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Z=Zinsser (Feb 27)

. . . and more books on writing

Old school still works // Pixabay

A sure method to improve as a writer is to be a reader, and in particular a reader of books on writing.

These books impart not only the lessons the author has acquired in his lifetime, but also a sensibility that can help you feel like you are a writer; they build confidence.

The core lessons, whether the author is Janet Burroway or William Zinsser, tend to be these: use the right word; don’t waste words; express one thought per sentence; each thought should lead to the next.

But in reading about writing you can also acquire smaller lessons that stick with you.

For example, as a rookie reporter I spent many evenings reading Fowler’s Modern English Usage (nerd). It taught me to use words precisely, but there is only one lesson I recall in its specifics; nonetheless it is useful.

The lesson pertains to the use of although and though. Fowler’s advice was to use Although at the start of a sentence – because it “generally has a stronger concessive force” — and though elsewhere. That stuck with me and remains one small way in which my word choice shows consistency.

A second example is from The Good Times, the second volume of the American journalist Russell Baker’s autobiography. In 1953 he was the London correspondent for The Baltimore Sun (those were the days). Queen Elizabeth II was to have her coronation on June 2, and Baker noticed that many other correspondents were preparing their copy days in advance – the coronation was highly ritualized. But Baker decided to show up at church with nothing but a spiral notepad and simply observe.

«…I had decided to cover it pretty much the way I wold cover any routine assignment on the local staff. I would show up, keep my eyes open, listen closely, and make notes on what I saw and heard … This was not the safe way to cover the coronation, but it offered the best chance of doing a good story. The safe way was to write the story before the event was held.»

Baker described the scene’s wonders in detail: «A glistening African woman in a dress of glistening gold … Men dressed as Nelson might have dressed when he was sporting in London … violins far away eerily unreal.»

The lessons from Fowler and Baker express a hope of this series: of course it was not all useful to you, but maybe bits of it were. This is how we learn.

To continue learning, here is a selection of good books by better writers:

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
  • The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer
  • The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
  • A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk & Sidney Greenbaum (for a schematic look at how English works)
  • Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. Early editions are best and this is more for intermediate or advanced writers than those at the very beginning.
  • The Art of Memoirizing by Mary Karr
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • Comedy Writing Workbook by Gene Perrett
  • How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee
  • From Where You Dream by Robert Owen Butler
  • Textbook, The Composition of Everyday Life by John Mauk and John Metz
  • In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: The writer is Bangladeshi by ancestry and American by upbringing – but when she travelled to Italy as a young woman, she became enamored of its language. This bilingual book tells the story of that romance. The pages are Italian on the left and English on the right. For those learning English as a second language, her journey will hit home.

Learn: Keep reading.


Y=You (Feb 26)

… and why we forget this

A blank screen is where it begins // Microsoft

Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a writer is a result of living right here and now.

We are constantly stimulated.  Fear of missing out, or FOMO, distracts us.  We check our favorite application (for me, the current fave is Instagram), searching for a nugget of wisdom or sniffing for a whiff of the new.   We hunt for what is outside when, to write well, you have to go within,

Two conditions prompt great writing.  The first is being free from distraction.  Every writer has a “spot”.  Novelist John Irving has a cabin near his house.  In a Los Angeles Times article, comedy writer Rob Long admits booking himself a three-week trip on a cargo ship to finish a writing project.  You don’t have to go that far, but you do need a spot. 

The second is connecting to the topic.  Connecting requires a writer to find the spark within, to find a purpose.  It can scary and frustrating and lead to dead ends.  Yet it must be done.

Every time you write you start with nothing.  Often you start with an empty notepad or a voice note that’s yet-to-be.  If there’s a screen in front of you, it’s blank.  The cursor is blinking.  Maybe you imagine it’s laughing at you.  This can seem daunting.  In reality, it’s liberating. 

The nothingness gets at a beautiful truth: Your connection with your reader starts with you.   It’s for you to know why you are writing and who you are writing for.  In short, you have to know your purpose and your audience.  These are the two flames that fire any piece of writing.

Before deciding on what form your words will take (a narrative or poem or joke, a play for the stage or screen, a research paper or report), get at the why.   Your name is on it, right?  Even if it’s some sort of assignment for someone else, the words and ideas are yours.  Back, then, to the essentials.  Why are you putting these words together?  How do you want to connect with the person on the other end?  To laugh?  To understand?  To persuade?  To move to action?  To go on a voyage? 

Your goal with your connection is simple: to get a reaction.  The reader may like it.  They may not.  But they need to get a sense of you – and the emotion under the words.  One good test of your writing is to ask yourself: will there be an emotional reaction to this? 

The second flame works with first.  Think of your audience.  What are their sensibilities? What do they need explained?  And what will they already know?  For a moment, consider a phone call.  On the phone you have to talk in clear language the other person will understand.  In writing this clarity has more importance because, as opposed to the phone, a reader can’t ask questions – at least, not to you.  The words have to contain everything you, as a writer, need in order to connect. 

Let’s take a look at a case study that answers these two questions: for whom and why.

In 2004 Dave Chappelle was 31 years old . . .  and riding high.

The sketch comedy show bearing his name was taking off.  It afforded Chappelle the kind of fame he had been chasing since first sneaking in a club to do stand-up comedy at age 14.  His new special was being filmed at a legendary venue, The Filmore in San Francisco.  The place where Chappelle’s comic idols Richard Pryor and George Carlin had once roamed the stage was now his.

Yet he still knew the value of connection.

The savvy San Francisco audience knew comedy.  Many in the audience would travel from Oakland, the city across the Bay.  At that time Oakland was everything San Francisco was not.   If San Francisco was open & welcoming, Oakland was guarded and gruff, even threatening in places.  These separate audiences would be to whom Chappelle had to connect. 

The purpose of the words, of course, was to get laughs.  The special, “For What It’s Worth”, is one of the best comedy specials of this century.  Early on Chappelle earns perhaps his biggest laugh by playing off the differences in attitude between the people of these two cities:

            When you leave San Francisco to go over the Bridge it’s like

            ‘Bye bye bye.  Come back in April for our sale on Birkenstocks.’

            Then you get across the Bay and it’s like ‘Welcome to Oakland, bitch’.

Chappelle then follows up by miming, looking from side to side and then locking the car doors.  In just a few words and two simple gestures (that both audiences would understand), he makes light of the situation.  He connects.

By knowing your audience on the outside and your purpose within, your path as a writer starts to clear.   Find your spot inside and find your spot outside.  And your audience will respond. 

LEARN: You know what you need to know.

USE: Go through a piece of your own writing that you feel is good . . . but a bit unfocused. Re-read it. Afterward, in a single sentence, write down what you aim to do (your purpose) and who you are writing it for (your audience).

That’s your guide. Now, re-write it.


X=X-Factor (Feb 25)

the unknown element

What is it about this sketch … ? // Youtube

This next one is tricky.  Slippery.  And, often, when you think you know it, you are wrong.

To find it requires empathy, empathy in the sense that you have to experience your work the way an audience does.  The ‘it’ is the ‘X-Factor’.

To begin with, you also need to have a sense of where the work is not unique, where it is universal.   This is just as important.  In an era driven by narrative, one where everyone has a story, you have to know what the unique part of your story is. 

On Saturday Night Live the sketch “Celebrity Jeopardy” seems to be a parody.   However, it has endured because of its X-Factor.  Staff writer Jim Downey has said the sketch “is about hope.”   What makes the sketch work is seeing Will Ferrell’s hapless Alex Trebek character do his very best to tolerate a never-ending chain of vapid celebrities, each with his or her own quirks.  And when Ferrell’s Trebek finally shares a moment with his in-sketch nemesis (Darrell Hammond as a delightfully crass Sean Connery), we secretly root for the gameshow to have an actual decent ending (while also sensing that, somehow, Trebek will have his hopes dashed yet again).  Knowing the X-Factor is hope makes the whole thing work.

The X-Factor will help you shape your piece of writing.  Take the movie ‘Titanic’ as an example.  Even starstruck high schoolers who barely speak English know the names of Jack and Rose, the characters portrayed by Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet.  The movie’s director, James Cameron, called it ‘Romeo and Juliet on a boat’.

Everyone remembers the love story.  Nearly all remember the names of the lovers.  Meanwhile, Cameron knew what truly captured the imagination: the ship.

The X-Factor – the unique selling point – is the sinking of the unsinkable.  While letting his stars take the spotlight, Cameron writes a script to harness the X-Factor.   He teases the end by starting with an elderly Rose, looking at touchstone items and reminiscing.  He frames the ship on a scale so vast that it’s hard not to be in awe of its size and majesty.  Later when it hits an iceberg, the director gives us every grown as the hull is ripped open, every scream as passengers realize what the audience already knows.  In fact, the savage sensuality of those desperate moments forces us to suspend our disbelief.  When the ship goes down, we are there.

Cameron found the X-Factor buried in his story.  He used it to guide his writing. It made his script unique.  So what’s the X-Factor in yours?

LEARN: Pick the last five Booker Prize winning novels as well as the last five films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Can you identify the ‘X-Factor’ in each of these?

USE: Never mind sensibilities or what is fashionable. Grab a premise that captivates you . . . your own personal X-Factor.  Write a piece around that captivating idea.


W=Williams (Feb 24)

… puts the pieces together

Hunter knew Williams’ rules . . . and how to break them // Getty Images

It’s time for the nitty gritty.  After all, we are almost at the end of our journey.

So you have turned each thought or action into its own sentence.  You have turned sentences into paragraphs.  Now, how do you arrange them?

Many writing experts have weighed in, but few as lucidly as Joseph Williams.  To me, Williams is a man whose work has cracked the code of clear prose.  Though careful to call each part of his code a ‘tip’ or ‘rule’ (and not an absolute), Williams lays down ten principles on writing.

Meaning is all.  If you can communicate a thought with your audience in a single word, then that’s the word you want to use.  But Williams teaches writing; thus, he is more interested in how ideas move through prose (a formal e-mail, a report, a piece of fiction or non-fiction, or an essay).  Moreover, Williams’ goal is your goal: to write clearly.

To start with, the writer organizes his thinking about how to write a sentence from beginning to end.  The elements of a sentence that are fixed are in blue while the elements that change are in red.  From top to bottom, Williams diagrams sentences in terms of topic, the flow of information, grammar, and character:

SENTENCE:   Beginning           – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  > End

TOPIC (fix a readers focus!!) 
OLD INFO (known / mentioned previously)NEW INFO

Your takeaway from Williams is this: all these levels work together – all the time.  Another takeaway comes from these five ideas on writing each sentence with clarity:

A) Have a clear actor (subject) and action  . . . if there’s a time or sequence along with an actor / action, state it in five or six words at the beginning of the sentence unless you want to stress it – then move it to the end.

B) Keep the actor (your subject) and the action (your verb) close together

C) Turn abstract nouns (nominalizations like development) into concrete verbs (actions like develop)

D) Use high-level vocabulary . . . as long as your readers understand the word or phrase.  If you are not sure about this, give your readers a definition!

E) Tell stories (what happens first, then second, then third, etc.) through characters (choose the right subject!) and action (choose the best verb!).

Here’s what else I like: Williams is not dogmatic about these ideas.  As proof, he suggests when the subject of a sentence might be a nominalization (or perhaps it or there) and not a person – put the part you want to stress at the end of the sentence, which people remember the most.

It all comes back to meaning.

Paragraphs, too, should spotlight meaning.  Just as each sentence has a topic (subject) and comment (what the subject does), a paragraph should have an issue (the matter at hand) and a discussion (what you have to say about that matter).  Each paragraph usually has the issue at the beginning.  The other place for the issue?  The end. 

At the same time, an artful writer has more than just topics that connect sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph.  Along with topics, the writing will have themes.  The actions of each human subject will tie together as a theme.  Time is a common theme in writing.  This pulls the reader through your prose as well. 

This example comes from Williams’ own book:

Clarks PRACTICE OF CAREFULLY MAPPING every {fossil} made it possible to FOLLOW the evolutionary development of various types through time.  Beautiful sequences of (antelopes, giraffes, and elephants) were OBTAINED; {new species} evolving out of old and appearing in younger strata.  In short, evolution was taking place before the eyes of the Omo survivors, and they could time it.  The finest examples of the process were in several {lines of pigs}, which had been common at Omo and had developed rapidly.  UNSNARLING the {pig} story WAS TURNED OVER to paleontologist Basil Cooke.  He PRODUCED family trees for {pigs} whose {various types} WERE SO ACCURATELY DATEDthat {pigs} themselves became measuring sticks that COULD BE APPLIED to {fossils} of questionable age in other places that had {similar pigs}.

These are not just repeated words; they are conceptually related words.  Some examples:

  1.  types of fossils {curly brackets}: fossil, antelopes, giraffes, pigs
  2. actions of the surveyors (CAPS): map, follow, obtain, unsnarl, produce, date, apply
  3. actions of species (underline) : evolve, appear
  4. time (italics) : new, old, younger, age

So this brings us back to the beginning.  What is your topic?  What do you want to say about it?  And how do you feel toward your topic?

Figure out those three things and pick up a pen!

LEARN: Read this passage from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.  Note how simple the language is – each sentence is a single thought.  Can you find the themes and topics? 

USE: Take a recent piece of your writing and rewrite so that the topic, information flow, grammar, and narrative are all in step according to Williams’ rules.  Does it clear up how to arrange your writing?  What did you have to change in the piece for this exercise? 


V=Vonnegut (Feb 23)

… or The Shapes of Stories

Six stories to rule them all // Youtube

John Gardner stated only two kinds of stories exist: (1) a person goes on a journey, or (2) a stranger comes to town.  For number 1, think of The New Testament and Jesus; for 2, consider the gunslinger in High Noon.  The real question: as a writer, what do these stories have to do with you?

Joseph Campbell narrowed the two down to one universal tale.  His “Hero’s Journey” archetype exists in stories across cultures and time . . . with a difference.  While some writers {like Robert McKee} emphasized that a writer escalate conflict by using plot devices to raise tension, Campbell looked at why this tale moves our emotions – after all, that is a writer’s goal.  Campbell even gave his tale a shape, a circle. 

The circle looks like this (with Campbell’s own words to explain the X, Y, & Z).

The story circle (of life)

This story can be seen from the Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Star Wars. 

. . .  which brings us to Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut, like Campbell, said that stories have universal shapes.   Vonnegut, though, took this further.  He put forth not one but six shapes that resonate most with audiences. 

The first shape is Man in a Hole.  Your audience meets a main character (step 1) who gets into trouble (step 2), gets out of it (step 3), and gains or learns from the experience.   Under the jokes, the comedy movies Blazing Saddles and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle both fit this shape.  The main character(s) get into trouble, then work their way out of trouble – and end up wiser for the experience. 

Boy Meets Girl is the second shape.  The main character (step 1) comes across something wonderful (step 2), gets it (step 3), loses it (step 4), and gets it back forever (aaaand roll credits).  Spiderman is a traditional example, but the boy can be any character and the girl represents anything the character wants.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a twisted version of this same shape. 

The next shape is From Bad to Worse.  The main character (step 1) starts off poorly (step 2) and things get worse and worse (steps 3 . . . to end).   Seeing a character we care about in misery is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.  The Joker breaks your heart because of the pathos involved (note this only works if you sympathize with the Joker in the first place). 

Which Way Is Up? has no set steps; rather, it aims to produce ambiguity.  This story shape hinges on the audience following the characters through events to figure out if they (both events and characters) are good or bad.   The situations are realistic and the possibilities keep the audience guessing.  Hamlet does this.  Inception does this.  Many Tom Robbins novels do this as well.

The Creation Story involves an unseen force giving humans gifts first large (Earth, the heavens), then small (as Vonnegut jokes – sparrows and cellphones).  Vonnegut claims this shape is less common in the West.  The first part of the Bible is a creation story.  In a twisted way, so is the comic book adapted for film The Watchmen

Finally, the last shape encompasses both Old & New Testament – in short, the fall or the fall & rise.  The former has an unseen force (a Creator) giving gifts (step 1), then the humans fall from grace (step 2) and are ousted of good standing (step 3).  The fall is large; the results are tragic.  Yet in the New Testament version, there is a final step: the disgraced humans receive off-the-charts bliss – in a word, redemption. Step back a bit and you can see that Black Panther is this kind of story.   So is Cinderella. Keep in mind this story shape works only if redemption is truly in doubt. 

We stress that in each of these shapes the introduction of the character is important.  We have to get a sense of how he / she thinks and her / his daily life.  We have to know and understand . . .  and care.

** Research (and pop science) has picked up on Vonnegut’s six shapes  – for more:

** For a more detailed “Hero’s Journey,” see Dan Harmon (producer of Community and Rick & Morty) illustrate it here:

** Digital storyteller Jim Roam lines up the three most famous film series via “The Hero’s Journey” here:

LEARN: For each of the six shapes, find three examples in story or screen or stage.  If you can, also find one that subverts the shape (for example, most Seinfeld episodes are Man in a Hole with a twist – the characters gain or learn nothing, a change that resonates with modern audiences)

USE: Take the events of your day and turn them into one of the six shapes.  Write them out in detail!


U=University (Feb 22)

. . . and a lesson on more or less

Is less more? Or is more more? // Getty Images

Part of learning is unlearning. As lessons confront experience, and experience increases ability, lessons must adapt or they will hold us back. This is the “exnovation” that clears the ground for “innovation”.

When I was in journalism school, learning how to write for newspapers, our instructors preached the lessons of simplicity. The mantra was «less is more». Cut excess words. Pare it down.

This was sound advice.

But not for everyone.

A few of my classmates wrote with wit and verve. Why should they do less when they were capable of more? They were already at a later stage of development, why fetter them?

It’s a numbers game. Schools taught «less is more» partly because everyone can achieve less — it leaves no student behind. If you taught «more is more», 90% of the students would successfully learn neither a craft nor an art. «Less is more» is utilitarian.

But less and more can work together. If you go to Barcelona, visit the Picasso Museum. You will see many of his earliest works, which show that even as an adolescent he was a skilled draughtsman. These technical sketches are not the sort of wild art we normally associate with Picasso. Only after having learned the rules did he move beyond them, and do more.

This series of 26 lessons on writing is meant to instill, in people for whom writing is a challenge, both the craft and the art — the technical and the aspirational, the less and the more, the base camp and the summit. Use the one to ascend the other.

LEARN:  Take in One True Thing, the novel by Anna Quindlen, and later film with Meryl Streep, in which tension between «less is more» and «more is more» is the central theme.

USE: As a «less is more» lesson, recast this lesson in exactly 50 words.


T=Talk to Me (Feb 21)

The only prescription . . . // Saturday Night Live

As a writer, it’s often what you say.  More often it is the way you say it.

Here’s a secret that good writers know: writing is a conversation.  Different conversations flow in different ways.

For an academic audience, your purpose is to spark a discussion.  Maybe you want them to engage with a topic.  Perhaps you want them to understand an experiment.  If they have a technical background, you can use more technical terms.  You can use more Latin-based words and higher-level vocabulary for an academic audience.  They can follow it. 

An audience looking to laugh needs to be in the moment.  Give them the experience via the five senses.  Paint pictures with words.  Perhaps use more visceral vocabulary as well.

In a sense, you serve two masters in a conversation.  One is explicit, the other a whisper of your will from inside.  The two work together. 

Respect your audience (but remember why you picked up the pen or sat at the keyboard).  Are you writing to inform or persuade?  Is there a ‘reveal’ in what you want to say?  Are you writing to give bad news, good news, or simply to show why something is funny?  For each of these, there is a way to arrange the information so the conversation flows.

Take something as everyday as an e-mail.  A good e-mail has three main parts: (1) what happened before; (2) what you want now . . . and (3) what you expect of your reader in the future.

The way you express research is different.  First, you give a literature review, careful to state the ideas that led to this moment while also showing how each previous piece of research has its limit, a hole (that your research seeks to fill).  Second, provide the research at hand- each action of an experiment in sequence.  Finally, you will review the conclusions of the experiment, glean truth from it, and suggest the way forward.

Some may say jokes are as easy as premise and set-up and punchline, but each joke has its own internal way of speaking.  A deep dive by Alastair Clarke of The Telegraph reveals no less than eight ways of delivering a joke.  One example is the kind of positive repetition seen in  the Saturday Night Live sketch, where Christopher Walken declares, repeatedly, “I gotta have more cowbell”.  A second one comes from proportion, where the comic can make something small into a big thing (or its opposite).  Often a laugh comes from completion as the audience has to guess at, imagine, or complete a phrase or scenario.  The adage “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink”  doesn’t apply to comedy.  A good comic gets us to complete the phrase – to drink the water. 

In each case, the audience only “gets it” because of the way you say it – they are in on the conversation. 

LEARN: Choose one piece of writing.  Better yet, pick something you want to write but haven’t yet.   Arrange it in your head.  How can you talk to the audience in a way they can understand?

USE: Here’s a link to chapter 1 of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. His audience was the Russian upper middle class of the 19th century.  Now, rewrite the first three paragraphs for the people you work with. 


S=Structures of Language (Feb 20)

Use words to make your characters all too real // Shutterstock

It takes a certain amount of hubris (and the craft mentioned in books like BURROWAY) to write on anything.  In doing so, certain truths become inescapable.  The most paramount truth is this: you don’t know much.

To write, you are trying to capture life as you know it.  Then you recreate it for someone else.  Writing is work, work done on a page and in your mind and in your heart.  We offer what we know to you.

First off, there is evidence that the structure of language shapes how you write (and how you think).  Let’s save the ‘thinking’ part for people who deal with language and the mind.  To begin, we will touch on how English moves to figure out language on the page.

Sentences in English go from ‘subject’ to ‘verb’ and, often, an ‘object’.   This is important because it tells you the underlying structure which holds English together.  Other languages work in different ways.  Japanese features a structure ordered in this way: ‘subject’-‘object’-‘verb’.  In essence, a Japanese reader has to get all the way to the end of a sentence – through its subject and all the situational conditions – before the verb tells you what happened and how. 

So what does this mean in English?  Readers expect to the subject (who did a thing) and the verb (what was done and how) as soon as possible.  This appears deceptively simple.    Start with the subject, right?  Got it!

Beyond this, though, a sentence needs more.  A phrase or clause must come first to put the subject and verb in a certain time or place, say the action happened in a particular manner.  Maybe it is a simple phrase like ‘On Tuesday’.  Or a clause like ‘When he returned to the boat’.  Sometimes many phrases or clauses are tied to the subject.

On the first page of Madame Bovary, writer Gustave Flaubert introduces a character as such:

Still standing well back, in the corner behind the door, so that he was almost invisible, the new boy was a country lad of about fifteen who towered over the rest of us.

Each piece of the situation is short, focused, and reveals one aspect of the ‘new boy’ and his situation.  The fact that it is grammatically correct will make your grizzled English teacher smile; the hidden fact is that each phrase or clause both ties to the subject and is no more than six words long.  

Readers in English look for the subject and the verb.  Anything that comes before has to be concise (no more than six words long) and tied to the subject of the sentence.  Keep it simple … and you are on your way.

LEARN Read seven examples of how to describe a character here. Study them well.

USE Now, pick out two types of examples. Use one to describe a person you see but have never met . . . then another to describe how that person might see you.


R=Repetition (Feb 19)

. . . of words and sounds

Repetition works. I repeat: repetition works // Shutterstock

To tell someone they are repetitive is not a compliment. Yet repetition is a very useful tool for writers.

Consider Shakespeare. His sonnet 40, in 14 lines, has the word love 10 times, including five times in the first three lines:

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all,

What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?

No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call (etc etc)

In sonnet 135 he uses his nickname “Will” seven times, and uses “will” as a common noun another six times. Also there’s a “wilt”. Here is an extract:

So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will

One will of mine, to make thy large Will more. (etc etc)

What is a non-Will writer to do?

A starting point is to remember that words are sounds as well as signifiers. Consider this sentence from the nature documentary Our World, on the giant kelp of coastal California: “Air-filled floats lift the fronds towards the sunlit surface.” It sounds beautiful, as it matches the sounds to their substance.

The sound-substance connection is encoded deep in our alphabet. The letter Q looks like a monkey with a tail and sounds like the monkey’s cackle. S is a snake which hisses and slithers. O is the shape of a mouth making the sound O.

Admittedly such long-ago provenances are misty. Regardless, repetition is an area where the sound is decisive. If the word has a lilt, like love, then use it at will in a love poem. If it is blunt or percussive — like a curse word, or like mécanique as Charles de Gaulle emphasized it at the beginning and end of a message to the French people in 1940:/

— then deploy it where force is wanted. And if it simply sounds funny, like donut, then repeat it in a joke, as the beloved Mitch Hedberg does here:

That’s eight donuts in 46 seconds, including four donuts in the first eight. Like Shakespeare, Hedberg accelerates the repetition right out of the gate. (Note: the sentence at the start of this paragraph is duller if you replace donuts with times.)

Another way in which repetition is important is for clarity. If you are writing about a report, refer to it repeatedly as a report – don’t call it a report here, a study there and an analysis somewhere else. You just confuse the reader.

LEARN: Read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets here.

USE: Write an eight-line poem, using the world love at least eight times.


Q=Question-Based Writing (Feb 18)

Your readers are waiting for an answer // Heights Theater

Good art centers around questions. The pursuit of an answer is never-ending.  In that answer, there is revelation, or discovery, or a truth that can be emotional or empirical.  Good writing is art – and good writing is the same. 

I will go one more step: good writing is only good because it answers a question (use LOOK AWAY to cast your answer).  Often these questions are ones that go unasked, either because someone blindly accepted what came before as gospel or due to the emergence of something new.  However, different mediums use questions in differing ways.  Take research and film as two examples. 

For research purposes, a driving question is just that – it propels an investigation forward.  Think Newton under the apple tree.  To form a good research question, you must be specific.  The best questions also apply to a wide swath of audience.  Leave ideas about good and bad to the pundits and talking heads – a question that drives research is not argumentative but empirical.  In the moment after the apple fell, Newton — while nursing a newfound bruise — must have thought: what force made that apple fall from the tree?  That was his trigger.

Is your driving question derived from what came before?  If so, the question must find a hole – something that has not yet been explored.  Perhaps the question has been answered in one context but not another – extending previous research to situation that differs from the original is not as novel but certainly a valid pursuit.  Also, be on the lookout for “the new”.  As times progress, new forces and needs emerge.  With them, questions arise as well.

The best literature and screenplays come from a single question: what does a character desire?  To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, every character has a spine, what they want, and a mask, what they need.  As an actor, the mask is what you show but as a writer, the spine is what you need to know.  Conflict is what comes up when two characters — each seeking to answer their own question — meet. 

This also explains why most sequels, to put it bluntly, suck.  Let me explain.

Sequels fail because they rely on familiarity.  You know and like the characters.  That – and not a character’s driving question – is allowed to shape the narrative.  Led by a question (notice the word quest buried within), a story moves. Led by a character, a story doesn’t.  Even a character-driven movie like The Big Lebowski features a question.  The main character, The Dude, wants to know this: who soiled his rug? 

The Godfather II outshines the original because the heartbroken son, Michael, comes back to the fold.  Can he integrate himself into the family?  Will he get his revenge?  How will he quell the dissent within the family?  And, finally, will he become the leader of the crime family?  All these questions are answered in course of the story in startling and unexpected fashion.  The questions – not simply the character – make the narrative. 

Know that any question, once answered, creates new questions.  Research leads to more questions.  A good sequel must have more unfulfilled desires, more questions.  This leads to another consideration.  Many intensely personal pieces of well-felt prose fail to connect.  Why?  The writer has questions to answer, but those questions fail to speak to a larger audience.  In essence, a piece doesn’t ring true to anyone except to the writer and people who think like the writer. 

If this niche is enough for you as a writer, so be it . . . but if you have read this far, then you just might have something big to get off your chest.  Remember: your question must be relevant and interesting to more than just you.  A second thought: it must cover new ground – or at least ground with few footprints. 

Develop a big driving question, then use words to pursue the answer … wherever it leads.

LEARN: Pick up a good book of fiction off your bookshelf.  Choose one you read and enjoyed.  Some ideas for those eager for suggestions:

+ All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

+ “Sonny’s Blues” from Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

+ Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

+ The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

+ The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

USE: Enjoy the book (good pieces of writing get better each time you re-read them) and then define the book . . . what does it mean to be XXXXXXX? See X-FACTOR for more


P=Perret, Gene (Feb 17)

Or Before You Sit to Write . . . )

If you write jokes, they will come // Yallalaughs

Einstein had his theory of relativity, e = mc2 .  Spielberg made blockbuster films for decades.  For each, in their place and time, no one was better.  In a quieter way, so was Gene Perret.

Perret wrote jokes.  He wrote them for legends (like Bob Hope) and award shows (like The Academy Awards).  His prowess at jokewriting drew the best to him like moth to flame.  He also drew the curtain back to show other writers how it was done.

Perret wrote Comedy Writing Workbook as both a detailed set of instructions on joke assembly and an open love letter for the craft of writing.  Much of this applies to writers like you.

First off, note what you like.  Perret encouraged jokewriters to collect their favorite jokes, funny quote, best jokes from their favorite comedians and humorous cartoons.  You can do the same: collect your favorite pieces in a folder or online.  Explore your favorite writing, celebrate it, and examine it under glass.  Look for patterns of character, phrasing, and structure.   Figure out what makes each tick. 

You will also find that once you do this for writing you love, you can figure out the magic behind any piece of writing.

Learn your genre.  In his book Perret gave detailed instructions on all kinds of joke patterns (see MCKEE for patterns on story) as well as ways to turn ordinary statements and questions into jokes.  He taught how to string jokes together to form a bit.

He also gave ways to generate the nuts and bolts you need to form a joke: the “handles”, asking the 5 W’s of whot-what-where-when-why, words with double meanings, and more.   

It’s weird to think of a master of a game as its most devout and earnest student, but — above all — this was Gene Perret.  And to some degree, this needs to be you. 


Focus on one genre of writing: poetry, screenwriting for film, comedy, nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction, or another that you choose.   Come up with ten exemplars that connect with you down to the bone – pieces of writing that move you.  Examine all ten.  Write down any patterns you see as far as topic, structure, word choice, and theme.  Do these ten have any common thread?

USE: Starting by mapping out these general threads, write your own piece in the genre of your choice.  For draft one don’t worry about quality.  Just use the threads you have found in your own writing.


O=Oedipus The King (and Structure)(Feb 16)

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King in 430 B.C. Aristotle cited it as being in many ways the perfect model of a tragedy.

The play unfolds with great power as the hero’s flaw exposes his fate, even though his motive is pure: to save his city from a rampant disease. At the same time, the play has a flaw. And while far from ruinous, it shows just how difficult structure is in writing.

The idea of structure is that all the parts of a work should fit together; nothing should be extraneous. This provides the reader with a sense of order.

But in Oedipus the King, it is the pursuit or order that unleashes chaos. Clues keep piling up that Oedipus has unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy, made when he was a baby, that he would kill his father and mate with his mother. Upon hearing this prophecy his horrified parents, rulers of the city of Thebes, gave him to a shepherd to be left in the woods to die. But the shepherd took pity and handed Oedipus to an intermediary who brought him to the ruling couple of Corinth, who were childless and who raised Oedipus as their own.

Years later, an oracle conveys the prophecy to Oedipus anew. Not knowing he was adopted, he flees Corinth in order to avoid his prescribed fate. In a rash and sudden highway quarrel he kills a stranger who unbeknownst to him is in fact his natural father, Laius. Later Oedipus saves Thebes from the Sphinx and becomes king, marrying Jocasta, his father’s widow.

That’s quite the backstory. All of it happens before the start of the play and is explained as events proceed. The play begins with Thebes having fallen prey to an outbreak of plague. To save the city, someone must appease the gods by uncovering Laius’s killer. Oedipus steps up to the task and stubbornly persists even as others around him realize the peril and warn him to stop.

This is a tricky plot, because it must be credible that the truth about Oedipus dawns on others before it dawns on him. But here is where the flaw creeps in. As the clues accumulate, Oedipus’s last hope is that someone else killed Laius. That would clear him from the prophecy. As Jocasta remembers it, a herdsman travelling with the king said Laius was beset by several men; but Oedipus knows that he was alone when he had his highway quarrel. So the herdsman must be heard anew.

OEDIPUS: Yes, all my hope upon a herdsman now, and I must wait until he comes.

JOCASTA: But when he comes, what is it you want to hear?

OEDIPUS: Just this: if his account is yours, I’m clear.

JOCASTA: But what was my account? What did I say?

OEDIPUS: Why, several bandits in your account, he claimed, cut down the king.

If he will keep to several, I, as only one, am not the killer, not the same.

But if he says it was a lone man journeying — ah, then! — the verdict tilts too heavily to me.

(translation by Paul Roche)

And then, when the herdsman arrives, they don’t even ask him about this. Seriously. It turns out that this is the same herdsman who handed baby Oedipus to the intermediary who forwarded him to the Corinthian couple. Oedipus, in squeezing this information out of the herdsman, realizes that his parentage is not what he thought and that he must have fulfilled the prophecy. He forgets entirely about the question of how many men fell upon Laius and rushes off to poke out his eyeballs.

So, why did the herdsman say several men originally? Was it a misunderstanding, did someone mishear him, was he ashamed of the defeat?

We don’t know. The thread stays loose. That is a flaw, and it shows that even for a great writer, structure is a difficult puzzle (on the other hand, it is fitting that a play about an imperfect man should contain an imperfection). For normal writers the lesson is: Remove bits that don’t support the whole. And when you can’t figure out a way to do that, keep the story moving so quickly that people don’t notice. It worked for Sophocles, and, in modern times, it worked for every season of 24 and every Avengers movie. If you can’t be perfect, be fast.

LEARN: Read Oedipus the King — it’s a great work.

USE: Figure out a way the herdsman could have weighed in on the number-of-bandits controversy without hampering the story.

Answers from N: holocaust; splash; vexes/vexed.


N=No Second Cousins (Feb 15)

The right word is like a white suit – a perfect fit for Twain // Shutterstock

Sometimes you can’t find the right word and it would make all the difference. It’s like having the wrong size battery in your flashlight: what doesn’t fit will not illuminate.

Mark Twain, in the midst of an essay deploring the stories of James Fenimore Cooper, offered a series of rules for writing that include: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

One way you can tell you are using a second cousin is that you stick a qualifier in front of it. More and more we are seeing these qualified constructions as media outlets lay off the editors who normally would snuff them.

Here are some examples of “qualifier+ second cousin” followed by a better word choice, though usage will depend on context:

Extremely surprised -> shocked

Quite irritated -> annoyed

A bit sad -> subdued/sober

Very excited -> thrilled

Very disappointed -> crestfallen

Somewhat disappointed -> disappointed

(Sometimes the solution is to keep the word and lose the qualifier.)

These are easy fixes. In the old days you could poke around in the pages of your faded copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, but now online thesauruses offer answers in a flash.

LEARN: Read Twain’s essay on “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” here.

USE: Pick the right word for these three passages:

1. From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the [xxx] was complete.”

2. From a haiku by the 17th-century master Matsuo Basho: “an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the [xxx] of water”.

3. Emperor Commodus in Gladiator: It [xxxs] me. I’m terribly [xxx’ed[.”

Answers posted tomorrow – at the bottom of ‘O’


M=McKee on Screenwriting (Feb 14)

Robert McKee’s book Story emphasizes the importance of having a clear plan, like Agatha Christie did.

The most famous thing a screenwriter ever said about Hollywood came from William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one …”

Often this is reduced to “Nobody knows anything”, expressing the notion that creativity is indefinable and mysterious, like fog.

Robert McKee has tried to see through the fog. Decades ago upon arriving in Los Angeles he worked as a screenplay reader for NBC and UA (United Artists). Over and over, he saw screenplays sinking under the weight of the same technical flaws. He began to teach a weekend course on writing, which led him to write the book Story, published in 1997. Today McKee’s principles guide a far-flung legion of aspiring scriptwriters. They move creativity from nebulous to concrete. Story’s key ideas, useful for several kinds of writing, are:

1-Use words sparingly. Show, don’t tell: in a visual medium you can let the image speak, through setting, gesture and expression.

2-The stakes must be very high for the main character, and he or she must pursue them to the end of the line.

3-Conflict drives a story forward. Acts and scenes should constantly oscillate between positive, negative and neutral. A loss is followed by a bigger gain is followed by a bigger loss, etc.

4-When you boil it down, McKee’s biggest lesson is: Think before you write. Have a plan. Know the instigating incident, the mid-act climax, and the ending. You should probably write these scenes before any others, along with a sketch of your act/scene structure. This is useful advice for any longer writing project. Authors from Agatha Christie to Margaret Mitchell to John Irving have started books by writing the ending first.

McKee’s ideas, spread through his book and lectures, have become so orthodox as to invite a backlash. The need to constantly ramp up tension is very hard to sustain for 90 minutes. A lot of TV shows and movies cheat, and halfway through the show we discover that the bad guys from the first half are not the ultimate bad guys: Ohmigod, it’s not the Russians, it’s their alien overlords! And then the second half is just a repeat of the first half but with the new bad guys as the antagonists, and the initial antagonists now aligned with the good guys (or dead). Or else the mission in the first half culminates with Oh no it’s a trap!, and in the second half they repeat the quest but avoid the trap. 

Still, McKee’s advice is sound. His ideas are tested against decades of experience and thousands of scripts. Read Story in combination with a book that provides nuts-and-bolts structures for screenwriters, such as The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field.

LEARN: Read the Story chapter “The Structure of Story”, with its analysis of a turning point in the taut, twisting Chinatown script.

USE: Imagine a basic romantic comedy. Using McKee’s principles, outline any or all of these scenes: the instigating incident (they meet), the mid-act climax (their crisis), and the ending (their resolution). This is not easy to do well. Think, then write. Perhaps reflect on your own experience for ideas…


L=Look Away(Feb 13)

Here is a simple tip used by generations of writers.

If you’re not happy with a sentence, read it on the page. Then look away and try to repeat it, either out loud or in your head. Out loud is better.  Often the way that you say it while looking away is better than the way that you wrote it.

LEARN: Try the exercise with the passage below, an introduction to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne from the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Do it one clause or sentence at a time, and notice where you vary:

“Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent, for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind. He knew that there was ‘something of the hawkeye’ about him, and that the line was vague between prurient curiosity and legitimate artistic study of character. At his best, he was a master of psychological insight … “

USE: Use this technique on your next piece of writing.


K=Know When It’s Over (Feb 12)

Now let’s go from that very spark to the very end.

No idea is ever “done”.  Art is never finished.  Instead, you just stop working on it.  This is a paraphrase of many famous artists (for one, it is said that George Lucas said this when deciding when to walk away from Star Wars). 

In a sense, this is a relief.  You don’t have to be perfect.  The biggest issue, it seems, is when to walk away.

Often “done” is connected to a deadline.  My co-writer once joked that 97% of all news stories are filed four minutes after deadline.  And deadlines do help.  Having a time limit forces you to focus (otherwise you may be JOTTING AND JAMMING forever).  It demands that you pull your disparate ideas together into a flow that a reader can follow and understand. 

But it doesn’t answer an essential question.  How do you know when something is done?

In writing the idea of “done” changes from genre to genre and section to section.  Take a research paper as an example.  There are three clear sections.  In the first, you ask yourself questions.  Have you cited all relevant research, both prominent and obscure?  Did you also show how that research, though valid, has left something undone, some stone unturned? 

For a story, the easiest measuring stick is this: is the journey done?  Has the character on that journey changed – and do we the audience feel it?

A good joke transmits an experience and ends on a punch.  When it does, it’s done. 

In a similar way, a sensory image in a poem should convey an emotion.  Can you name it?  Can you feel it?

The metaphorical finish line for writing can be a day away or years.  The real finish line is this: do the words move a reader where you, the writer, want them to go?

LEARN: Watch Jerry Seinfeld discuss his writing process for a single joke:

Then watch a final version of the joke:

USE: Write a single page narrative describing a single event from your childhood – start with the who / what / where / when and go! Tell your story then finish with the why; that is – what you took from the experience.   

As you write, do two things only: either advance the story (from one part to another) or color it (add specific sensory details to add detail to the most important parts),

Once you finish, put the paper or file it away for one day (this foreshadows tomorrow’s lesson!).  Bring it back the next day.  To tell your tale within a single page, ask yourself as you re-read: what’s important?  Let that question be your guide as you rework the story toward a satisfying end.


J=Jotting and Jamming (Feb 11)

Every day you recognize things worth writing about. Don’t wait – jot them down.

On “Mitch All Together” comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down.  Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”

The glint of inspiration is ephemeral; it’s there, then gone.  Worse is how we sometimes treat it.  We question that flash.  Dissect it.  Like in the joke above, we convince ourselves that true inspiration isn’t worth the two seconds it takes to capture it.  Between laziness and self-doubt, we dis-believe.

So believe.  Believe in yourself.  Believe in your ideas.  Honor them – by jotting them down.

Technology helps us.  You don’t have to be Hemingway, jotting on a Moleskin.  An app like Evernote goes where you go.  So do voice notes. Post-Its and receipts and bar napkins work as well. You might call these flashes kindling for the fire or a spark in the darkness – whatever phrase resonates with you. It’s what has to be there to make fire. 

Say you have a spark that you suspect is a story.  Finish each sentence and ask yourself “what happens next?”  For the basics on this, take another look at IT HAS TO FLOW.

Always – write onward, from the five senses and the heart. 

Save the inevitable lust for results for later.  To begin, just flesh out the ideas. 

LEARN:  Write down five things you experience this week that inspired you. This can be either to do more or to be better.  Write this in a notebook, so . . .

USE: Buy a notebook (I just did before I wrote this).  Make the notebook a small one, one you can find it in a back pocket or nook of your bag.  Take five days and jot down any idea that could be of use. 


I=It Has to Flow (Feb 10)

Does this flow?: ““So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.” // Shutterstock

‘Flow’ is when “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” This description by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gets at a mental state where everything can be followed with ease.   This whole series on writing is, in one way or another, about flow.

In the GARNER lesson, we looked how sentences flow grammatically.  Now, let’s focus on how the topics (and ideas) connect via this flow.

First of all, the topic must be clear.  It can be in a sentence (on a page) or utterance (in a script) or panel (for a comic) or premise (for a joke) or ideas and feelings (in a conversation).   Next, there must be something the writer wants to tell the audience about that topic.   Give the audience a subject, then add what you want to say about said subject.  Educators such as Joseph Williams define this structure as TOPIC + COMMENT.

Once you have TOPIC + COMMENT, there are two ways to continue.  A writer can use parallel progression by taking the same topic and add a new comment.  Or a writer can use sequential progression by taking the comment in one sentence, then saying what happens next.

That’s it.

Flow can also combine the parallel and the sequential.  A writer can bring up a topic, make two or three comments about it, then progress from the first topic to a second one.   Your audience expects, even demands, one of these two moves. 

Keep in mind that different languages have different ideas about flow. In 1966 linguist Robert Kaplan looked at how writing flows in different languages. It turns out Japanese writing often flows differently than Arabic. Both have a slightly different flow than English.  

Don’t worry about that now. To write sentences and paragraphs (and chapters and scenes), just focus on two steps going forward: the parallel and the sequential. Then your ideas will connect – and flow.  In improv, this concept is called Yes …And – meaning you accept an idea and add to it. In writing, Elmore Leonard wrote Get Shorty by moving ideas in the same way.

The only thing left, then, is heart  (see our earlier lesson, DRIVE TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER). What do you really want to say?  What feeling do you want to convey?

LEARN: Read these five passages from world literature. In four, the word order has been re-arranged. Try to figure out which one was left intact, and try to recast the rest as the author wrote them.

1. “God created the heaven and the earth, in the beginning.”

2. “So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.”

3. “Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes – the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry made the sign of the cross with the gun over the dead.” 

4. “Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up.”

5. “Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

USE: Check if you got it right. Here are the originals:

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (first line of the Bible) 

2. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

3. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes–the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy – and made the sign of the cross with it over the dead. (Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies)

4. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin: Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up. (Nikolai Gogol, How the Two Ivans Quarrelled)

5. No changes in this one, the last line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.


H=How to Write a Press Release (Feb 9)

Michael Jordan’s team knew that when you have big news, you don’t need to pump it up. // Shutterstock

There are two ways to write a press release: flattering or factual. Which way you go depends on whom you consider to be your client. This illustrates the principle that no matter what sort of writing you are doing, consider it from the audience’s point of view.

Typically a press release is written internally or by a public relations agency for an organization such as a company and distributed to members of the news media.

Sometimes these releases describe the organization as the embodiment of the current corporate virtues – innovative, dynamic, world-class, pioneering. This reflects a view that the organization is the client.

But if you think of the news media as the client, then your writing must adapt. Journalists want facts, not fulsome or abstract phrases. When they read a release they are searching for a fact that is new and significant enough that they can use it as a headline. Otherwise it’s just spam. In short: verbs, nouns and numbers, not adjectives.

The factual route removes the feelgood factor for the organization but it does demonstrate that they are confident enough in their news that they needn’t puff it up. When you have important news, you can let it speak for itself. Consider the press release issued in 1999 when Michael Jordan returned to pro basketball. It did not go on about his greatness, stature or titles. After a brief intro from the PR agency, it merely quoted Jordan as saying:

«I’m back.»

That was all, and that was enough.

The catch with all this is that nowadays news spreads online mostly; the old gatekeepers are few. This new method of dispersion is influenced more by keyword-seeking bots than by humans. But for access to the remaining bastions of “quality media”, and the prestige associated with them, you need to provide meaningful facts.

One more thing: while the text of a press release often runs through several drafts, typically far less thought goes into the subject line for the email that conveys the release. That’s a mistake. Journalists receive hundreds of releases a day and the subject line is often the only part they look at; it’s your headline. A good subject line should include time sensitivity and a peg, eg: «Company X to unveil new product on Tuesday morning».

LEARN: Read up on the 1912 Titanic sinking here …


USE: … and then write the first paragraph of a press release on the disaster, viewing your client as either the shipping company or the news media.


G=Garner, Madison, and the Art of Writing (Feb 8)

Good writing lifts the fog and makes everything clear // Shutterstock

In document #39 of The Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that communication fails for three reasons: (1) the language is inaccurate, (2) the brain behind the language is cloudy, or (3) the object or idea itself is indistinct.

There are marketers and PR people for the last; there are meditations and substances for the second. 

You as a writer can only control the accuracy of the language – that is, how it is used.  Thoughts about this range from proper-is-best-forget-the-rest to anything goes . . . as long as the words can be understood as the writer intended.  Author Bryan Garner tries to bridge this gap, and provides a guide that points to how words work in reality. 

Garner is a lawyer by trade, and his book Garner’s Modern English Usage is one attempt to define how writing and language is most effective.  The physical book is a tome; outside of language, it is best used as a building block for housing or a cinder block for cars. Contrast that with another, more famous book, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  The slim book’s minimalist approach (in such maxims as omit needless words) reduces instruction on how to write into its simplest terms.  Both books are excellent references.

Both books get at what it means to write well.  So what are the elements of good writing?

Rather than focus on what could go wrong (a la Madison), we prefer to spotlight, in general, how to write well (like Garner and Strunk & White).   A good writer will vary sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length.   Topics will connect from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph (for clear ideas on this, see below). 

In terms of ideas, describe physical things from the senses (reveal how the thing tastes-feels-looks-sounds-smells) and mental things in terms of how they manifest, either in terms of behavior or thought process.   Usually the more relatable the example, the better . . . and give people the background info they need to understand each point. 

Good writing is more than choosing, as Twain said, “the correct word and not its second cousin (we’ll address this in our lesson for the letter N).  Yes, FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT, but then what?  A piece of writing is you, putting your words together in a way that is immediate and intriguing.  Whatever the subject, you want your readers to follow your words and the ideas they convey.   Below are six rules (which we’ll explore in detail in our W essay) to make sure the ideas flow well:

(1) Make the person doing the action into the subject of your sentence. 

Note: Choose humans over institutions.

(2) Conditions for the main sentence (when, if, before, after, because) come before . . . but make sure the condition is no more than eight words long.  In addition, if the condition is the most important part of the sentence, move it from the beginning to the end.

(3) Know the psychological subject of each sentence – that’s what you connect to the sentence before and the sentence afterward.

(4) To move from sentence to sentence, there is (a) parallel structure: when the next sentence has the same topic as the previous one, and (b) sequential structure: when one action causes the next action to happen.

(5) Every sentence has a topic and a comment; every paragraph has a topic sentence and a discussion.

(6) If you write a long or complex paragraph, add a summative sentence at its end to either (a) connect the end to the beginning or (b) restate the main point of the paragraph.

In the end, reading or hearing people talk about writing is good . . . but writing is better. 😉

LEARN: Read the six rules again and think about them; then read the following sentences: 

  • In the end, a writer puts together ideas with a combination of style, word choice, and arrangement.
  • Let’s talk about style, first of all.
  • Style comes from knowing your audience and your purpose – that is, your intention as a writer.
  • What are you trying to do?
  • An expert in your topic can understand high-level vocabulary and sophisticated explanations; a reader who is not an expert cannot.
  • This affects word choice, as an expert has the background to understand more about your subject.
  • For example, someone who knows comedy knows what punching up is while this must be explained to a reader unfamiliar with the term.
  • Joking about someone with more status or authority than you is what punching up means, for the record.
  • Finally, we come to how to arrange your ideas.
  • Just as a DJ arranges beats to flow smoothly from one song to the next, a writer must do the same.
  • In the end, as a writer, you want your ideas to flow in that same smooth way.

USE: Re-arrange two of the above sentences to make the paragraph clearer.


F=First Impressions Count (Feb 7)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen sure knew how to write a catchy opener. // Shutterstock

In many forms of writing, the first sentence is crucial to grabbing the reader’s interest. This is true in journalism, marketing and creative writing, though less so in technical writing (anyone remember the first line of their Windows operating manual?).

There are two ways of approaching your opening line.

One: Express the essence of the piece.

Two: Convey the facts of the matter.

Intros that express essence are more interesting and ambitious than fact-filled intros, whereas fact-filled intros are more utilitarian and achievable. Here are four intros that express essence:

*The opening line of Goodfellas: «As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.»

*The opener of Pride and Prejudice: «It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.»

*The start of Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up.”

*The full instructions on the dashboard of a long-ago video game: «Insert quarter. Avoid Klingons.»

*A page 1 opening line from The Wall Street Journal of October 20, 1987: «The stock market crashed yesterday.»

 To capture and convey essence is challenging. It requires discipline, reflection and inspiration. On the other hand fact-filled intros, being formulaic, are easier to deliver when you are pressed for time or not inspired. That is why they are more common.

Fact-filled intros provide the who-what-where-when and sometimes the why, like so:

City council at its meeting last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.

Who: City council

What: Voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park

Where: At its meeting

When: Last night.

You could vary this by dropping «at its meeting» because that’s obvious. A second variation would be to add the why:

«Responding to more than 200 public complaints, city council last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.»

If however you aspire to write intros that express essence, here are four tips:

• Write «The point of this article is that…»: and whatever you write after the ellipses is your intro.

• Write «This article matters because…»: and do as above.

-Picture your audience as one person, maybe your mom or dad. How would you explain this to a parent in one sentence? My daughter is studying oceanography and if I were to explain her research to my mom I would write something like: «By studying the mix of nitrogen and oxygen in seawater, we can learn about changes in the ocean’s nutrient cycles and currents.» That’s 22 words: short, simple.

-Think and keep thinking. Distilling something to its essence is like making maple syrup. You start with watery sap, but by laboriously boiling away the water you are left with just the good stuff. As part of this process it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like, What is the vein that runs through this piece? Where is the tension? What is the big picture?

Non-native writers sometimes try to stuff too much into each sentence, perhaps as a way of compensating. Brevity will prevent your sentences from spinning out of control.  In general, strive to keep it simple: one sentence equals one thought.

Whatever type of intro you write, try to stay under 35 words or even better under 25. The four examples from Goodfellas et al above are 14 words, 23 words, four words and five.

LEARN: Go to your bookshelf and measure for yourself the word count in each book’s first sentence.

USE: Write the first sentence of your life story – first as no more than 35 words, then 25, then 15.


E = Exact Word Count (Feb 6)

It pays to be precise, whether in archery or editing. // Shutterstock

We tend to write long. We have things we want to say, and we grow attached to them, either for their power as argument, for their novelty, or because they sound nice.

But that is pride. Your pride is not serving the reader. So counteract your pride – which is not altogether a bad thing, it shows you care – with the discipline of an exact word count.

Sticking to a word count forces you to be your own editor. It compels you to cast a critical eye on your work. It reveals tendencies in your writing, such as pet words and constructions, that are holding you back.

Here is an exercise in exact word count. The following extract is from an article in Foreign Policy on Nikki Haley resigning as US ambassador to the UN in October 2018:

Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of a nearly constant state of chaos during Trump’s first year in office: Top White House aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, entered office, and were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, whose tenure was marked by low morale and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months on end, while the secretary of state himself shied away from the spotlight.

The extract is 99 words long. How might we shorten it, say to an exact count of 75 words?

The key is to tighten the writing without altering the meaning. A few trims are easy: state of chaos can become chaos; “entered office” seems out of place and can be dropped; and the Tillerson part can be recast to lose “whose tenure was marked by” — we don’t need that clause, as it’s obvious from context that the writer is talking about Tillerson’s tenure. These changes get us down to 83 words:

Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of the near constant chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, and many were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months, while Tillerson himself avoided the spotlight.

Okay, that was not really arduous. But can we trim it to all the way to 75? That’s more of a challenge. Try it yourself before peeking below.

[C’mon, try.]

Here’s a stab at it, in which “against the backdrop of” becomes “amid”; sacked is integrated into the clause with rose and fell; and we don’t need the himself after Tillerson:

Haley rose to prominence amid the chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose, fell and were sacked with the whims of the president. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months while Tillerson avoided the spotlight.

But remember, cutting is not always and endlessly good. Respect the words even as you remove the excess.

LEARN: Go to Marie Kondo’s “About” page and read her rules for tidying up. Ask yourself which ones are also useful as principles of writing and editing.

USE: Take a sample of your writing and trim it by 10 to 15 per cent to an exact word count.


D=Drive to the Heart of the Matter (Feb 5)

Spider-Man is more than a superpowers tale – at its heart is the story of a boy and the girl next door // Shutterstock

A good story maps then pursues authentic emotion. As the song goes, ya gotta have heart.

Let’s take film as an example. The movie Interstellar follows the connection between a father and daughter. The Blues Brothers sang and danced with rhythm and blues legends in an effort to earn redemption. Under the skintight costume Spider-Man is more than just a boy-gains-powers tale – it is the story of a boy and the girl next door.

A movie may be the best art form for our visual era – and it’s easy to see why. You follow a character through ups and down and you learn about the person (upcoming lesson McKEE will look at this some more). If a movie is written and filmed in a way that makes sense, you as an audience member can’t help but care.

Words and images turn into scenes. These scenes in sequence give the audience a story. Without heart, though, none of these stories would connect. The authentic emotion is what turns a simple series of events into something more. After all, the movie Titanic wasn’t particularly new – one critic called it “Romeo & Juliet on a boat.” The magnificent scenes after the mighty boat hit the iceberg only mean something because of the improbable love between the two main characters, Jack and Rose. That’s what gives the movie its heart.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our world. Why should a piece of writing be anything different? As much as a cynic may not admit it, a story shows us what matters.

Step by step, what matters must be clear on a page. A research paper will review relevant research to show the heart of an experiment and hint at what could come next. A poem will stack images to get at the emotion of a single moment. Your audience is looking for, above all, heart. A person who hears a story may not know its heart at the beginning but should certainly feel it by the story’s end.

Everything you write has an authentic emotion under it. Once you figure out that emotion, the images and details to include fall in line.  Figure out a story’s heart and you figure out the story.  

LEARN: Watch this scene from Interstellar:

USE: Write down two things, each in no more than 10 words: What is the heart of the matter for the father? And for the daughter?


C=Computer or Paper? (Feb 4)

David Byrne has some definite ideas on how our surroundings can shape the brain’s response to art // Shutterstock

Music has many lessons for writers, from rhythm to the simple value of the sounds of words, to structure (the movie-score composer Hans Zimmer says each piece of a score asks a question, then answers it in a way that leads towards the next question – we will look at this more in the essay for Q, “Question-based Writing”). But there is a less obvious lesson from music and that concerns the context of creation.

As David Byrne wrote in How Music Works, much of music history has been shaped by the context of performance. The open savannah lent itself to the percussive sounds of drums; Gothic cathedrals have long reverberation times that suit slowly evolving melodies with very long notes; the enforced silence of large opera houses meant «the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities could now be heard» all the way to the back row. (The picture below shows a draft of Byrne’s lyrics for This Must Be the Place. The final version of the lyrics is here, with the first line and not much else intact.)

The spatial context of written creation today is almost always the computer. It’s so normal we forget about it, yet writing on a computer is quite different from writing on a piece of paper.

The main difference is that writing on paper slows you down (like ALWAYS READ BACKWARDS did in our first essay).

When you write longhand, your hands and fingers get tired and force you to pause every paragraph or so. This encourages brevity while writing, and reflection before writing, as wasted words are wasted effort. Also, for some reason paragraphs tend to be longer when written on paper.

In contrast, writing on a computer is a breeze. You can run on and on for hundreds of words without pause. This is not necessarily good. You are apt to end up with material that fits Truman Capote’s harsh assessment of Jack Kerouac’s work: “It isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.”

Research at Princeton University found something similar: students in a lecture who typed their notes on a computer had the same recall of facts as students who wrote their notes by hand, but the latter had a much greater grasp of the concepts being transmitted.

Byrne says musicians know that “the emotional center is not the technical center”. But technology can come to dominate process, and process to constrict outcome.

LEARN: Read How Music Works, especially Chapter 1.

USE: Try writing a first draft on paper. At first it will feel wrong but persist … even if just for your introductory paragraphs.


B=Burroway & Takeaways: What Books on Craft Can Do (Feb 3)

There are a thousand tomes on writing – including this one (we’ll provide a reading list of them when we get to Z in our final lesson). Looking for a guide to how words work in a creative way? Consider Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway.

Burroway breaks the book into two sections, craft and genre, which are tabled below:



Let’s be clear, though. This book – or any book on writing – isn’t a cure-all. Here’s a quick dive into what it doesn’t cover.

The book doesn’t cover style, per se. Nor does it give rules on writing (and life) like my first-grade teacher (no water fountain for you kid – swallow your own saliva). It’s not a code – for that, try pick-up artists or religious dogma.  The book’s style is also rather dry. Its precise sentences show a deft understanding of the craft but cannot show you how to bring your story to life. I take that back . . . it can, but only to a point. There are “TRY THIS” boxes which give helpful general prompts – but the inspiration to write, the specific spark, must come from you (see Y: YOU for more).

The author focuses on crafting words for impact, which is the only reason to pick up a pen or tickle a keyboard. However, making your words connect to a reader is craft and more. Knowledge of craft, though helpful, leads to good writing in the same way that shooting a basketball well may or may not lead you to become an all-star basketball player on the court.

Burroway alludes to one last thing, a thing missing in many books on writing: regard for your reader. A deep respect for the craft has to be paired with a deeper respect for your reader. As a writer, don’t waste their time. What you write is valuable to you. Work like hell to ensure it is valuable to them.

LEARN: Buy a book on writing such as Burroway’s, or On Writing Well by William Zinsser for a technical knowledge of the craft, or The Elements of Style by Strunk & White for a basic primer.

USE: Read the book, either in conjunction with this series or afterwards. By having multiple viewpoints you acquire perspective.


A=Always Read Backwards (Feb 2)

Whether on page or pavement, a backwards glance can prevent errors // Shutterstock


To improve your writing, read your work backwards.

This is an editing technique that forces you to look at your words more carefully. You will see flaws you missed before.


Because when you read the normal way, front to back, your brain races ahead of your eye. It sees what it expects to see. It overlooks errors in order to serve the greater goal of grasping meaning.

You need to trick your brain to slow it down. Reading backwards does this. You look at your text more critically once you escape the slipstream of its sentences. This is especially handy for people who are not native speakers of English; it slows the game down, which improves one’s sense of control over the text.

This technique is very useful for spotting doubled words (the the) and typos. It will find things that spellcheck (and writing apps) miss. Lawyers use this technique when going over legal documents.

Things you missed while reading forward will jump out when read backward. It’s like you’re sneaking up on them. Go backwards not word by word but in bursts of five or six words. 

The larger question is how the brain processes written words. In 2003 there was an item making the rounds, doubtless by email back then, that said:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Matt Davis, a Cambridge University brain scientist who studies reading comprehension, later wrote that the above argument was only partly true. Prof. Davis noted that according to research by psycholinguists, jumbled letters slow down your reading time by 11 per cent. He said the jumble-letters experiment above appeared to have begun with Graham Rawlinson, who used it in his PhD thesis at Nottingham University and found that “randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text”.

Davis pointed out that the text of the 2003 email often transposed adjacent letters rather than truly randomising them (eg, it uses “istlef” rather than, say, “ieltsf”; and “Uinervtisy” rather than, “Usritneivy”). A variant on this is that according to one model of how we read, our eyes split the job in half — left eye takes the first half, right eye takes the secnod half — and the brain then knits them together. The 2003 email tends to leave letters in the half of the word to which they belong, so again, not random.

LEARN: Read Matt Davis’s paper at

USE: There’s a typo near the end of this text. If you missed it, read backwards. Also try reading a page of your recent writing backwards, and write down what you notice.