Lessons Learned Building The Onion

Scott Dikkers on the value of persistence over talent, believing in yourself even when you don’t want to, and finding the courage to ship

Scott Dikkers, founder of The Onion and author of How to Write Funny joins Stew Fortier to discuss the value of persistence over talent, how to believe in yourself even when you don’t want to, and finding the courage to ship.

1. Don’t rely on “talent” to save you. Instead, lean on self-belief and hard work.

After working in the entertainment industry for many years, one thing that continues to surprise Scott is how little innate talent seems to correlate with success. You want to be good, of course, but there’s a lot more that goes into succeeding than just innate talent.

“It's not the funniest, or the most talented, or the most creative people who succeed, it's the people who work the hardest, who put themselves out there. Who produce work, publish work, and put work in front of people.

Now, there's a certain type of personality that can do that. You have to believe in yourself. You have to somehow on some level think that whatever you have to say is worth seeing, and for a lot of people, a lot of really funny, talented people, they're not there.

They don't have that feeling. They feel like what they say isn't important, what they have to say doesn't matter. It's not going to be entertaining to anybody. So, they reject themselves before they ever give themselves a chance to be rejected by the wider audience, or by the powers that be who might publish something, or whatever.

The only people who ever succeed at anything in the creative space are the people who have that gumption, that persistence, and that work ethic of actually putting work together and putting it out there.

Among those people, a lot of them aren't very talented and they still do fine. They get work out there, they get jobs, they get hired on sitcoms, wherever they go. But, there's a small percentage of them that are really good, and they learn as they go, and they develop their skill. And obviously, that's a hallmark of doing this, is that the more you do it, the more you learn about it, and the better you get at it.”

2. If you’re struggling to get work out, put yourself in a situation where you’ll be required to publish.

Scott has worked with plenty of writers who have the raw skills and talent necessary to produce great work but struggle to ship because of self-doubt. His solution? Firm deadlines. 

“Giving those people a mission, giving them a deadline, and giving them some work to do that is fun, was really helpful to them. And that's what's helped me too, is creating some sort of artificial construct where I have to produce work, and get it out there, has been incredibly helpful to me. It keeps me busy. To use another religious truism, the devil finds work for idle hands.

I signed up to do a comic strip. I signed up to do a daily comic strip, which I did for 10 years. And that kept me busy. It kept me producing, kept me on the right path. Because when you're working, you're improving, you're getting better. You're building a body of work, all that is good.

And then The Onion was a publication that came out every week, and we had to fill eight, 12, sometimes 16 tabloid-sized sheets of newsprint with funny content every single week. And that doesn't write itself. You have to sit down and you have to turn it out.

Sign up for deadlines where you have to produce work, and you'll produce something. It may not be great, but that's fine. Like, it can't all be great. Every article we ever printed in The Onion, wasn't great. It's all about the volume, and it's about building the body of work. 

When I first started doing my comic strip, you don't think I was terrified to produce a comic strip that I didn't think was that great, and give it to the newspaper and have them print it?  Everybody's reading it and thinking, ‘Oh my God, that sucks?’ Yeah, I was terrified of that, but I had to do it. It was my responsibility. It was my job.

You need to sign up for something that is not voluntary. You can just sign up for something that forces you to do it so that you don't have an option of not doing it.”

3. Perfectionism will only prevent you from getting better. Get yourself un-stuck by sending your draft to peers for feedback, even if it’s not “good enough” yet. 

Scott knows that perfectionism is a common curse for creators. 

“I'm sure you all know that expression, ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.’ We're all perfectionists, I've discovered so many of us are anyway, that we're just going to keep trying to make something good, and we're never going to actually put it out there. It's very important to just put it out there. Get it as good as you can, and put it out there.

[W]hen I say put it out there, I mean, give it to a feedback group so you can get some good feedback, then improve it. Get it as good as you can and then publish it. Be done with it. That's how you learn. That's how you grow.

Nobody's first novel is going to be great. Nobody's first screenplay is going to be great. Nobody's first standup act is going to be great. You have to start somewhere. The only way you're ever going to get great, is by putting out some bad stuff, learning, and coming back again and doing it some more."

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4. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, but it gets a little bit easier every time. 

When asked how new creators can build courage and confidence, Scott recommends starting small but taking proactive leaps. 

“Have you ever been on some excursion where you have the opportunity to jump into a lake from a fairly high vantage point, like a little cliff or maybe the high dive or whatever? You're scared, and you don't want to do it. But then there’s a moment where you just make the decision, and you just go. That's the kind of experience you're looking for.  Because, after you make that decision, after you go, there's no turning back, you can't un-jump.

The best way to get that gumption is to start with something small, and just try that feeling of jumping. So, let's say in your case, that's Tweeting out a single joke on Twitter. Come up with your joke, send it out as a Tweet, that's you making a little jump. You're going to find out that it didn't hurt, you're still alive, everything's okay. It's going to be easier the next time, and it's going to be easier the time after that.

It really is hard though, because humans are wired for short-term gratification. We're not wired for long-term gratification. And the gratification in this, is long-term.

In a few years, you're going to be great at it, and you're going to be churning out great jokes and people are going to love them, but you have to get through that slog, and you have to do a lot of that jumping, that really scary feeling of jumping into it before you get there.

All I can say is it does get easier every time."

5. Good writing means re-writing, but don’t get stuck over-editing your work. 

Scott knows from his experience at The Onion that editing too much can be more harmful than helpful.

“When The Onion was only in print, and it was not a website, the deadline was when we delivered the pay stub boards to the printer, because at that point you couldn't change it anymore. Once we were a website, we discovered this thing called Drupal editing, where you could go in after you published a story and you could change it.

We got carried away with that. We were like, ‘Oh, I came up with a better joke for that one paragraph.’ So, I had the Drupal password and I could go in and change it. Then different writers would ask, because they would write a story and they would come up with a better closer joke or whatever. I would give them the password. And it became this disease where all the writers were wasting their time going back and improving stories that we already had written.

I had to put a ban on it. It was like, ‘Okay, no more Drupal editing. Once we publish it, it's done. It's out. The only thing we're going to fix is an obvious typo.’ Because yeah, you can keep workshopping something, and it’s hard to know if it's over workshopped, or it doesn't make sense anymore, especially if you're the only one looking at it.

So, you have to use some third-party feedback group. If it's you and two other people coming up with these jokes, send it to a fourth person who hasn't been a part of that process and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this joke?’”

6. Sometimes, our work flops. It’s fine.

As long as you’re trying to write something compelling, you’ll inevitably fail once in a while. Don’t beat yourself up too hard. People often don’t even notice.

“Nobody's going to care if you put out something that isn't good, they're going to ignore it. That's the worst that's going to happen. And so, learn from that, try something else, put that out there. Eventually somebody is going to catch onto what you're doing and you're going to be fine. But nobody's going to, like, deride you for being a fraud by putting your ideas out there.

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You can learn more about Scott by visiting his website or following him on Twitter.

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