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Onion Recruitment Poster

Half Of 25-Year-Old's Writing Onion-Denied

FEATURES | MAR. 10, 2008

I almost became a writer once.

Here's what happened: I received an email that said my website had "really good material" and urged me to apply for an Assistant Editor position. No problem. After all, that would be the next logical step after my eight months working as a temp for a company that sold components for factory automated machines. I'd just send them a resume highlighting my high school English grades and the impressive list of management and sales jobs I've quit.

See, I'm not really a writer, which is why I was so flabbergasted to find out the email was from humor publishing juggernaut The Onion. When I started writing satiric news in January 2007, I wasn't a writer, and I wasn't particularly trying to become one. But there I was ten months later, and The Onion was contacting me, asking me to apply for a serious position within the company. What could they have been thinking?

I was shocked they were considering me. Though proud of my writing on The Giant Napkin, I felt much of my material was not top notch -- some I'm embarrassed to have written at this point. I suppose I've come a long way from "MacGyver disarms N. Korea nukes" or "New research shows people living in Montana." Forget all that... on to better things.

The first part of the application process was to send a resume and cover letter, which is nothing new to me, except that I'm usually applying to marketing or management positions. Now my challenge was to show how my maligned relationship with the business world and 10 months of self-publishing a low-traffic website qualified a 25-year-old to lead an experienced team of comedy writers.

As I reworked my resume to include more relevant lies, I let my mind wonder, dreaming about being paid to write and edit comedy. 'Do people really get paid for that?' I questioned as I deftly inserted my experience creating public service announcements for the Arthritis Foundation into a resume that had yet to display any compensated writing work. Could I finally prove my sixth grade teacher wrong for telling me I couldn't get through life by just mocking everything and everyone? Realistically, I realized The Onion's wise elders would take one look at my background and remove me from the pool of candidates, but at least I could say they had asked me to apply.

My challenge was to show how my maligned relationship with the business world and 10 months of self-publishing a low-traffic website qualified a 25-year-old to lead an experienced team of comedy writers.

What happened next surprised me further. See, I assumed my unmitigated lack of writing and comedy experience would put me out of the running. But apparently my background in industrial laundry and falsified claim that I was detail-oriented impressed The Onion, because they got back to me.

I was now at the second step of the process, and working with actual Onion material was now my task. They sent 125 headlines from their weekly headline meeting for me to arrange into a hypothetical Onion issue, included an unpublished article for me to edit, and asked me to submit 15 original headlines to them.

Since I had such trivial writing and editing experience, I knew there was only one chance for me to get this job, but The Onion would not share with me the locations of the other applicants. I would just have to put in as much time and effort I could before the 72-hour deadline.

The article they sent as a test-edit bore the headline "Half Of 26-Year-Old's Memories Nintendo-Related." Of course, it actually arrived to me with a grammar issue intentionally placed in it, as was the case for many lines of the article itself. Beyond eliminating grammar issues, I was to "do whatever necessary to make it funnier, tighter, newsier, and better."

I spent hours editing that article, which was pretty unfunny and poorly constructed in order to test my editing skills. I had to write original content for it as well, because the thing just wasn't comical enough, so I found myself debating things like whether a mobile made from NES controllers was funnier than a homemade Legend of Zelda quilt. Then I had to actually fact-check the article for accuracy. Was the warp whistle hidden behind the white block in the first world of Super Mario 3, or was it the third world?

During those couple of days I worked on revising that article, I also had to construct an Onion issue out of the list of headlines they sent me. There were some real winners in the group, and I had to assign which were most deserving of making an issue as well as what position they would have within the theoretical edition. This was a blast, and I thought I made good decisions. The articles I chose as the top story and second cover story, "Child On White House Tour Momentarily Seizes Control Of Nation" and "Postmaster General: Letter Carrier Surge Is Working" respectively, each showed up in The Onion soon after.

I felt pretty good about the edited article and the issue I put together, but I also had to send in 15 original headlines, which for whatever reason proved very difficult that week. The Giant Napkin's bank was thin at the time, which meant I had to write them all within a couple of days. I ended up constructing a mediocre list. "Urine-Soaked Subway Dweller 25 Cents Away From Satisfying Day" and "Calf Totally Oblivious To Forthcoming Wrangling" made the cut, two headlines that were like the overweight, short kids allowed to be part of the high school basketball team as managers. Problem was, I let them get in the team photo.

One week later, I heard back that I was not The Onion's choice for Assistant Editor. All of my interactions with folks there were cordial and professional, and they once again were complimentary of my work, especially enjoying The Giant Napkin Headlines "Tragically Disabled Student Voted Most Changed" and "Lottery Winner Accidentally Chooses $25 A Year For 2 Million Years". At that point, they encouraged me to apply to be a headline contributor. Again, I ran into that same creative wall I hit two weeks prior and submitted another average list of headlines to be considered for that position.

My relationship with the King of Satire News ended. The "Nintendo" article was published recently in The Onion's January 12 issue. It is nothing like what they sent me or what I sent back to them. About the only thing that remained the same was the headline.

All told, my experience with The Onion was rejuvenating. Trying to reach the pinnacle of satire with my inexperience was daunting for sure. It felt like attempting to scale Everest after only two weeks of training. But it came as I was struggling to find motivation to write and revitalized my commitment to The Giant Napkin while challenging my creative ability and validating the writing I had done to that point. As far as tangibility goes, all the work I completed during the application process has resulted in nothing but this uncompensated story. I suppose a writer could feel disappointed about it. Luckily, I'm not one.