Quick Writing Tips I Use
1 WE ALL HAVE THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT
2 WRITING IS LIKE A PUZZLE
4 IDEAS CAN’T BE GOOD OR BAD
5 KEEPING A SCRAPBOOK OF POSSIBILITIES
6 QUESTIONS MAKE MORE POSSIBILITIES
7 CHOICES MAKE IT EASIER
8 DOODLING INTO STORIES
9 WAIT! BEFORE YOU WRITE A SENTENCE
10 WRITING IS NOT AN OLYMPIC EVENT
11 MESSY PAGES WITH NO MISTAKES!
12 HELPING OTHERS HELP YOU
ALL HAVE THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT
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
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.
IS LIKE A PUZZLE
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
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.
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
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
CAN’T BE GOOD OR BAD
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.
A SCRAPBOOK OF POSSIBILITIES
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
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.
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.
MAKE MORE POSSIBILITIES
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.
MAKE IT EASIER
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.
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.
BEFORE YOU WRITE A SENTENCE
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
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.
IS NOT AN OLYMPIC EVENT
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.
PAGES WITH NO MISTAKES!
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
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
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.
OTHERS HELP YOU
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?”
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