Dr. Seuss' Spinach

A brilliant lesson on editing your story

Hey — it’s Nathan.

I’m procrastinating again.

Scrolling YouTube. Avoiding the second draft. When I come across a video of Dr. Seuss. He’s talking about spinach.

And I remember a brilliant story from the biography Becoming Dr. Seuss.

I take out my blue pen, and we’re off to the races.

PS: If you miss the Hook of the Week, I added it to the bottom of the newsletter.

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Quick note

If AI wrote a novel, the number of “his heart jumped through his chest” and other cliches would make my head spin. Seriously. The storywriting is not good.

Lucky for us, it can’t write novels. But it can help you:

  • Defeat story block and get started in minutes.

  • Use the 3-Act Structure to outline your story from start to finish.

  • Combine unlimited genres and archetypes until you find the story you’re meant to tell.

On August 17th, I’m running a live workshop with the Ship30 team on AI + Storytelling. You’ll see how we use AI to help outline, sharpen ideas, build characters, and design worlds.

If that sounds interesting to you, join us. I bet your mind gets blown a time or two.

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Let’s start with an excerpt from Becoming Dr. Seuss:

“Great style is great artistry,” he admitted, “but without a story, great style is spinach,” discarded by kids in the same way unwanted food is pushed off the dinner plate.

Taking a page from Capra, he encouraged his students to carefully go through their stories with a blue pen and “underline every sentence that advances the plot. None others.

If your blue line pattern is irregular, scattered, too far between, you’re writing too much spinach,” he said. “Get back on your storyline… you’re serving meat, not salad.

Brian Jay Jones

Three reasons this is so powerful:

  1. Spinach vs. Substance

  2. The magic Blue Pen

  3. Speed, baby, speed

Now let’s look at each…

1. Spinach vs. Substance

"Spinach" means the unnecessary, often distracting elements of a story. The verbose descriptions, the tangents, the overwritten dialogue, the stuff you don’t wanna delete but know you should.

How do you identify it?

For the 5th Harry Potter, JK Rowling used this outline:

Harry Potter 5 Outline

The book is 257,045 words but only included 1 main plot and 6 subplots. Imagine she wrote a chapter solely on, say, the history of every wand in Olivanders.

That would be spinach. It may be interesting, it may be great writing, and I may even want to read it. But it doesn’t tie back to the plot or any of the subplots. Spinach.

2. The magic Blue Pen

Spinach isn’t bad writing. It’s good writing that doesn’t serve a purpose in your story. But because it’s good writing, you don’t wanna delete it.

A friendly reminder from Stephen King:

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

So, here’s how I use Seuss’ blue pen when editing the first draft of my book:

Book draft example

I’ll keep what’s in blue (maybe with a few changes). But what’s not in blue has to go. It’s spinach. Also, this is a first draft so don’t judge the writing too harshly!

Remember: “Underline every sentence that advances the plot. None others.

If your blue line pattern is irregular, scattered, too far between, you’re writing too much spinach.”

3. Speed, baby, speed

In the workshop, Dr. Seuss goes on to say:

“Cross out unnecessary words and ideas in your stories, and stay on track, going faster and faster.

Speed isn’t about how quickly events unfold, but the precision and purpose behind them. As Dr. Seuss would put it, trim the spinach.

Have an awesome weekend,


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Nathan’s Notes

5 things I found interesting this week:

Hook of the Week

Reply with your best guess of what novel this comes from. I’ll send the 17th correct reply a copy of On Writing.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.“

Want to go deeper on storytelling?

1. To get ahead of the AI curve, check out 90-Minute Novel. It’s a 90-minute training digging into writing fiction with AI. Prompts, processes, and more.

2. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (300+ students).

3. To sponsor the newsletter, check out the details here.

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