Dr. Seuss on Working with Constraints “I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.”

He’s one of the most famous doctors in the world without an M.D. or a Ph.D.

Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known to the world as the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss, wrote and illustrated over 40 children’s books with titles that are familiar to many: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Oh! The Places You’ll Go, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are only a few.

Dr. Seuss’ children’s book career didn’t begin easily or early. His first book, And to Think that I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before being published and it wasn’t a commercial success.

Dr. Seuss’ big break came when he was challenged to write a book for beginning readers. He was given a list of 350 words and told the book could contain no more than 250 different words. ‘Cat’ and ‘hat’ were the first two words on the list that rhymed, and the popular The Cat in the Hat, containing 225 different words, was written.

“We were afraid that the limitations Dr. Seuss put upon himself might have shackled his marvelous inventiveness. Quite the contrary. Restricting his vocabulary… and shortening the verse story has given a certain riotous unity… that is pleasing.” – New York Herald literary review.

Working under severe constraints seemed to work well for Dr. Seuss. After his friend and editor, Bennett Cerf, bet him $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 simple words, Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham. He won the $50 and produced another popular book.

Seuss didn’t place constraints solely on the words in his books, but also on the illustrations. He believed that his illustrations should mirror the way kids saw things, as “pen-and-ink outlines filled in with flat colour, with no modulation or subtlety.” He also strongly believed that the “logical insanity” of his work should remain consistent throughout a book.

“If I start with a two-headed animal, I must never waiver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom, and two sets of spectacles on the night table.” – Dr. Seuss

Seuss was equally as hard on the other writers he worked with at Beginner Books, a division of Random House he became president of after the success of The Cat in the Hat. He was firm that a book should only have one illustration on a page, the text should not describe anything that wasn’t pictured, and each pair of interfacing pages had to work as a unit. Many authors were unwilling to work under these constraints and left the publishing house, but Seuss’ rules also resulted in the creation of the popular children’s series, The Berenstain Bears.

People say to think ‘outside the box,’ but sometimes your best work can occur when you place yourself inside the smallest box possible. The next time you have a problem that seems insurmountable, or a task that seems overwhelming, give yourself as many constraints as possible, and then see what you can produce.

Learn More:

The Art of Dr. Seuss


Image Credit: Mashable