12 Quick Writing Tips I Use
Most Everyday





When I was growing up in Kansas (fifty years ago), I was certain I had nothing to write about because nothing I did felt special. I lived in a tiny town. Went to school. Went back home. Did my chores. Went to bed. Tried not to fight with my brothers. Woke up the next day and went to school. Boring! I thought that I might have something to write about if I lived in a big city or a different country. Or went on an adventure. Or lived a long time ago like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or got to go into space.

But since then I’ve met people who do live in big cities and other countries. Who have gone on adventures or who lived a long time before me, and what do you think? Many of them feel they have nothing to write about!

I eventually realized that I’ve always had things to write about. I just didn’t know how to see them. There are even things that happened to me in grade school (when I was convinced that nothing in my life could make a story) that I’ve now use like puzzle pieces to make my books.


To me, writing is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Piece by piece, the parts and ideas fit together to make a whole story.

The first thing most us do with a jigsaw puzzle is to dump all the pieces on a table, then put them colored side up. The more pieces we have, the greater the chances of finding some that fit together. So before I start trying to write a story I like to have lots of story pieces to look at. The more pieces I have, the greater the chance of finding some that fit together.

Having lots of puzzle or story pieces also lets me try out different ones to see which ones really fit--just like we do with a jigsaw puzzle. And, just like a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes I get a few pieces that fit together for one part of a story, then a few pieces that fit together for the end of the story, but it takes a while longer to find the pieces that connect them all. Sometimes, I even try to force a piece into fitting a story just like I’ve done with puzzles, before finally admitting it’s not a good fit. Trying several story pieces “on for size” is as natural in writing as it is with jigsaw puzzle pieces. After all, it’s the trial and error that makes jigsaw puzzles interesting. I think it’s what makes writing interesting, too.


Almost everyone asks a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?” But the question doesn’t really make much sense. Where is a place. Do I get ideas in Kansas City? The hardware store? In the woods? Under the couch? Antarctica?

If we change the question to “How do you get your ideas?” there are lots of answers and all of them have to do with plain old stuff. Stuff we like. Stuff we can’t stand. Stuff that makes us laugh. Even laugh when we’re not supposed to laugh. Stuff that gives us the creeps. Stuff we do that bugs our dad. Stuff our mom does that bugs us. Stuff we like to watch and read. Stuff we notice in a magazine that seems too strange to be true. Memories. Wishes. Good times and bad. Stuff we do that always turns out wrong. Stuff we’d like to change but can’t. Stuff we truly hate to do, but need to anyway. And, all the feelings that come with all of this stuff.

The Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel are famous and loved around the world. One reason is because they’re all about plain everyday stuff. Not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Eating too many cookies. Having a kite that won’t fly. Having a friend who promises not to laugh, but who laughs anyway. Thinking the seed you planted will never come up. Trying something you don’t want to do just because someone else says it will be fun and says you’re chicken if you don’t.

Arnold Lobel wrote short funny stories about these everyday things using talking animals. But the same “stuff” can be part of all kinds of stories. Marion Dane Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, ON MY HONOR, shares an idea or a puzzle piece with a Frog and Toad story. When Frog talks Toad into taking a ride on his sled it’s a short, funny story about zooming down a hill and bumping their heads. But in ON MY HONOR (a chapter book), when a boy dares a friend into swimming in a river they know is too swift, the story is painful and haunting because one of them drowns.


A kindergarten class once proved something very important to me about ideas, and they didn’t even know they were teaching me anything. The teacher gave every student a construction paper triangle and told them to glue it on to a bigger piece of paper, get out their crayons and turn it into a picture. None of them fussed about not having any ideas. They had ideas from things they loved, wished for, noticed in the room, remembered from a story, and on and on. In other words, everyday stuff. Even though they all started with identical triangles the students ended up with very different pictures depending on what they added. They made an ice cream cone, a teepee, a roof on a house, a clown’s hat, a girl’s dress, a star, a slice of pizza, a deer head, an umbrella, a piece of cheese, one tooth in a giant shark’s mouth, a sailboat, and a tree. Many different stories can grow from a single story puzzle piece in the very same way.

Though we might worry about an idea being a good or bad one, there’s really no such thing. Who can judge an idea by itself? It depends on what we add to it. How we weave each idea with others to make our story. Twenty of us could start with the same idea an end up with twenty different stories because we’d have different “stuff--all kinds of stuff” to add to it. Stories can be good or bad depending on how well they keep us interested in characters and events or how well things are described. But ideas by themselves are just ideas.


When I was in grade school and the teacher announced a writing assignment I always felt a panic. “But I don’t have any ideas. Why didn’t you give us a warning so I could get ready?” Now I know that I can always be ready by paying attention to everyday stuff. Still, paying attention is one thing and remembering what I notice is another.

I make lists to help me remember what I need to do or buy at the market. So it only makes sense to me to also make lists of things I notice. To make sure I don’t lose small lists, I write things in a journal that’s already stitched together like a book. Page after page. Year after year. After 25years I have 75 journals or “scrapbook books” filled with things that might become parts of different stories. Some classrooms already do the same. You can, too.

Everyone’s idea scrapbook book or writer’s notebook will be a little different because each of us is interested and intrigued by different things. But we will all put similar categories of things inside:
Things We See, Hear and Read
Parts of Other Stories and What We Like About Them
Folklore--tales, jokes, riddles etc.
Things That Puzzle Us; Questions We Have
Wishes and Dreams
Sounds, Rhythms and Words
Parts of New Stories

Whenever I feel stuck starting or finishing a story I know I can look through my journal-scrapbooks for ideas just like the catalogues that come in the mail.

For some examples of how things I put in my journal became puzzle pieces for books click on “The Story Behind the Story” wherever you see it on this website.


Though it is helpful to write down things as we notice or experience them, it would be foolish to simply sit around hoping an idea will come our way. Asking questions about everyday stuff can lead to endless discoveries and new story pieces. Even better, each answer leads to more questions, and, in turn, to more ideas.

I might, for example, ask myself to make a list of embarrassing things that happened in the fifth grade to other people. Or make a list of things I do that always go wrong. It doesn’t matter what kind of list. Just write. Remember, ideas aren’t good or bad; it depends on what we do with them. The more ideas, and the more puzzle pieces I have written down, the greater the chance that some pieces will begin fitting together.


Sometimes we are so glad to finally have an idea for a story or poem we start writing immediately. By the second page we’re not so sure we like that idea anymore, but have to keep on working. By the third page we hate it, but have to keep working to get finished in time. Writing like this can’t be any fun. Luckily, there are ways to avoid this.

We all know it’s nicer to be given a choice as to which chocolate in the box we’d like rather than having one chosen for us. We also know the dangers of rushing to choose, and finding out the one we grabbed is a flavor we hate! As we try to get the taste out of our mouth we wish we had taken a little more time to choose. Ideas for stories and poems work the same way.

Why rush to get started when we only have one idea? If we don’t worry about finding the best idea we can play around with many possibilities. Then we have a choice. Write them down as fast as you can. They’re just possible puzzle pieces. The more we have to choose from, the greater the chance we’ll end up choosing ideas that keep us interested instead of feeling stuck.

If we keep playing around with simple questions, anything can turn into pages of possibilities or ideas for stories and poems. There is always another “maybe” we can ask to find more possibilities. First get as many puzzle pieces or possibilities as you can. Then you’ll be able to choose. That always makes it easier to find an idea you really like, and makes working on your story easier and a lot more fun.


Often when we’re waiting or bored we’ll start to doodle with a pencil or pen. We’re not trying to make a picture of anything. We’re just doodling--seeing what comes next. What connects. Basically, we’re just goofing around with a pencil.

On some occasions that doodle begins to look like a picture of something when we weren’t even trying. We realize that if we just add a few lines here or there, or add dots for eyes or shade something in, we’ll have a picture. When we start to see the parts of the picture already in our doodle, we know what’s missing. And, that makes easier to know what we need to add.

Stories and poems can grow this way too. I don’t try to write a whole story every day or every week. But I doodle with story pieces nearly every day. Sometimes they just stay word doodles. But other times they begin to turn into a story or a part of a story. Once I realize it’s turning into a story I can begin to see what is missing. Then I can look for just the right pieces I need to add to finish my story.

Almost all the stories I’ve had published as books began as word doodles in my scrapbook-journals.


Can you imagine buying a jigsaw puzzle that did not have a picture of what it was supposed to look like on the box? For most of us, it would make putting the puzzle together many times more difficult. We’d have no idea of what colors might go where or in what proportion. But many people try to do this when writing a story. Just like some people enjoy doing puzzles that are one solid color, some people enjoy not knowing where their story is going or how it might end.

I’m the kind who likes the picture on the box for a guide. So I try to do the same when working on a story. I think it makes writing easier and more fun.

Before trying to write sentences and paragraphs I like to get enough of the story’s pieces sorted out and connected so that I have a guide or a map for writing my story. Even if I decide to change some things as I work on the story, the map has still helped me get started. This way I am able to concentrate on just one part of writing a story at a time.

First--Possible puzzle story pieces.
Second--How they might fit together as a story with a problem and a resolution.
Third--The words I want to use to share what I’ve discovered in the first and second steps.

Otherwise, I’d be staring at an empty piece of paper trying to think of everything at once: ideas, action, words, what happens next, title, descriptions, problems, spelling, and a resolution.


It’s fun to watch the Olympics on television, but I am very glad writing stories is not an Olympic event. Those people practice six or seven days a week for years. They’ve proven they’re the best in their country. But when they get to the Olympics they only get one chance to be perfect. Some get nervous. Some get sick. And, some just have a plain old bad day.

I suspect that, like me when I have a bad day, a lot of the athletes who slip, slide and stumble at the Olympics lay awake that night wishing they could have another chance. They’d done just fine in practice, so they know they can do it. If only they could just videotape all their practices and then edit together the perfect race or skating program. But in the Olympics it has to be live, in person, and there isn’t another chance until the next Olympics four years later.

For some reason a lot of the student writers I meet of all ages try to turn writing into an Olympic event by insisting they only want or need one chance. But that only makes writing harder and less fun. When I start connecting my story pieces and writing sentences I remind myself that making stories is NOT part of the Olympics. That I CAN have as many other chances as I want. And, that I CAN edit together all my practices (or drafts) to make the perfect performance. I usually give myself 10 chances or drafts. But sometimes I give myself many more. The only time the number of chances or drafts matters is when I have not given myself enough, and the story is not as good as it could be.


With each additional chance I give myself on my story, I can concentrate on one part or element. One day I might focus on descriptions. The next I can focus on keeping the action going. The day after that I can focus on the dialogue. When we think we only need to do one draft it means we have to juggling everything at once: ideas, action, description, dialogue, sentences, spelling and on and on.

Sometimes I put in a new part or description, then take it back out the next day. I want to make sure it fits and matches the rest of the story just like I want to make sure my clothes fit and match the special event I’m going to. Most of us take that much time selecting what clothes to buy or which kind of candy bar we want, so it only makes sense to spend that much time (or more!) working on the stories we want to share with others.

Making so many changes makes most of my drafts very scribbly and looking messy. One day when I showed a class some of my messy drafts a boy blurted out, “Boy, you sure make a lot of mistakes!”
I make mistakes in my day-to-day life, everybody does. But I told him I didn’t see a single mistake on any of those pages. All my scribbles were changes to make my story better, and making something better is never a mistake.

To prove this to the boy I ask him how he felt when he was getting better and better at doing something. How he felt inside. He said, “Good. Proud.” Me, too. When I make a big mistake, like break something I knew I wasn’t supposed to be touching, I usually feel like I might throw up. But when I’m working on stories to make them better and better I feel good. I know I’m accomplishing something new.

Lots of people talk about doing a rough draft. Why would you leave a story rough and splintery any more than you would a chair you were making for someone? Carpenters sand and sand rough wood until it’s smooth to the touch. As writers we want to sand and sand a story until it’s smooth to the ear. Until all the little bumps and ragged spots are gone. My messy or sloppy pages are the rough ones. And, bit by bit, draft by draft, the bumps and messiness disappear till my story sounds like it didn’t take any work at all. Smooth. Polished. And, comfortable.


When I think a story is finished I ask a good friend to read it. But I never ask him, “Did you like it?” He’s my friend so he’ll probably say “yes.” That makes me feel good, but it doesn’t really help me make sure my story is as good as it can possibly be. And if he says “no” I’ll just feel sad or grumpy. That doesn’t help me make sure my story is as good as it can be either.

My friend can still help me a lot if I ask him specific questions. There are many questions we can ask a reading/writing buddy. These are the three of the most important ones to me:

1. “What part do you remember the most?” Or, what part did you think was the funniest or the scariest? This lets me hear something positive after all my work on the story. And, perhaps I can look at the part my friend thinks is the most powerful and find ways to make the rest of the story more like that.

2. “Was there any part of the story that got confusing or that didn’t make sense?” Sometimes we have so much of a story in our heads we forget to get it all on paper. We know what should be there, so we think it is. It’s a bit like checking for punctuation. We look, don’t find any missing, but when our paper comes back the teacher has circled two places where we forgot to put in a comma or a period. Our mind just skipped over them.

I can also ask, “What do you think was happening?” This lets me better know what I have to add or clarify to make it understandable.

“Where or how soon in the story were you able to figure out how it was going to end?” If my friend was able to figure out the ending in the first half of the story that means the rest of the story must have been boring. There was nothing left for him to figure out or wonder about. I know I need to go back and find ways to either hide the clues to the ending more carefully or to brainstorm (doodle) toward a different ending that is not so predictable. How do I know what clues I need to change? I just ask my friend “What gave it away?”

Happy writing.


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