You’re looking at posts marked Writing . More Categories »

Melville on All Caps

“One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan [Moby Dick]? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!”

Herman Melville

Friends, hold my arms!

‘Story’ Doesn’t Exist

“I think a lot of filmmakers think of story as the purpose of the film. And that the characters really have just got to service the story and take it to where it’s going. And that seems to me to be the complete opposite of what should be happening because there should be no story. I mean, we spend our lives inventing stories, but ‘story’ actually doesn’t exist. We exist and our apprehension of a story is how we explain the kind of meanderings that we take. So there’s no such thing as the empirical story. It’s just what happens to people.”

Bill Forsyth, Scottish Director

Wild. Been studying storytelling and screenwriting for so long and I’ve never heard someone say this.

But it’s true! There are only characters. Characters with wants and fears and desires making little and big decisions and bumping into each other.

Just like us.

“Writer’s block is the equivalent of impotence. It’s the performance pressure you put on yourself that keeps you from doing something you naturally should be able to do.”

Neil Strauss

The Foolscap Method: Get it on One Piece

‘God made a single sheet of foolscap to be exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.’ (foolscap is 8.5 x 14 inch legal paper)


Outline the sucker.

Break it down to its fundamentals.

Identify its theme.

Do it on one page. Do it without preciousness. Do it now.

Don’t start the actual writing until you know where you’re going and what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Stephen Pressfield

I think for the first time I just read a thing and knew full well it was going to change the way I worked forever.

This tip has that “ugh, duh! goddamit, of course” quality; like something in me already knew it was true, I just needed someone to articulate it for me.

As I’m in the middle of creating a large and {hopefully) important course for business builders, this tip is about 4 days late.

But I’ll be prepared for next time. (I’ll try that one and go for these if I like it more than using blank printer paper).

One piece of paper… hand written. Duh!

Kurt Vonnegut’s Style Tips

I love the matter-of-fact-ness of this list. All are good to remember but the last is particularly fresh. Via BrainPickings.

1. Find a Subject You Care About: Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. […]

2. Do Not Ramble, Though: I won’t ramble on about that.

3. Keep It Simple: As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. […]

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

4. Have the Guts to Cut: …your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

5. Sound like Yourself: The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. […]

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?

6. Say What You Mean to Say: I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. […]

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

7. Pity the Readers: Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school – twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

Ugh, just wonderful stuff. Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.

A Topic Statement for Your Writing

Make yourself come up with a topic sentence. […] Write ‘Topic:’ at the top of the page and then in one sentence describe what it is you are about to write.

It’s actually so much harder to do [than you think] and it’s not just a 4th grader thing to do. It gives you focus and it centers you, and, you know what, at anytime when you’re writing you can go back and change the topic.”


Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.

Ogilvy’s 10 Writing Tips

We’ve seen a few other lists from Ogilvy. He’s a listy guy. I tried hard not to need this one as well, but it’s just too good.

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

  6. Check your quotations.

  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want. David

Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.

David Ogilvy’s Copywriting Process

In April 19, 1955 David Ogilvy wrote this to a Mr. Ray Calt. It outlines his process for copywriting an ad. It’s refreshing and human and I’m grateful for this honest look into his thoughts about work. (source)

Dear Mr. Calt:

On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:

  1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.

  2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.

  3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.

  4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.

  5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.

  6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.

  7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)

  8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.

  9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.

  10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.

  11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)

  12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.

Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

Yours sincerely,


Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.

Stephen King on Two Kinds of Novelists

I think novelists come in two types, and that includes the sort of fledgling novelist I was by 1970. Those who are bound for the more literary or “serious” side of the job examine every possible subject in light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me? Those whose destiny (or ka, if you like) is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others? The “serious” novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the “popular” novelist is looking for an audience. Both kinds of writer are equally selfish. I’ve known a good many, and will set my watch and warrant upon it.”

Stephen King, intro to The Gunslinger

Jack Hart on chunking up the writing process

Break it down into manageable steps. Let’s kick this idea around. OK, now that we’ve kicked it around, what would you say your theme statement is? And that will help refine things. If that’s your assertion about reality, how are you going to demonstrate that? What sort of information do you need to gather that’s relevant to that? And so on, and so forth. If you do those things one at a time in a logical order, it’s much less intimidating.” Jack Hart

Here’s some more writing tips on this site.

Editor notes on a book introduction

I’ve been trying to put together an introduction to a book I’m writing. I spent several hours on it, tightened it up, and totally thought I nailed it.

Then I pinged a writer friend of mine for his feedback, mostly expecting to impress him and receive some good encouragement.

I, of course, had not nailed it. His feedback was excellent, however, great stuff for anyone putting together an introductory essay/article, so I’m posting it here along with the original introduction I wrote. (more…)

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

Benny Franklin

Typing isn’t hard. Writing something good is

[paraphrasing Stephen Pressfield] The closer we get to the thing that we want, the more we feel Resistance.

For a lot of us that might be writing. Let’s be honest, it’s not that hard to type – it’s really hard to write something good. It’s not that hard to do anything, really. But the problem is if you start really actually doing it – instead of thinking about it, instead of, like, polishing your beret – when you actually start doing it it’s scary.

It’s not being a writer that’s scary, it’s scary to write. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself why so many people who try to do it all the time have such a problem sitting down and typing.

It’s not because typing is hard, it’s because getting close to that thing is scary.

Merlin Mann

From the wonderful Back To Work podcast.

Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.