What Does It Take to Be a Freelance Fortune Cookie Writer?

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Ever cracked open a fortune cookie and wondered who wrote the witty, wise, or weird words nestled inside? It might have been a struggling writer or a high school student trying to earn some extra cash.

The Guardian recently interviewed several former freelance fortune cookie writers who shared personal stories about writing aphorisms that are resonant, thought-provoking, and simultaneously vague and specific enough to resonate with grandparents and grad school students alike. 

One writer, Kay Marshall Strom, was a high school senior when she saw an ad in her local San Francisco paper searching for cookie scribes. She got the job, and spent the next year gleaning fortune ideas from friends, film, and day-to-day events. Now 65, Strom—who later become a prolific nonfiction writer—still occasionally stumbles across her own words while cracking open a cookie at a Chinese restaurant. Her most enduring—and infamous—line? “You will be hungry again in an hour.”

Another former cookie rookie is Russell Rowland, a fledgling novelist who once supplemented his meager income by brainstorming fortunes for the masses. He once earned 75 cents per idea; now, he’s a successful writer who has published four books.

Approximately 3 billion fortune cookies are produced each year, meaning a staggering number of one-liners need to be churned out as well. Therefore, fortune cookie companies often rely on freelancers like Rowland and Strom to brainstorm fresh content.

However, if you think writing fortunes sounds like an easy after-school gig, think again. Crafting a single sentence that appeals to disparate demographics across the globe is a tough task, The Guardian points out. Scribbling a sentiment that’s poignant enough to be tucked into wallets or shared on social media is even more so. And risqué or topical fortunes are off-limits. After all, customers want to be surprised—not scandalized—when they open a cookie.

So next time you grab Chinese takeout, don’t be surprised if your fortune doesn’t come true—but do appreciate the ingenuity and thought that went into its sentiment.

[h/t The Guardian