Stuff that Works

About a month ago I was chatting with a friend about how to get better at writing. She’d recently had a frustrating experience with a Creative Writing teacher. She joined his class because he had a good reputation and a lot of contacts in literary circles, so she expected him to provide guidance in the craft. As it turned out, he expressed dissatisfaction with her work but couldn’t offer any more specific critique than ‘be more original’ and ‘be more literary’. She sensibly decided to quit the course but was left with that dangling question:

How do I get better at writing?

We did a brainstorming session and ever since then the topic has been bouncing around in my head like the ball in Breakout.




I don’t think that there is any one way because everyone’s different, but there are tricks and principles that make the job easier. Excellent writers have sometimes been generous enough to share very useful insights with me. Whenever I’ve managed to absorb and apply those insights they’ve worked beautifully—the writing has become more fluent, clearer or more compelling. I’m sharing them here because it’s proven, I’ve tried it – it’s been road-tested and crash-test dummied.



Writing is just work.

For some reason it’s often regarded as if it were the Sphinx of Thebes: a sacred and mysterious creature who offers a riddle to any traveler wanting to gain entrance to the city. If he can’t answer the riddle, she kills and eats him. There is a mystical power about writing fiction because it involves the imagination; you don’t have conscious control over all the aspects. I suppose that’s where the idea of Muses, inspiration and genius comes in. Like sailors (also notoriously superstitious) some writers like to perform rituals or set the scene before they get going, needing ‘a room of one’s own’ or the smell of rotten apples or whatever.

In practical terms, though, there’s no use standing trembling in front of the Sphinx waiting for omens. Writing is, when it comes down to it, producing a lot of words and putting them on a page. The more you do that, the better you’re going to get.


Writing ≠ the Sphinx


Use Dialogue

Dialogue works. I don’t know why but it does. Here’s an example from the first chapter of The Big Sleep:


“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

“Handsome too,” she said. “And I bet you know it.” I grunted.

“What’s your name?”

“Reilly,” I said. “Doghouse Reilly.”

“That’s a funny name.”


big sleep
Dialogue had to be altered to ‘Not very tall are you?’ for the film version.


Engage the Senses

Words referring to smells, sights, sounds, tastes, textures and actions make writing more vivid and involving. That’s because the reader’s brain registers those words not just as concepts but also as sensations.

George Orwell makes good use of this principle in all of his writing. In fact John Sutherland has written a book called Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography.  You can see in this small excerpt from chapter 4 of Burmese Days that George Orwell includes a vivid (and not necessarily pleasant) sensory strike in nearly every sentence:

“Flory pushed away in disgust the toast and butter that Ko S’la had  brought, but he mixed some whisky in a cup of tea and felt better  after drinking it. He had slept since noon, and his head and all  his bones ached, and there was a taste like burnt paper in his mouth. It was years since he had enjoyed a meal. All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting–the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. As Ko S’la left the room there was a scraping of sandals outside, and a Burmese girl’s high-pitched voice said, ‘Is my master awake?’


A nice nose. Portrait of a Young Man, Head and Shoulders, Wearing a Cap, Attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo (Italian, 1443–1496), about 1470. Pen and brown ink over black chalk, 14 1/4 x 9 in. (36.2 x 22.9 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.3


As a footnote to this, and I don’t know if it’s tied to the sensory apparatus or not, but I think any reference to the human body is inherently interesting. Orwell employs this principle in ‘Shooting an Elephant’, where he conveys the brutality of Empire by describing the bodies of its victims.

“In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective.”

He could have indicated the ‘dirty work of Empire’ in other ways–using statistics, for example, or parsing newspaper reports, or listing crimes. He chooses instead to show it to you, to ‘rub your nose’ in these wretched, suffering, fearful bodies.



Models are useful because imitation is how we learn. I’m not advocating plagiarism, of course, but watching masters at work, admiring their grace and trying to match their movements.

Sometimes you’ll read an author and realize that you’ve almost unconsciously adopted phrases, tones and rhythms. That’s the easy (lazy) way to do it.

You can also go about it in a more deliberate manner. My friend used the term ‘backwards engineering’ – reading and analyzing texts and then trying the same techniques. Another writer I know has become extremely good, partly because he does this almost obsessively with writing he admires.


The sincerest form of flattery. Image taken from https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-pinterest-fails/


Follow the through line

When I showed the manuscript of Girls of the Empty Quarter to my playwright friend, he sent it back to me with a lot of comments about the (lack of) ‘through line’.

“What’s a through line?” I said.

“Look it up,” he said (he’s British).


through line


throughline (noun)

a connecting theme or plot in a movie, play, book, etc.

if there is no main through line the reader gets bored or lost


Get Readers

Show your story to people—friends, strangers, literary mercenaries—it doesn’t matter, and ask for their reactions. Once you get over being outraged and sulky you’ll realize that there probably is some truth in what they’re saying and that another revision won’t hurt.


Do you agree? Is there any branch of wisdom you’d like to add to the bonfire? Do tell!