Ten Writing Tips To Help You To Write More

Friday, March 17, 2006

Top Ten Writing Tips To Help You To Write More

Here in no particular order, are the ten best writing tips I've discovered in 25 years of writing. They may work for you, too. Try them.

Tip One:Pay attention to images
Your right brain thinks in images, and when you write, you translate images from your right brain into words. Usually this process happens so quickly that you're unaware of it. If you can make this process conscious, you can goose up your own creativity. Stephen King calls this process "writing with the third eye --- the eye of imagination and memory." To get the hang of this, try Jean Houston's process, adapted from her book, *The Possible Human*.

Tip Two: Making mud/ laying track
Your first draft of any piece of work is "mud" --- raw material. Julia Cameron refers to your first draft as "laying track", another term I like. If the first draft's awful, great! It's meant to be. It's only raw material. However, if you don't create the first draft, or you wait until you have a really great idea that's worth a first draft, you won't write anything. Write. Make mud.

Tip Three: Just write --- think on the page, or on the screen, NOT in your head
Thinking too much while you write is treacherous, because you can spend two hours "writing" and end up with half a page of work. Write-think. That is, think on the page, not in your head.

Tip Four: Grow your writing with lists
Listing is a form of brainstorming. It grows your writing, and it's fun. Listing is an excellent technique to use when you get stuck in your writing, and it doesn't matter what kind of writing you're doing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Listing also helps you in the revision process, to add texture to your work. Here's an excellent FREE software program to help you to produce lists, and to save them.

Tip Five: Use your magical thesaurus
Your most useful listing tool is ---- a thesaurus. Keep one on your desk to kickstart your brain. Your thesaurus and dictionary are perfect kickstarters. They're also vital tools whenever you're revising.

Tip Six: Make writing the FIRST thing you do each day
If you write at least page, by hand, as soon as you get up, you'll find that writing comes more easily to you for the rest of the day. You're also more focused and relaxed for the rest of the day.

Tip Seven: Set WIG goals --- the best goals are always unrealistic
Writer Martha Beck calls unrealistic goals WIGs: Wildly Improbable Goals. In the September 2002 issue of Oprah magazine she says: "... learning to invite and accept your own WIG can awaken you to a kind of ubiquitous, benevolent magic, a river of enchantment that perpetually flows to your destiny." A WIG is exciting. Just thinking about a WIG will get your heart pounding. Working toward your WIG (writing a book, writing a screenplay, getting signed on as a contributor at a mass-market magazine) takes hard work. Lots of hard work. And at the end of that hard work, as Beck points out, you achieve your goal, but there's a twist. You never achieve it exactly as you envisioned it - you achieve something even better, something you could never have imagined. I'm a great believer in writing ABOUT your goals. This is because when you write, you're using both sides of your brain, and are accessing your unconscious mind as well. You live in your left brain, which you regard as "you", but you have a silent partner, your right brain, which is also you, and which communicates via images and feelings.

Tip Eight: Separate writing and editing
Writing comes first, then editing. If you try to combine the two, you will block. Writing should come as easily to you as chatting to a friend. If it doesn't, you're trying to edit in your head before you get the words on paper, or on the computer screen. If you're not aware of the danger of combining writing and editing, you'll make writing hard for yourself, when it should be easy. If you don't have trouble talking, how can you have trouble writing?

Tip Nine: It's good to struggle with your writing
In his book The Breakout Principle, Dr Herbert Benson (who also wrote The Relaxation Response) describes a struggle/ release process that leads to a new level of awareness. When you struggle, and then completely give up the struggle --- just give up --- there's a chance that you can achieve a peak experience which leads you to a new level of functioning. How does this work in your writing? Let's say that you're writing a novel. This work is hard for you. However, you keep at it faithfully, working on your novel each day. You struggle with it for weeks. Then you give up. Although you keep writing, you say to yourself: "I don't care any more what garbage I write. I'm just going to do it. I'm just going to write." This release leads to writing magic. Suddenly you're inspired, and you finish the book in a rush. Although you will still occasionally struggle with your writing (because struggle is a part of life), you've broken through to a new level of functioning in your work. This new level would not, and could not, have happened without the struggle.

Tip Ten: Good writing = truthful writing

Writing truthfully can feel like undressing in public, so many beginning writers worry about sharing their writing. Be compassionate. Firstly, to yourself. Write. Write for yourself. All writing takes courage. When you finally show your writing to others, you discover the amazing truth that _no one cares_. In her book "Writing To Save Your Life", Michele Weldon advises: "Get over yourself". No one is judging what you write.
So write.

Craft: The Most Serious Screenwriting Mistakes

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Now that my university class is over, with a new one to begin in January, I have a break during which to wonder, as I always do, what I can do to help students avoid the most common and serious screenwriting mistakes. Term after term, year after year, I keep seeing the same errors, especially early on before students begin to understand how different screenwriting is from all other narrative forms. Here then is my list of the most common errors, in no particular order.


Fiction Rhetoric. Many of my students come from a fiction background -- and it immediately shows. They overwrite at every level. They describe too much. Their sentence structure is too complex. Their paragraphs are too long, giving the script great text density and the look of a literary document. Here are some guidelines to avoid fiction rhetoric:

• Write in simple sentences only. Remember what a complex sentence is? Right, a sentence with a subordinate clause. Avoid them like the plague! They slow down a quick reading and all screenplays are read quickly, even skimmed, before they are read carefully. Direct, simple sentences. Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments. Pretend you're in Junior High.

• Write in short paragraphs. Each paragraph should take no more than four or five lines across the page before you double space and start a new one. This opens up the script, making it vertical, making it easier to read. If there is a new subject, a new focus, start a new paragraph. Though you can't "direct the film" in a spec script, you can in a way by your paragraph spacing. Make each paragraph a new shot.

• Too much description. You are not the costume designer. Every time you describe a piece of clothing or something in a room, anything, ask yourself: is this essential or is it an option? Is Mary's red coat necessary? If the coat is blue, does her character change or the story fall apart? Get rid of the options, letting your collaborators make the decisions, and retain the essentials.


Expository dialogue. In general, dialogue is a clumsy way to communicate facts and figures. It takes skill to pull it off. Until you reach this level of craft, avoid doing it. Find other ways to relate essential information, preferably visually.

Chit chat. The problem with most dialogue in beginners' screenplays, however, is that too much of it goes nowhere. It is realistic, yes, but life moves much more slowly than a well crafted story does. Again, the final test is elimination: if you remove this line of dialogue, what happens? Do the screenplay and story collapse into incomprehensible gibberish? Is an essential character trait lost? If nothing happens, then why is it there? Like descriptive writing, keep your dialogue lean and mean. Exchanges of dialogue that are short and quick play much better, in general, than wordy exchanges.

Poor focus. Who is your main character, what is his or her goal, and what is stopping success of reaching it? These are the immediate questions we need answered to understand your story. You need to address them sooner rather than later. Poor focus on the main character is a common error I see. Keep your protagonist on screen as much as possible -- even two or three pages off the screen may be enough to knock the story focus askew. Keep on the main character like glue.

In my classes, I try to get students to solve the rhetorical challenges of screenwriting (fiction writing, slow dialogue) as soon as possible so they can concentrate on the story issues like focus. Screenwriting, in fact, is more about storytelling than writing as we usually think about it. Yet the rhetorical issues occupy some students for most of the term, as if they have a hard time accepting that screenwriting is not literary writing. Some have observed a trend in screenwriting to greater literary quality (The Hours script comes to mind), but it must be remembered that these examples are written by established writers. The plight of the spec script writer is different and much more competitive. To be read in such an environment requires special attention to economy so that your story is easily found and understood.

Screenwriting is the only form of writing about which it can be said: don't let your writing get in the way of your story. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Keep in focused.


Charles Deemer teaches graduate and undergraduate screenwriting at Portland State University. He is the author of the electronic screenwriting tutorial, "Screenwright: the craft of screenwriting". His book Seven Plays was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. His new book, Practical Screenwriting, is due in 2005.