyed your analysis of Dr. Seuss, especially the scansion. (I'll remember to use this when I teach scansion the next time.)

    I love Dr. Seuss. My favorite is the poem "Too Many Daves." When my kids were little we read a lot of One Fish, Two Fish and Wocket. When they were older, they loved Scrambled Eggs Super.

    I can't wait until I have grandkids and get to introduce new little people to Dr. Seuss.

  2. I don't know what age you teach, Connie, but I can imagine fun lesson plans for scansion and Dr. Seuss for any age from Kindergarten right through college! My 7 year old and I had a great time finding the examples I used.

  3. Love this post Melanie. I love Dr. Seuss. He is brilliant. I never heard of anapestic tetrameter before, but I always knew he had perfect rhythm. It was what made his books such a joy to read.

    Green Eggs and Ham is my favorite picture book ever. I try to use it to get my kids to try new foods.

  4. Count me in with the Dr. Seuss fans! I heard someone talk about children's books and say that publishers tend to prefer non-rhyming ones... because so many authors write bad rhymes. And then there's Dr. Seuss, who made rhyming brilliant and fun and addictive and both my children have been entranced by him.

    True made-up story: My husband and I went to the University of Virginia, where students are known as Wahoos or Hoos for short. There is a manor house on Lewis Mountain that overlooks the campus, kind of like how the Grinch looks down on Whoville. Urban legend had it that Dr. Seuss had lived in that house but was rejected from UVA (or had some other beef with them; details vary). It's completely false. He never even lived in Virginia, and he went to Dartmouth. Not to mention, Whoville has Whos, not Hoos. But I'm sure UVA students are still telling each other that story.

    Great post, Melanie!

  5. Fantastic post! Great way to honor a true genius. Oh The Places You'll Go is one of the most beautiful books ever written.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  6. I love this. I'm a big fan of the Doctor... And Doctor Seuss. Great Post.


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