Writing Tips/Pointers/Reminders


Here are some tips, pointers, and reminders I find useful to keep close while writing.  I put them here in the hopes that at least one will be helpful to you ….

This page changes at the drop of a hat as I find something useful to add, and I just add the new content quickly, so keep that in mind ….

Some of these are my own, some are my rephrasing/reinterpretations of things I’ve found elsewhere ….


While writing:

  • Show, don’t tell
    Instead of explicit explanations, let character actions, reactions, environment, etc., reveal meaning and facts
  • Make heavy use of subtext. “Befriend ambiguity”
    Related to “Show, don’t tell”, assume your reader is intelligent enough to figure it out on his/her own from hints
  • Don’t repeat yourself
    Don’t describe things the same way consecutively, especially avoid using the same word over and over.
  • Make triangles, especially in relationships
    Add the other person, interest, or even story interact with the current situation and characters
  • When writing in the first person, choose the narrator that has the voice that fits the story
    Narrator with the right voice will enhance the story. The wrong voice will stifle and kill it.
  • Delve on each character’s motivations and idiosyncracies at every opportunity.
    Explore why characters do little things; let characters do little things that reveal something about themselves
  • Ask “Why?” on every paragraph.
    Don’t let a logic error or motivational error slip in. Don’t let an opportunity for depth slip by.
  • Create people, not characters
    Love and hate them. They will love and hate you back.
  • Bring out character personality in physical description.
    Example: “… a plump, awkward 11 year old with a carefree gap-toothed grin and a halo of unruly blond hair.”  (credit to Feiona Addams). The physical description embodies personality traits: I get the impression of a cute, sweet girl with a tomboyish streak. By the end of the story, I can see those traits in her, but maturing into their teenage equivalencies emerge in her behavior.
  • Express abstractions in terms of the concrete environment.
    This also helps establish mood.  Instead of saying, “A knock echoed through the door.  Cato had come.  Reality intruded, and dread froze her to her bed, hugging her pillow”, I might say, “A knock echoed through the door.  Cato had come.  A cold breeze through the window beset the candle on the table and quinched the flame, and dread froze her to her bed, hugging her pillow.”
  • Express a characters feelings or state of mind by demonstration.
    Akin to show, don’t tell, use a characters behavior, or what he notices and thinks about things around him to express his feelings and state of mind.  For example, instead of “She grew more agitated as the evening wore on and became more and more distracted”, I might say, “As evening faded into night, she alternately paced the room nervously and sat staring blankly into the crackling fire, unable to rehearse the speech she’d prepared because of the nerve-wracking scenarios assaulting her out of her imagination.”
  • Make it personal.
    Turn objective description into personalized experience.  E.g., instead of “because of the nerve-wracking scenarios assaulting her out of her imagination”, I might say, “because she could not stop his violent assaults in the scenarios playing always inevitably to a furious final act of rage.”
  • Connect readers to characters before you ask them to hang out together.
    Make the opening excite the reader in some way so that they willingly invest in the characters before you present a slow point to delve deeper.
  • Make your prose poetic
    Use poetic constructions in prose

The practice of writing:

  • Find your soundtrack
    Music affects you in a way nothing else does. Find music that fits what you are writing.
  • Write, re-write, and re-write again
    You must rewrite, then rewrite with a critical eye, then do it some more. Be ruthless on yourself.
  • Maintain a character profile template and tools to help discover your characters
    Each character should end up with a scrapbook about his life: little stories, photos, memorabilia. Central is a profile sheet that describes the foundational characteristics (physical, emotional, intellectual) that form him.  NOTE: I have started using three tools in parallel: Protagonist (and usually others) Character Profile + the Story Spine + Lost and Found
  • Reference materials are your friends.  No reader is going to give you points for not having used a thesaurus.
  • Rethink the starting point of the story.  Often, after writing a story, it makes a more engaging start to restructure it so that it opens deeper into the story.  You can always use a flashback or other exposition technique to re-capture the skipped facts.
  • Trust your reader and his/her intelligence.  You don’t have to say “The phone rang, and Bob stood up and walked across the room, picked up the receiver and said, ‘Hello.’  It was Billy.”  You can just say “The phone rang.  It was Billy.”  The reader can figure out what Bob did to find out it was Billy.

Beyond the writing:

  • Connect, engage, celebrate, and lament with other writers
    This is how you build and experience the craft. Cheer them on when they succeed, encourage them when they fail, offer to help and support, ask for their help and support
  • Surround yourself with supportive friends.
    Keep people around who will lovingly kick you when you are down and knock you down when you are up. These are the people you can trust that help keep you level and balanced.
  • Only practice makes perfect
    No number of classes, lectures, books, or psychics will make you a better writer, only writing makes you a better writer.
  • Live the world as a narrative.
    When I was in college learning to be a programmer, I executed all my mundane tasks by stepping through an algorithm. “Grip lid, do twist_counter-clockwise() until (resistance==0), etc….” Now that I have decided to learn to be a writer, I often will describe my own life’s moments as I live them as if in a story, “He walked briskly up the hillside, the chill spring atmosphere making him briskier, because the cold reality of time waits for no man”
  • Write all the time, even when you aren’t writing
    Turn a poetic phrase even in a Tweet. Write a story plot in narrative form on a napkin. Churn out a campy poem while you are waiting in the parking lot for your spouse because choir practice that is running late. You can do this even without a pen and paper: see “Live the world as a narrative”
  • Twitter @sesever: “DID YOU KNOW? If you make the 1st #ebook in a series free, you’ll sell 8 times more copies of subsequent volumes #writing”

Considering for inclusion in one of the above lists:

  • Be ready to cut the parts you skip when you re-read, but clip them into a folder where you keep scraps.
    Read your stuff and if you find yourself skipping something because you can’t wait to get to the next paragraph, cut what you skip. Don’t let it get away, though: if you feel attached to it, put it in a folder so you don’t lose it. Maybe you’ll never use it. Maybe it’ll become something of its own. Maybe it’ll get inserted in something else.
  • Don’t read unsolicited reviews, but if you do, be humble and objective and learn from them, don’t take them personally.
    Critical reviews (you don’t ask for) can really put you on the defensive and upset you, so just don’t read reviews. But if you do, go into it expecting to be hurt and steel your nerves determined not to be. Put aside the desire to defend and make yourself agree — at least for a moment — with the reviewer. Learn the truth, discard the lies.
  • Introduce your character’s strengths and weaknesses from the start
    In a novel, in the first five pages.  In short stories, in the first few paragraphs.
  • “Make ’em laugh and break their *****’ hearts. Accomplish that and your doing pretty good.” ~ Mark Richard to Matt Sumell
  • What does whatever character A just said/did touch in characters B and/or C?  Especially indirects.  Like death of lonely elderly neighbor making a woman think about protecting her own unborn child against her death.
  • What do supporting characters represent/symbolize about the main character/subject?
  • Every detail of life is a story prompt
  • In a story, an unrelated detail should server to answer: “What do I want to bring out here?”  They might relate two otherwise unconnected memories, for example.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to let a character be confronted with his own internal loose ends — especially as a response to other, external things.

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