Category Archives: writing

My Favourite Quotes on Writing


There are a million quotes about writing on the internet so coming up with a short list was hard. Quotes are great because they put beliefs into words or capture it in a perfect way. They can also be inspirational to hear successful authors talk about the craft and shed light about their process.

In preparation of this post, I read several hundred quotes as well as used some that I’ve heard over the years to bring you my top 10 favourite quotes about writing.


“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
— C. J. Cherryh


“Sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

— Blaise Pascal


“The first draft of anything is shit.”

— Ernest Hemingway


“If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.”

— Mik Everett


“What no wife of a writer can ever understand, no matter if she lives with him for twenty years, is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.

— Burton Rascoe


“Use one exclamation point per year.”

— Professor Irvine


“Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”

— Henry David Thoreau


“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

— Thomas Jefferson


“Don’t get married to any piece of writing.”

— unknown


“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

— Barbara Kingsolver


“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

— E. L. Doctorow


“Good is the enemy of great. Don’t write to just finish something. Take your time to make it great.”

— Jim Collins


“I write to discover what I know.”

— Flannery O’Connor


“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.”

— Stephen King

Additional Resources

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The Passenger Theory of Storytelling

Have you ever heard of the Passenger Theory of Storytelling? I suspect you haven’t because, frankly, I made it up.

I’ve hinted at this theory in other chapters, namely How to Overcome Consumption Obstruction and What is Good Writing.

The theory is basically this — when you put a book into the world with the hopes of someone picking it up and reading it, you are essentially asking them to get in your mind and take a journey with you.

For some, they are willing passengers and will gladly follow you where ever you take them. Others, need a little more information. Their time is valuable. They need to know what journeys you’ve taken in the past, where are you, where are you going to take them, how are you getting there, why should they care, finally, let’s go now before I change my mind. And keep in mind, at any point, they can bail from the trip.

To keep them happy passengers, you need to develop your plot in a engaging way, have a clear direction in mind, have a logical structure so they can follow along, and have a little sense of danger, a little urgency if you will to keep them from passing out.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about structure. In the Passenger Theory of Storytelling, there are only three stops along the way in any book – the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Respect the readers time and attention span. Don’t ramble, don’t take them off-roading, don’t get stuck in the mud, don’t take them on any crazy detours, and definitely don’t go backward. Stay on track.

You need a central theme or plot line that unfolds in a logical manner that they can follow. Having subplots and multiple character arches that intersect is actually an advanced technique. It would be like being a white belt in karate and then wanted to fight in the UFC. Most likely, it’s not going to go well for you. So why attempt this in writing if you don’t have the skills to pull it off?

I could probably spend another 30 minutes diving deeper into this metaphor, but the last reference to the Passenger Theory I will say is have checkpoints along the way, at least this is what I do. A checkpoint is a recap at certain points throughout the story to remind the reader where they are and where you’re taking them. It may be a character saying something like, “It was crazy how we snuck into the museum, stole this painting. Do you really think we can sell it to your friend?” This is a checkpoint statement. It allows the reader to re-calibrate with the story if they are lost.

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I get that you may meander a bit, tell a bit of backstory in a flashback, or whatever. I’m just saying, be mindful not to overdo it. I think sometimes writers tend to meander with their thoughts and take the reader on tangents that aren’t relevant to the plot.

Instead, be discipline enough to cut out unnecessary detours. Get on with the story. Take us on a journey, and show us a good time. That’s all we ask of you. If you can do that, maybe I’ll take another ride with you. Maybe I’ll tell a friend. Maybe I’ll even give you a good rating.

Additional Resources

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What is Good Writing?

Do you ever wonder what makes writing good or bad? You often hear that, so and so is a good writer, or this was terribly written, but what does that even mean?

As a storyteller, our job is to be an effective communicator of ideas. In another chapter, I talk about Ideas being Currency and to treat them with respect.

Your readers cannot read your mind, they only know what you tell them, and what they infer from your writing. You need to tell a compelling story that engages them, moves them, challenges them, makes them laugh, makes them escape their reality, and potentially reshape the way they think about the world. We need to enter the minds of our readers, paint a thousand pictures, write music, create worlds that come to life in the minds…and all we have is our words.

This is no easy task.

So, the better we are with our words, the better storytellers we can become.

The tricky thing about good writing is that it looks very simple, creating unreal expectations of the skill. In fact, to get to a skill level where your writing looks clean, simple, and error free takes many years of practice.

Writing well is more than having proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar, it’s about:

  1. Being clear
  2. Being concise
  3. Having purpose

Clarity — use plain language and write in an informative way that doesn’t confuse the reader. Avoid complicated or obscure words (you’re not trying to impress people with your vocabulary), provide proper context so readers are grounded within the scene. For example, having two random people talking – we have no idea who they are, where they are, what relevance this has, and so on. Word choice has a lot to do with clarity. Some words are ambiguous, vague, or leave too much open to interpretation, or they are colloquial and don’t connote the same meaning in other cultures or regions.

Having your ideas connected and organized in a logical manner makes a big difference. One sentence should naturally flow into the next, and one paragraph should flow into the next. Having non-sequitur sentences and paragraphs will confuse readers and make you appear amateurish.

Conciseness — being concise is actually very difficult and takes a lot of practice. There’s a really great quote from Blaise Pascal where he was writing a letter to his sister and he said, “I’m sorry to have written you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one. The obvious implication here is that writing concisely is more of a challenge. Novice writers tend to use more words to explain something that an advanced writer could explain using fewer words. More words tend to overwhelm the reader and add to their confusion.

When looking at a paragraph, ask yourself the following:

  • Does this provide value to the story or reader?
  • If I remove this part (word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, section) will any important details of the plot be lost?
  • How can I say this with fewer words?

You may find that you can omit redundant sentences, choose more appropriate words, or scrap entire parts altogether.

Sometimes you need to make tough choices with your writing. For instance, if you spent a month writing a chapter and it’s the best thing you’ve ever written, but it doesn’t fit the story, then it has to go. You must be willing to let go of your beloved text. If you don’t want to delete it, cut and paste it in a separate file, but leave it out of the story. Despite what some authors think, not every word they write is important.

Purpose — another mistake novice writers often make is they meander with their thoughts. Good writing is focused, it has direction, it has purpose. Every word and paragraph is there for a reason to drive toward a particular point.

A common examples that comes up often are:

  • Off topic or irrelevant information
  • Redundant information
  • Fluff that adds no value other than to pad your word count
    • Meaningless scenes or conversations

All these things just convolute the purpose of the story, which is to communicate ideas effectively.

It’s not easy to write a full-length novel and it may be tempting to pad your story with fluff to make up the difference. Unfortunately, this will not make people excited to read your work. Writing that has no clear direction or lacks purpose will turn readers off.

This especially comes up a lot with dialogue, where two or more characters engage in a conversation for the sake of having a conversation.

Ask yourself, “Is this conversation necessary?” or “Does it drive the plot further?” If the answer is no in both cases, you should probably revise it or take it out completely.

Additional Resources

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Writing Hack: Embodying the Character

In this chapter, I want to talk about a technique I use to flesh out characters and make their dialogue a little easier to write. I call in embodying the character.

Basically, what I do is I write extensive backstories about each of my main characters such as:

  • Where do they live
  • Where are they from
  • How did they grow up
  • What are their motivations and desires
  • Were there any formative events that happened in their lives that shaped them
  • and so on

I may never show anybody these notes, and it may never be brought up in the story — these are for me to understand who these characters are — much like an actor might do a similar exercise to figure out who their character is.

Once I have a reasonably good grasp on my characters, I can begin to create a mental image and embodiment of the character. I then jump back and forth and figure out what they will say, how they will say it, how they behave and act in certain situations, and so on.

Additional Resources

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10 Tips for Writing Proper Dialogue

A lot can be said about dialogue, so this is by no means an exhaustive list. These are just ten tips that come to mind when I write dialogue.

Tip 1

Nothing frustrates me more as a reader than reading pointless dialogue, and I’ll say pointless scenes as well. If there’s a scene in your book where two people are talking and it doesn’t

a.) develop the character in some meaningful way;

b.) reveal some information relevant to the plot

I strongly suggest revising it, or omitting it altogether.

Authors often use dialogue as filler because it takes up a lot of page space and it’s relatively easier to write. Please avoid this temptation in your stories.

Tip 2

An important lesson about writing dialogue is that it is a bit different than how people actually speak. In normal speech, people stumble over their words, we say uh and um, we misspeak, we go off on tangents. However, in writing, this doesn’t really work. Unless it’s integral to the plot or the character such as a stutter when someone is lying, nervous, or guilty. I would strongly encourage you not to overdo these common speaking mannerisms in everyday speech.

Tip 3

In normal speech, we also greet people with hello, how are you doing, I’m fine thanks, and you? However, in writing, you can omit these. The reader will assume they greeted each other, or you can just write, “After exchanging pleasantries, Bill said, …” and then just get to the relevant part of the conversation.

This is also true for outros as well. In writing, you can just end dialogue abruptly and the reader will assume they gave each other a proper goodbye.

Tip 4

I’ve said this in another one of my writing tips, but I’ll include it here as again. Use Ctrl H to find any dialogue that starts with ‘Well’, and replace at least 90% of them. I see this a lot, even in my own writing. For whatever reason, it’s tempting to start a piece of dialogue with the word ‘Well’. I’m not even aware of how many times I do this until I use the find and replace function.

Tip 5

You want your dialogue to sound natural, right? When you write an email or an essay, you generally write every out long form such as: “Yes, there will be plenty of people at the party so feel free to join us. You are more than welcome to bring a guest. It is my last day in town.”

However, if we were speaking, we’d likely say something like, “Yeah, of course I want you to come to my party. It’s my last day in town so you should definitely come. And feel free to bring someone. What’s up with that girl you were seeing? Bring her.”

Notice in the second example, I use slang ‘Yeah’ instead of ‘Yes’, I conjugate phrases like ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’ and I make it more personal. So instead of ‘bring a guest’ it’s ‘What’s up with that girl you were seeing? Bring her.”

Tip 6 

Read dialogue aloud. You can either read it yourself, or have someone read it to you. I use a program called Final Draft to read me my dialogue. I’m sure other programs do it as well.

Tip 7

Embody the character. Write character profiles so you know exactly how each of your characters speak, what motivates them, what they would say and how they would respond, and so on. I like to become the character almost like an actor might try to get inside the head of a character they’re playing. I do the same thing and it makes writing dialogue feel a lot more natural.

Tip 8

The next trick I use, which I’ve mentioned in other posts, is to use placeholder conversation. If I don’t know exactly what each person will say, but I know what message I’m trying to convey, I will use placeholder text. I will write something like, “TK make plans with friend. TK friend is reluctant…” I use TK because I can then use ‘Ctrl H’ to come back later and write the dialogue.

Tip 9

I should say that this next piece of advice, like most of my advice on this channel, is coming from a place of someone who has been writing fiction for over ten years and reading fiction for even longer. So I’m by no means an expert, perhaps you you’re your own opinions. It is my opinion, that opening a chapter, especially the first chapter, is usually not a good method. I’ve read in other writing tip books not to do this so I don’t feel as though I’m the only one who doesn’t like this. When you open a story with dialogue, it can be very difficult for the read to ground themselves.

In another video I talk about going from big to small, which is showing a series of descending establishing shots to set context such as city > building > scene. In other words, set the table before you serve the food. So when you open with dialogue, the reader is scrambling to find footing. They need to know:

  • What year is it?
  • What country are they in?
  • What does the world look like?
  • Who’s talking?
  • What’s the relevance of this dialogue?
  • Why should I care?

Chapters other than chapter one can open with dialogue, but I would do so sparingly. Again, that’s just my opinion.

Tip 10

Lastly, I will say this about dialogue — when you close a chapter with dialogue, you often don’t need the response from the other person. It can be much more powerful if you leave the statement hanging. For instance, if you have a scene where one person says to the other, “I am your father”, that is a ‘dun-dun-dun’ moment that will be spoiled if you have the other person say, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Another example would be, “We’ll meet back here tomorrow to rob the old lady.” Just close the chapter there, you don’t need the other person saying, “Okay” or “See you later.”

Additional Resources

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How Sentence Length can Improve your Storytelling

There’s a reason why writing is considered an art form. Especially writing fiction. Reading fiction requires a lot more from the reader than non-fiction. Readers not only have to think about what’s being said, but they also have to create mental images, juggle characters, plots and subplots, come up with voices, anticipate what’s to come, and so on.

Reading fiction is a skill, unlike reading a blog or piece of non-fiction, which tends to be more linear — you just follow along as someone tells you something. Reading fiction is often much harder to read because it requires more mental effort.

Why am I telling you this?

This is a roundabout way for me to tell you that one of your jobs as a fiction writer is to remove some of that pain. I talk at length about this in another post called How to Overcome Consumption Obstruction.

Your sentences should flow effortlessly. You can achieve this in many ways such as using the right vocabulary, reduce the number of large paragraphs and chapters, have logical order of your ideas, and so on.

There’s a really great quote from Gary Provost, from his book 100 Ways to Improve your Writing, which states:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

As you can see, having no variation in your sentence length can read a bit stiff or robotic, and in fact, it can be distracting. I think to be proficient at writing and storytelling, you want to create an immersive experience with as few distractions as possible. Your words are almost like musical score under-toning the mental picture the reader creates in their mind. If you have jarring sentence or language that lack elegance and flow, it’ll take the reader out of the story, they’ll put your book down, and likely never read anything by you ever again.

Play around with different sentences lengths. You can combine two sentences, cut out unnecessary words from another, have a really short sentence consisting of only one word. If done right, it can really elevate your storytelling and captivate the reader’s attention. It’s almost like a spell. Readers may not even be aware of what you’re doing, and they couldn’t necessarily explain why they like your writing, but they do. They find themselves falling deeper and deeper into your world like a trance.

You can also play around with paragraph lengths. This is something that I do. I tend to want to break up large paragraphs just so that it’s easier to read and creates more white space on the page. Again, like sentences, a short paragraph consisting of only one word or a few words can have a lot of impact if done right and not overdone.

So there it is, today’s writing lessons. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Additional Resources

 

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How to use the Level Ramping Technique to Improve your Storytelling

In this post, I discuss the idea of level ramping in storytelling, which is likely a term you’re not familiar with, because frankly, I made it up. There may be a better term for it, but this is what I’ve always called it.

Level ramping is a technique I use during the planning stage of writing a story.

Humans love stories, our brains seem to be hardwired for them, and we also love suspense. It’s like a drug. Even if we know the hero is going to make it out of some precarious situation, the threat of them not making it, pulls us toward the edge of our seats and draws us into the story further.

To really master this art, and keep your stories engaging, they need to be suspenseful.

Usually stories start from a single idea, and then you expand on them. But, it’s not always easy to do that. If you don’t plan properly, you are bound to ask yourself the inevitable question – What happens next? This question may sideline you for days or weeks as you mull over all different possible scenarios.

Level ramping provides a guide so that you can figure out where your story is going, and also how it ends. And all it takes is a few minutes.

How it Works

Suppose you start with a single idea: boy lost in the woods. You think that would make for an interesting premise, but you don’t know the rest of the story, including how it will end.

What I do, is start with the initial idea, and then dial up the stakes by one level.

So if a boy is walking in the woods with a friend, what would be the next level of thing that would suck after that?

It would suck if they got lost. So that’s what I would do in the first act — the boys get lost.

Okay, what else?

It would suck if they had to stay overnight in the dark, cold and scary woods.

Great, then what?

Wouldn’t it suck if it started to rain in the middle of the night?

Wouldn’t it suck if they got bit by inspects…

Go hungry…

Get separated…

Attacked by a bear…

One of the boy’s loses an arm…

So just by dialing up the suck, I can figure out pretty quickly all the action beats. I can keep going.

Suppose one of the boys finds a group of campers, a seemingly positively event in a serious of unpleasant circumstances. But what if the campers turned out to be bad men, such as cannibals, and they already had the other friend. Maybe that’s how the boys reunite with each other. Maybe then they steal some gear and escape, they get chased, fall into a river and almost die. In the end, rescue comes and they’re saved.

So as you can see, I was just making that up as I went along, and I just told a complete story from start to finish simply by ramping up the suspense.

Recently I watched a movie called The 5th Wave, which does this well. I’m not sure if the book does this or not, because I haven’t read it. But for the purpose of this lesson, we’ll use the movie version.

Before I start, I’m going to spoil this movie so if you haven’t seen it, maybe read this post after you see the movie.

So the premise of the movie is these aliens come to earth and attempt to wipe out the human race and inhabit earth. There are five waves of destruction which is a form of level ramping, but the movie focuses on the 5th Wave, which is to convince children that other humans are in fact aliens so that they kill each other.

The story follows a female protagonist – Cassie – played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Cassie lives with her father and younger brother (her mother passed away), and in the opening scenes lives a pretty normal life.

While out with her little brother, the first wave hits — a giant flood wipes out coastlines and drowns cities. Millions upon millions of people are wiped out in an instant.

Now, some writers may stop here because this premise alone could be used throughout the entire story — girl surviving alien invasion, chaos ensues.

However, the movie doesn’t stop there, they ramp up the suspense.

What comes next is a gradually increase of peril that Cassie has to overcome. First, her dad dies and she has to take care of her brother by herself.

Next, her and her brother become separated. She is now on her own and must fend for herself. If the flood, the dad’s death, being separating from the brother, being on her own weren’t bad enough, she then gets shot in the leg, then kidnapped by a hunky guy, who turns out to be an alien, and so on…

Another example is The Walking Dead. Rick wakes up in a hospital only to realize a major world-wide zombie outbreak has occurred. Then his friends die, then his wife and unborn baby die, he gets captured, his hand gets chopped off, and so on.

All the writers are doing is taking an initial premise and gradually dialing up the suspense. You may come up with ideas as you go, but it can be helpful to plan it out before you start writing.

Additional Resources

 

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