• One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
    Jack Kerouac
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Just Write (40)

This week's writing prompt comes from Amy Peters who offers some perspective for those of you faced with shady characters. The issue of a character's likability has a vicious cycle, as the latest Claire Messud kerfuffle reveals. While it may impact a novel's reception, likability also becomes an issue for nonfiction writers. I've been told by several writers of serious nonfiction that they turned away from projects because they discovered they really didn't like their subject. Peters suggests here that often it's these unlikable characteristics that make your subject most interesting: 


The most interesting person that I have ever met...

Often, the most interesting person you know may not be someone you like or even respect. No one knows this better than Robert Caro, award-winning biographer of both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Caro was drawn to the stories of powerful men. In his words, he felt compelled to expose their less-than-ideal sides: "To show power truly you not only have to show how it is used but also its effect on those on whom it is used. You have to show the effect of power on the powerless."

For this prompt, see if you can discern the difference between someone you admire and someone truly interesting. You might find these two features overlap. Or, you might discover that the most interesting fact about the person you have a high regard for is his or her less less-than-admirable qualitites. 

--Amy Peters, The Writer's Devotional: 365 Inspirational Exercises, Ideas, Tips, and Motivations On Writing (2012 Sterling)

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Just Write (39)

Today seemed like a good day for a re-writing prompt. This one is drawn from William Zinsser's On Writing Well.  All nonfiction writers should have a dog-eared copy of this classic guide. While his advice skews toward the journalistic, all writers can benefit from it.  I often recommend it to academic writers, as much of his advice attacks unclear language--something in which scholars are often drowning.

On this Monday morning, let's set our sights on one of those clarity-destroying imps of language, which Zinsser calls:

Little Qualifiers.

Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: "a bit," "a little," "sort of," "kind of," "rather," "quite," "very," "too," "pretty much," "in a sense," and dozens more. They dilute your style and your  persuasiveness. 

Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident....The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader's trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don't diminish that belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.


Choose a chunk of your current writing project (some discrete portion, be it chapter, section, or article) and drive out these quiet destroyers of authority. To Zinsser's list, please add "perhaps," "maybe," "might," "possibly," and all of their kin. You'll be left with something leaner, tougher, and more direct--as if your chapter woke up and discovered it was Dirty Harry. 

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Just Write (38)

I entered a new world this weekend.

One of the hats I wear involves lots of beer. As part of my professional responsibilities, I had to spend the weekend at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver.  Over three days, 49,000 peopled descend on the convention center to drink 2700 beers from 580 breweries. This is roughly like stumbling into the illegitimate offspring of Mardi Gras and a trade show. With lederhosen. 

While I drink a lot of water and detox, you all should try this writing prompt:

Imagine a world within a world--something that could or does actually exist--and use it as the setting for your writing this morning. What are the rules, ethics, and rituals of this world? Are there costumes, outfits, or pretzel necklaces? Create this unique realm for your reader, allowing them to see the complexities at work, to smell and touch the weirdness of these little pockets within our big culture. 600 words should do just fine. 

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Just Write (37)

We have developed stratospheric tendencies towards hyperbole in contemporary language. Descriptions land squarely at the awesome or horrific ends of the experience scale, without ever visiting the just fine middle. This can give the impression that well and good are no longer acceptable. It also belies the truth that the average person is pretty darn lucky to dwell in the land of fine, even if it means they never touch the stratosphere. 

Naturally this leaks into writing. There are few novels about the slow grind through teen boredom and angst, for example. Holden Caufiled would need to turn into a zombie to find a starring role in today's bestseller. Even in more serious-minded nonfiction, character profiles tend toward the hyperbolic ends of the spectrum; most are works of hagiography or condemnation, with few uncovering that complex middle ground. 

So for this Monday writing prompt, we're staging a coup de fantastique. Whatever your genre, pick a very average person and describe their very average day, or their very average existence. Is there still something profound or beautiful in that quotidian existence? Can something powerful happen in a day or a life in which nothing powerful happens? This is not a license to be boring--just find a little quiet on this fall morning. Keep it to 300 words. 

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Just Write (36)

A participant in my workshop this weekend wisely pointed out that these weekly prompts and exercises skew heavily toward the creative. While I hope that writers will bust out of their disciplinary shells as much as possible, she was clearly right.

The reason for this is fairly simple--there is just way more out there for creative writers than for scholarly ones. I imagine this is largely because academic writers have long been considered oblivious to things like writing craft or style. I would like to leap onto a very sturdy soapbox and declare this a gross and misinformed prejudice, but it contains a kernel of truth. And that kernel is why I urge scholarly writers to adopt some tactics from their creative writing brethren.

So once again, my scholarly birds, focus on your writing and start by taking any exercise from our site and making it yours. Tweak it to fit your genre, but also try a few that take you into unfamiliar territory. Stretch and strain your writing muscles, and maybe it will help you find that elusive crossover audience. 

But not today--today is all about you: 

Go to your over-burdened book shelf, perhaps the one that your spouse asked you to move to your office for fear the children would die beneath a pile of tomes, and pull down the two books you think are the most well written. Why are they your favorite? What about them do you admire? Is it the writers' tone, language, or perhaps the way in which they convey information? What is the primary story being told? Can you identify an overarching narrative arc? Is there anything you'd cut? Add? Be specific, brief, and precise, but remember this is not a précis--focus on the story and the writing. 

Are your answers about both books similar? Without focusing on specific content, how would you answer these questions about your own work? Can you glean anything from the style and flow of your favorite books that can help you shape and hone your own work?

--inspired by Susan Bell and her lovely book, The Artful Edit

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Just Write (34)

Mondays are the day that my Sunday sloth gathers enough speed to collide with my always overflowing mound of to do items. Where once a sticky note or two could contain the things to which I need to attend, I now find myself making full checklists, complete with hand-drawn boxes to be marked when I complete a task. I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to let the chickens out of their coop. This is what has happened to me. With the sneaking suspicion that you too might have a bucket fulll of "dear god, I must get all of this done," we've borrowed a list themed writing prompt for you this week:


Write a story that is a list. A story that relies on the list as its form or operating metaphor can be dandy. A grocery list that includes a wife's complaints about her husband's slothful habits is one example. You might also write about collections that appear on your own or friends' shelves--books, DVDs, videos, CDs, records, trophies, glass figurines--some commentary on the nature of this is acceptable, but don't get carried away explaining the contents. Stick to the notion that this list is a list as much as you can--not a list that devolves into a traditional story. 600 words."

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2005)

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Just Write (33)

Today's writing prompt comes from Writers Digest, one of our favorite resources for writers. In addition to advice on writing better and getting published, they also post weekly creative writing prompts on their website. They invite you to add your 500 word responses to each prompt in the comments section, which makes for fun reading. This is another friendly (ahem, bossy) reminder that there is a wealth of inspiration out there and no exuse to not just write already.

"Someone Else is Living Here:

Your kids love watching CSI, so you buy them a forensic starter’s kit for Christmas. They begin running simple, fake experiments, collecting DNA, and dusting for fingerprints around the house. When you look at all of the powder and prints they pull, you find there are more fingerprints there then just you and your family’s. Whose are they?"

--from Brian A. Klems and the Wrters Digest website

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Just Write (32)

Can you remember that first movie that changed your life?

When we hit a certain age—I’m going to say approximately 14.5—movies start to take on such mythic status in our lives. We start to see ourselves in these movies.  It's when we think this could (or should) be me--or most powerful of all, I am that girl. So you watch it over and over, to the bafflement of your parents. That they think it’s inane or inconceivable only adds to its perfection.

I came of age in the teen film heyday of the Brat Pack and John Hughes. I can still recite most of the lines from Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink. But when you go back and watch these movies (the above two excluded, of course), they’re really awful. The Legend of Billie Jean? Footloose? Sigh.

For today's writing prompt, let’s do a little revisionist history. Pick that movie that meant so much to you and rework it. Make it less schlocky, or silly. Put some truth and soul back in it. Make the girl stronger, or the boy less dull.

If you need inspiration, listen to this great John Hodgman piece from This American Life about rewriting a movie that went so very wrong.

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Just Write (31)

I have a shocking ability to remember song lyrics. This is not limited to good songs, or songs to which you’d actually like to know the words. “Bust a Move” shares brain space with “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and the entire Pavement catalog.  If I could replace half of the song lyrics floating around my head, I’d be much better at math. And this is why I’m so excited about this week’s prompt—it could make all of that worthless knowledge viable:

“Write a story based on the title of your favorite song.”

--The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle, 2011)

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Just Write (30)

A short, sweet, and potent writing prompt for this fine Monday:

“Write about someone who accidentally destroys something irreplaceable.”

--Monica Wood, The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006)

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Just Write (29)

I am currently laboring through a book--don't you hate when that happens? It's won buckets of awards, including the Pulitzer, and I was marooned on page 29 for many, many days. I still haven't hit page 200. When I confessed to this failure on Twitter, a woman I don't know (who is clearly more patient than I) told me it was one of the most amazing books she's ever read. I have been hanging my bookish head in shame ever since. I'm trying to persevere, but last night's detailed description of the hull of a fishing boat nearly did me in. 

However, it did inspire today's writing prompt:

Write about a tedious and typical act--cleaning fish, for example--capturing the practical steps that shape the process. Describe how your character brushes their teeth, the way they spit into the sink. Take your reader through the full process, the smells and sounds of this act with which we're all familiar, but make it worth reading. Does the way she cleans the toilet reveal something about your character? Does the act itself help set the place or time? Can your language be precise yet evocative? 

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Just Write (28)

It's just about the height of summer here. Flowers and fruits are bursting. Nights are long and filled with barbeques and beers. Ice cream is about all the dessert I can muster (last night's strawberry-basil was AMAZING). Since we're all striving to spend every waking moment outside, today's writing prompt is about interiors. Cruel, I know. 

"In the Belly of the Beast. Describe an unusual interior space, one with lots of interesting appurtenances and gadgets sticking out: a submarine, a small plane, a subway tunnel away from the platform, a boiler room in the subbasement of a high-rise building, the warehouse room-sized vault of a Federal Reserve Bank. Do not yield to the easy use of this scene. The boiler room, for instance, we all expect would conceal an axe murderer. Put two innocent children in it instead, romping and playing among the glow and roar of the fire and steam vents as if this were a sunny playground (their father is the superintendent of the building, and he prefers to keep the kids where he can see them). 500 words"

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2005)

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On character

My friend--yes, the adverb hating one--has a strong reaction when writers describe a character's clothes. She hates it and will judge you accordingly (she can be a little scary). While my rules aren't so hard and fast (and I admit to being a bit of a fashion junkie), I see what she means. It's a bit of a cheat. Readers want to know your character, to understand her. Not to understand what she's wearing.

I've occasionally argued with this friend that what a character is wearing can be a piece of the puzzle--there is, after all, a difference between a woman who wears a leopard jacket and one who wears a track suit. But I can only carry this argument so far. Clothes might help me see your character, but do they help me know her? Should it be the primary way in which I do? 

In his recent article (from the great NY Times blog "Draft"), Silas House offers some advice about creating memorable characters. With perhaps some Miss Havisham-like exceptions (or am I the only one haunted by that disintegrating wedding dress?), shaping characters with depth and complexity has little to do with their clothes: http://nyti.ms/1chxZeY

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Just Write (28)


I have a terrible tendency to choose very pretty things that might not be the most practical. That's my bicycle, for example. It was actually a step up on the practical scale--I traded in a vintage beauty that weighed more than me for this new fangled version. My basket is made from recycled milk crates and is freaking adorable. However, it has more than once spewed its contents when I hit a bump of even modest size. I've nearly been killed by a flying baguette.

I often wear dresses and sometimes arguably silly shoes. This adds to the ridiculousness of me riding this bicycle around my town. I do bring people a lot of joy. Children point at me, telling their moms to look at the lady. Young girls wave. Real bicyclists laugh.

So it's with little surprise that I landed on this week's writing prompt:

"Write about something useless and beautiful."

--Monica Wood, The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers (Writers Digest Books, 2006)

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Just Write (27)

This week's writing exercise is about economy of language. It's something we've touched on previously in the blog (here and sort of here) because we spend much of the day pruning extraneous words from manuscripts. It's our public service to the world to try and stop you from using 20 words when 8 would be so much better. But we also realize this is no easy task.

Regardless of genre or style, you will find yourself adrift in a sea of language. Creative writers are burdened by the need to craft entire worlds and often fall victim to the siren call of purple prose. Scholarly writers have had their heads filled with -isms, -izations, and -ologies and are perhaps the guiltiest of using far too many words to convey their complex ideas. On the other end of the spectrum, nonfiction writers often fall into list making, bare bones reporting of facts. As in most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Knowing how to convey important facts and details with nuance, clarity, and economy is central to all story telling. 

Katherine Boo, whose work has won Pulitzers and National book awards, offers some excellent advice about finding this balance in investigative writing. She begins with a description pulled from St. Petersburg Times reporter Anne Hull's coverage of Mexican workers in North Carolina:

"'She was 35, barely five feet tall in her sandals. Her pans of tamales had gradually found their way to her hips. For a mother of eight she was unusually mild mannered. A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.' 

In four sentences, just fifty words, Anne included an astonishing number of facts and images: the woman's height, age, body shape, number of children, footwear, her family's diet, their food source, and even a fleeting glimpse of life in her rural hometown...In those fifty words Anne created more of a feel for this woman than many writers do in an entire story. This economy works so well because Anne knows exactly what the reader needs to know about the character....The narrative works becuase Anne has done the hard analysis implicit in those fifty words."*

While Boo is discussing investigative reporting, I find this wisdom to apply to all good writing. You have to do your research, whether that means hours in a musty library or fully developing your character. And then you have to make every word count. 

So after far too many words, I offer an actual writing exercise inspired by Boo and Hull:

Introduce one of your characters, evoke her temperamant, her physical presence. Tell us what we need to know about her using only fifty words. 



*Boo's essay apppears in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (Plume, 2007)

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Just Write (26)

I've never been much of a joke person. I never tell them right and often fail to find them funny. But you have to admire their staying power. The world over, generation after generation, people have been cornered at parties and told hilarious and horrible variations of this: 

A (insert profession/gender here) and a (insert sentient being you might not expect) walk into a bar...

Let's turn that into a story today. You've got your first line. Comedy, tragedy, or farce--it's up to you. 

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Just Write (25)

This week's writing prompt comes from the Poets & Writers website. They too offer a great prompt each week, so there's really no excuse not to get writing:

Ah Bartelby!

In Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), the character of the eponymous scrivener repeatedly says, "I would prefer not to," in response to requests at the law firm where he works. Take it a step further: Come up with a signature response of your own and try writing a short story in which it is the only sentence one of your characters ever utters. See where it takes you.

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Just Write (23 & 24)

I know this is cheating. Posting two writing morsels today does not mean I kept my end of the bargain. But it's a one woman show here at the blog...and sometimes that woman needs to sit her butt on a beach with a cold beer and no MacBook in sight. And while I had every intention of making it up to you on Monday, American Airlines thought it would be better for me to spend the night in O'Hare. This was no doubt my karmic punishment for ignoring you. So in order to buy your affection, I offer a double dose of Just Write on this fine...Tuesday (hangs head in shame).


I always tell people to read their work out loud. Not a muttering, under the breath sort of out loud. Rather, I encourage all stripes of writers to say the words as if you're speaking to a small group of people--loud enough for them to hear you on the other side of the table, but casually enough that it sounds like conversation rather than a rehearsed speech. Sentences that seem perfectly sensible and eloquent on the page will often sound stilted or wrong once read aloud. As this writing exercise from Ursula Le Guin and the corresponding words of encouragement from Dinty Moore show, I'm not terribly original in dispensing this advice.


The Exercise:

Being Gorgeous

Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect--any kind of sound effect you like--but NOT rhyme or meter.

This is a read-aloud piece--performance prose. It won't ever be printed. Write for children, if that's the only way you can give yourself permission to do it. Whatever you do, have fun, cut loose, play around with word sounds and rhythms. Make what happens happen in the sounds of the words, the rhythms of the sentences. Say it aloud, as you write and/or after you write.

--Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)


Once you've completed the exercise, follow this advice from the fabulous Dinty Moore:

Listen to what you have written. Listen for meaning. Listen for sound. Listen for the unexpected reverberations.

By listening, of course I don't mean sitting in silence and just "hearing the words" in your head. I heartily advise reading your words out loud, as you write them, after the first draft, and again after the tenth and twentieth draft. 

Out Loud.

So the cat can hear as well.

So that the neighbors worry you are talking to ghosts.

Even if at first the awkwardness of what you have written makes you cringe--read your words aloud, and listen.

Listen closely.

Trust your ear.

--Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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Just Write (22)

Today, we're going back to the basics. When you undertake any writing exercise, the goal is to get your juices flowing, to write without thinking too hard about the words you're putting down on the page. By giving you a topic, a jumping off point, or a shove in a particular direction, the writing prompt allows you to write without all of that baggage that can weigh down your words. But most importantly, the writing prompt encourages regular and consistent writing. When your practice falters, exercises allow you to keep cultivating your writing habit.

Instituting a timed practice, regardless of whether you're working on your own project or following a prompt helps make this a reality. As Natalie Goldberg describes it, the timed exercise is "the basic unit of a writing practice." Everyday, commit to writing for a block of time--start small, if this is new for you--and stay committed to it for a week. Whether you decide to write for ten minutes or two hours, stick to it and throughout your dedicated practice period follow Goldberg's sage advice:

1. Keep you hand moving. (Don't pause to reread the line you have just written. That's stalling and trying to get control of what you're saying.)

2. Don't cross out.  (That's editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.)

3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)

4. Lose Control.

5. Don't think. Don't get logical.

6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

These are the rules. It is important to adhere to them because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. It's a great opportunity to capture the odditites of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of thought.

--Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambala, 2005)


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Just Write (21)

When you are diving into a research-based project, it's easy to drown in all of the amazing material you unearth. Hard won facts and primary documents found after long months of searching can have such an enormous impact on your work. But these shiny bits of aha can also weigh down a project. They can make it easy to forget that despite the level of research your work requires, you are still trying to tell a story. Facts and evidence are, of course, important. All of that amazing research you've done is a nonfiction project's skeleton--the solid stuff that holds it together. But the story is its flesh and both aspects are necessary for a fully formed narrative.

If you're worried that your project is all bone and no meat, or perhaps has an extra head, try this writing exercise:

Write out the story you are trying tell without consulting any of your sources or research notes; don't use any quotes or even contemplate a footnote. Your aim is to be a comprehensive and brief as possible. Once you've got it all down, set it aside for a day or two. Go to the beach, or work in your garden (it's homework, I insist). When you return to your desk, reread this condensed version of your story. Then ask yourself some hard questions:

Does a clear narrative emerge? Is your subject fully formed? What can or can't you tell your reader about your subject?

What is the larger story you want to tell? Is that larger picture clear?

What is central to your story? What is not? 

Are your answers to the above questions the same when you consider your larger project?




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