Writing Tips

Writing tips from workshops I have organised or things that I have read…

David Munns, from Bournemouth Film School (Arts University Bournemouth) reminded us that there are many ways to learn about story structure, namely watching movies/short films and yes, TV. It’s easy to think of these mediums as passive and entertainment, but for those of us who write, you can switch your writers’ brain on and use these activities to work on your plotting, storytelling, characterisation and more.

Our Screenwriting Day tutor, Andrew Zinnes, who did our one day screenwriting workshop said he used to take this too far and keep checking his watch while at the cinema to see when the inciting incident was happening and when the various plot points/pinch and sections occur. He didn’t recommend doing this as it does ruin movies, but if you are stuck in a writing rut, why not take a stop watch to the cinema and use your plotting brain to deconstruct what you’re watching. It might spark some ideas for the piece you’re currently on.

FYI, if you have some screenplays that might be a good fit for David’s directing students, please email him directly at: “David Munns” <dmunns@aub.ac.uk> David is looking for either 7-10 minute or 15-20 minute screenplays which his student directors and filmmakers can then shoot as part of their course. They will first shoot a teaser to draw in the funding (approx 7 to 10 thousand pounds for a week’s shoot). Beware of big budget stories (no planes crashing in to trains please!) and huge cast numbers (w exotic pets etc) to make it more likely that your script is taken on and turned into a short film, though they do have green screen and the students have access to all the equipment on site.

During the lyrical poetry workshop with Sam H James we worked on rhythm in your writing, in particular song lyrics/poetry. I find this really difficult to sustain across a whole novel, or even a short story. But it is easier to think of dialogue as having a certain rhythm for sure. The typical example of course is Plato’s books that have Socrates jabbering on for ages and whoever he is talking to agreeing with him with the odd sentence. You can tell by looking at that dialogue exchange that it isn’t balanced at all. It’s also easier to see rhythm in picture books. My current favourite picture books is Rosie Revere, Engineer. It is so rhythmically written that as I read it aloud to my daughter I find myself almost rapping it?! (http://www.andreabeaty.com/rosie-revere-engineer.html)

A final fun tip that I am jotting down here, as much for you guys as my own benefit (I use this as a way to remember writing tips!) is Martine McDonagh’s exercise from the ‘What is Voice’ workshop that she taught us back in April. The exercise is to turn up your writing voice both in terms of the narration be that first or third person and the dialogue of the characters. The exercise, lets you see a cartoon-like exaggerated version of what your voice is, then you can crank it back down to something you are happy with. Note: this exercise caused some controversy among the writers who had a different definition of ‘voice’ namely the voice of the author, consistent across all of their writing. This second definition was one that Simon Nelson, Development Producer at BBC Writersroom, used. He said, for instance, that he could tell which writer had worked on which script eg: Sarah Phelps. He also said that he doesn’t care about plot, because a good writer can write across various mediums and can handle plot. What he really cares about is voice, and the writer being a great writer.

Finally a last point that I gleaned from the workshop with Sophie Buchan that we had at Waterstones Bookshop at the end of last year. Hearing her talk about the works that she has published made me realise that when agents or publishers say they need to love the books to publish them it is so true. Therefore, if you ever get a rejection letter saying ‘your writing is great but I didn’t love it enough’ sort of thing, this doesn’t mean your writing is crap and I hated it, it really does mean, it’s just not my taste. It’s good to remember that agents and publishers are just people, with bookshelves at home full of books they love and tastes they have developed over the years. It is very tricky to find that agent or publisher who will have the same taste as you and love the same books and you and therefore, if you’ve yet to find that person, don’t worry about it. If need be, get your work out to readers and find your readers first and work backwards.

More tips from readings:

‘In the first paragraphs of ’Farewell,’ I used the word ’and’ consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint.’ Hemingway in How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen? by Lillian Ross  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1950/05/13/how-do-you-like-it-now-gentlemen

‘Why I Write’ by George Orwell:  ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.’ http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw

Zoë Sharp talking during the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub July Hub. zoesharp.com:

  • Do not stop your chapter at the end of the chapter, but rather at the point where your reader will think ‘it’s 3am but I’ll just read five more minutes’.
  • If you need to write ‘he said, she said’ it means the voices of your characters aren’t distinct enough. You ought to be able to tell who is speaking from what they are saying and the way it is said.

Writing Workshops and Performances Tessa Ditner Blog

  • ‘Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?
  • I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.’
  • ‘Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.’

President Obama interviewed by Michiko Kakutani

Karl Lagerfeld:

‘The survival of daily papers depends on the way people write. There are not many great ‘plumes’, that makes it more banal. The language on the digital is another thing, that is information, but on a paper you want to sit down and read something that is pleasant to read, not just flat information you can get that somewhere else. They have to make a bigger effort. Don’t blame digital, it is their fault also, if they were geniuses (…) but it is easily pretentious and it isn’t much better than the information on the digital, so I understand (people going to read newspapers on a digital format). It is up to us to adjust to our times.’ Karl Lagerfeld

How to plot your story? Tips and advice from author Chris Manby here: http://culturekiddo.blogspot.com/2015/09/chrissie-manbys-plotting-workshop.html


Juliet Jacques in 2012 chronicles her sex reassignment in a Guardian column ‘think of confessional journalism, and everything else in your life, as a form of performance art.’ Taken from Tate Guide Oct Nov 2015

Lionel Shriver quoted in Mslexia Magazine 2015/16 edition.

  1. ‘Just get on with it.’
  2.  You can recognise an idea for novel because it prays on you. A good big idea has a tendency to sprout little ideas.
  3.  Try not to let the text set like concrete…   It always amazes me how much it costs and reader engagement when you allow one completely superfluous sentence to drag down the page.

Adele Parks Books

‘Your Life as a Writer’ a few tips from Adele Parks here: http://culturekiddo.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-portsmouth-writers-hub-presents.html

Lynne Hackles writing about how to find your novel ideas in Writing Magazine November 2015 @WritingMagazine http://lynnehackles.com

  1. If you love dialogue, go out and socialise… Listen to other people talking and here ideas.
  2.  Some people… Take long walks to clear their heads.
  3.  Decide what works for you and then seek it out.

Some topsy turvy, funny tips from @PatsyCollins in @WritingMagazine in her list article ‘Fatten Your First Draft’. Nov 2015 issue.

  1. Give your characters titles. ‘The Lord of Anytown’ is four times the word count of ‘Tim’.
  2. Describe everything. It’s not a mug of coffee. It’s a white china mug decorated with a shiny red glaze on the outside, full to the brim with decaf instant, a splash of milk and three sugars.
  3.  Give your character a pet.
  4.   Don’t waste time justifying the writing to anyone else. You are entitled to spend your time doing it as they are to watch TV or go shopping.

Great advice from the book ‘How to Write a Damn Good Thriller’

‘Commit yourself to this: You will not have any major characters that are bland and colorless. They will all be dramatic types, theatrical, driven, larger than life, clever’.

‘Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the very beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax.’

George R. R. Martin – Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones.png


  1. Have other characters be nasty to him/her and he/her takes it with grace. Eg: When Jon goes to see his half brother who is in a coma his step mother tells him ‘it should have been you’. Later when he is asked by his other brother how she acted he says ‘she was… very kind’.
  2. Make him/her an outsider ‘a bastard’ who wants to join a clan of other outsiders ‘Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch’.
  3. Have a cool sidekick: Jon has a ghost-looking wolf who loves him.
  4. Give him/her a past: ‘Once that would have sent him running. Once that might even have made him cry.’

 AA Gill from his The Sunday Times food writing

USING A TOPIC (in this case food) TO SAY SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY. AA Gill weighs up herrings vs sardines. This is the wonderful result:

  1. Herring Europe= cold north, the kiss of frost, tickle of fur, hug of wool, crunching through snow, the stillness of a pale world, the low, clear sun, candles, smell of pines, taste of vinbegar and salt. Protestant, philosophical, intense, diligent, honest, decent, true, minimal, elegant, maudlin, cosy.
  2. Sardine Europe= warm south, Catholic, expansive, alfresco. Whisks you back to cypress trees and sunshine, sparkling seas, strawe hats, lazy, flirtations and rope-soled strolls through fig groves. Baroque, romantic, laughter, laziness, the purr of cicadas and vespas.

Jean Sprackland’s poetry collections Hard Water and Tilt

UNUSUAL DESCRIPTIONS. A tough one to get right as you don’t want to slow down the plot. Perhaps more relevant for poets or perhaps not, because even in novels and non-fiction description can help with characterisation or to capture the ‘rules’ of the world.

  1. (Yeast) “Microscopic spores escape from the breweries, filling the air with excitement. Carried all over town, they find out sugar and corrupt it.” From Hard Water (Cape Poetry)
  2. (Money) “she’d slip the coin in her mouth, sucking very quietly and stopping to give her mother a holy sort of smile. All the filthy hands, the pockets, think of the germs. But foreignness was what this girl liked.” From Hard Water (Cape Poetry)
  3. (Owl’s barn) “smelt of stars and dead mice.” From Tilt (Cape Poetry)
  4. (Waking up) “How many times have I reached though the soft hatch between worlds to tap the stop button?” From Tilt (Cape Poetry)

Sarah Winman – When God Was a Rabbit

ENDINGS– Sarah’s chapter endings are wonderful emotional cliff hangers.She does it not in the Dan Brown-obvious way. She leaves us inside the belly of an emotion. Here are some examples:

  1. “I never felt complete without him. In truth, I never would.”
  2. “‘What are you doing?’ I said. Pretending I’m walking on glass.’ ‘Is it fun?’ ‘Try it if you When God Was A Rabbitlike.’ ‘OK,’ I said, and I did. And it strangely was.”
  3. “That uninterrupted moment when she could dream and believe that all I had was hers.”
  4. “Don’t,’ I said harshly, interrupting her. I knew the word that was to follow, and that night it was as word that would have punctured my heart with guilt.”
  5. “I felt the air sucked out of my lungs like life itself.”
  6. “It had been sent from Her Majesty’s Prison.”


  1. ‘Fancy a Bazooka?’ I asked, holding the gum out in my palm. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I almost chocked last time I had one. Almost died, my mum said.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, and put the gum back in my pocket, wishing I’d brought something less violent instead.
  2. Mrs Penny as her mouth gorged a quarter of a bun, leaving a smear of liptick to compete with the ketchup.
  3. His parents divorced-which I found extremely exciting-
  4. I put god to bed with his usual late-night snack. His hutch was on the patio.
  5. ‘You’ll need a plaster,’ he said. ‘Probably,’ she said. ‘Maybe two.’
  6. A few days later my brother and I awoke to shouts and terrifying screams. We converged on the landing holding an array of makeshift weapons – I, a dripping toilet brush; he, a long, wooden shoehorn.
  7. Our first two guests arrived just as the sealant had been placed around their bath.
  8. “‘This is my forest,’ I said. ‘Is it now?’he said…. ‘So if you stayed with us you could use this forest any time you wanted. Legally,’ I said. ‘Could I now?’ he said,and he looked at me and smiled.”

Joseph Heller’s – Catch 22

CONTRAST- FOR VIVIDNESS – “thanked him crisply and glowed with self-satisfaction”, “the wet puffy sounds” FOR COMEDY- “engines rolled over disgruntedly on lollipop-shaped handstands”, “my closest friends, that’s as close as I let them go” FOR EMPHASIS- “he longed to cower but stood bolt upright instead”, “an eaten shell of a human building rocking perilously on the brink of collapse”

INTERESTING USE OF IRRELEVANCE- to add colour and personality “He had opposed his daughter’s marriage, because he disliked weddings” “Durban loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and time passed slowly.. a single hour could be worth 11×7 years” Repetition For comedy- “Did not treat his desire to become a general as frivolously as Colonel Carthcart secretly suspected Colonel Korn secretly did” For ‘show not tell’ insight- “His data never was obtained from a reliable source, but always were obtained”, “It was not true that he wrote memorandums praising himself and recommending that his authority be enhanced to include all combat operations, he wrote memoranda”

CHOPPY DIALOGUE FOR PACE- “Guess how fast?” “Huh?” “They go.” “Who?” “Years.” “Years?” “Years, years, years.” “Why don’t you leave him alone?”

WONDERFULLY GROTESQUE- “I can just picture his liver” “they rolled themselves up like shivering anchovies, they squeezed themselves back into the plane” “Nurse Cramer was there and sizzled with sanctimonious anger like a damp firecracker… She ordered Y to get right back into his bed and blocked his path so he couldn’t comply… Her pretty face was more repulsive than ever”

Martin Amis’s – The Pregnant Widow

3 ADJECTIVES IN A ROW- Have only just started reading this but OMG there’s a lot of three adjectives in a row. You’d think it would make the reading heavy and gloopy, but it really works to characterise stuff and you can use it for characterisation of people, things or just the rules of the world. Here are some quotes just from the first few chapters:

  •   (Italians) “spicks, greaseballs, dagos”
  •    (young men of Montale) “strangely noble, priestlike faces, nobly suffering”
  •    (girls) “colouring, bristling, blowing the stray strands”
  •    (Lily) “pinker, puffier, younger”
  •    (men when offered a BJ in the street) “they quail, they back off, they crumple”
  •    (the animal inside man) “beloved beast, moist and leathery in spiced darkness”
  •    (poet) “bookish,wordish, letterish”
  •    (neck) “swan … ostrich … giraffe”
  •    (foot) “curve of the insteps, visible flex of the ligaments, then ten daubs of crimson in five different sizes”

Eleanor Moran – Breakfast in Bed

VISUAL VOCAB- Loved the imagery-filled vocab Eleanor uses in her book: ‘mental snakes and ladders’, ‘trustafarian’, ‘hit by a sexual sledgehammer’, ‘wolfish smile’, ‘Dom grew on me like bindweed, tendrils insidiously snaking their way around my heart. It wasn’t this guttural pull’, ‘looking at me as if he’s Goldilocks and I’m a particularly appetising bowl of porridge’, ‘I’m rescuing the poor, innocent carrots from looming liquidisation’… Also when the chef makes Amanda (aka: Fish Girl) coffee in bed, you can smell it. Also all that talk of soft bunnies lying in a crate actually made me contemplate eating them, but ONLY FOR A SPLIT SECOND.

Victoria Fox – Hollywood Sinners

  1. SPEED- This book is packed full of stuff happening FAST and it works.
  2. HOLD BACK ON THE DESCRIPTION- Also a great tip from Victoria is that you don’t actually want too much physical description of the body parts when it comes to sex with your hero characters. Your reader knows what they find sexy, so having a full on description of a penis isn’t going to help. She does describe one penis, but that’s one belonging to a ‘baddy’ and it’s grim.
  3. CELEBS- Ok I admit it was fun to try to guess whether the characters were Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman etc. Victoria didn’t want to say, but she did admit to having based the characters on celebs and she also says she does her research…

Molly Hopkins – It Happened in Paris

SECONDARY CHARACTERS– Because of the title I was expecting French men with stubble drinking espressos, but it’s a very English book. I’m basing this on the fact that the female characters keep getting pissed. I learned a big lesson reading this book, namely that your protagonist’s personality and the real rules of the universe come through the main character’s perception and interaction with the secondary characters, rather than her love interest. In particular with Doris and Ellen, the bickering old ladies on the coach, or her sister’s twins.

  • “I glanced fleetingly towards Ellen and caught her camouflaging a bottle of gin with a purple neck scarf, whilst Doris hacked at a lemon with a rather lethal looking key ring.” And “Doris threw the magazine in Ellen’s face, bounded from her chair, and wedged her four-foot-eight-inch frame in the centre aisle. ‘Of course you can’t, dear. You’ll make yourself ill.’ She tugged on my arm. ‘Sit down this instant.’ She addressed the rest of the coach. ‘She’s too conscientious by far, pet lamb that she is.’”

MISMATCHED DIALOGUE- this is a nice one when you have dialogue but it’s not to inform the plot but rather to reveal personality and the closeness of your characters. Check this one out (ignore the bullet points, this is just there to squeeze the writing closer together).

  • ‘Oooch,’ she winced.
  • ‘Pick up your kids and go,’ I spat venomously.
  • ‘Thanks a million for having the twins,’ she gushed. She squeezed my arm affectionately, shimmied through the door, and walked past me.
  • ‘I never want to see you again!’ I shrieked at her marching figure.
  • ‘We had a great time, thanks,’ she trilled over her shoulder (…)
  • ‘I could report you to, to, well, to Social Services,’ I threatened.
  • She eyed me reflectively. ‘It was fantasic, amazing, and yes, Vienna is beautiful.’
  • We reached the door of the flat and bustled through simultaneously, hip to hip.
  • ‘Don’t ask me for anything. No favours, clothes or anything,’ I hissed, sidestepping past her.
  • ‘You’re the best sister in the world,’ she praised,
  • ‘I hate your guts,’ I spat over my shoulder, elbow sprinting down the hallway.
  • ‘I bought you a red Mulberry purse and key ring.’
  • I halted. She bashed into me. I spun around.
  • ‘Did you?’ I asked.
  • Her brown eyes shone zealously. She nodded. ‘I did. Now give me a hand to get the kids and all my gear together. We’ll have a quick coffee and I’ll give you your pressie.’
  • ‘Oh, OK. I’ll out the kettle on then, shall I?’ I mustered.
  • ‘Were the kids all right?’ she asked in a motherly tone.
  • I flapped my hand. ‘Good as gold,’ I told her.

Brooke – Belle Du Jour – Oxford Literary Festival

I think that when people find something distasteful they’re usually scared. But distasteful is quite different to being criminal. People have a tendency to criminalised what they just find distasteful.

India Knight to Belle – But the ease with which you slipped into (prostitution) suggests a character trait that we don’t possess.

Tessa to Belle– Can you tell me how you write your sex scenes?

Belle – It’s not flowery or romantic writing, it’s because I’m a scientist. I’m used to writing reports. I strip it down to the bare bones, straight in the action, there’s no candles. It’s not written to turn anyone on. I write up later that day and then twenty four hours I go over and see if it makes sense like I’m thinking oh that leg couldn’t have been over there!

The experiences are different for each person.

Richard E Grant- Oxford Literary Festival, talking about writing diaries

You should be open about yourself and your motives if you expect the person you are interviewing to be.

The things you like and the things that trip you up are always going to. To recognise them is writing as honestly as you dare.

I like the immediacy of a writing diaries.

Some podcasts and general tips that I’ve been collecting:

-Your supporting characters… help move the story forward/don’t pull the reader’s interest away from the main character/ help reveal the protagonist’s characterisation/don’t slow the plot down: How To Write Effective Supporting Characters

-Check out The Moth (NYC’s storytelling hub of cool, listen to very short podcasts – it needs no introduction!)

-Writing your plot outline from the website How To Write A Book Now (also useful for plotting your story in the first place!)

-Choosing your protagonist’s Fatal Flaw by Writersstore.com ‘The Fatal Flaw is the most essential element for bringing characters to life

-And another Fatal Flaw article which I found useful by movieoutline.com ‘Protagonist’s Fatal Flaw’

-Writing tips from Luke Pearl’s ‘Be a Better Writer'(some nitty-gritty) here

-Philip Pullman here (Funny!)

-Walter Murch here (story-telling and applies to words as well as movies, very clear guidance in ‘the cut’ section)

-Tim Miles has a PhD in comedy, here are his top 10 comedy writing tips

-For writer’s block here or go to ashow.zefrank.comAn Invocation for Beginnings

-Helen Fielding chatting here (especially interesting if you’re writing in chick lit genre)

-Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of the single story here. This is Nietzsche’s theory of perspectivism re-worded and beautifully conveyed. Helpful when thinking about your place in the world of writing, also just fun.

-Publishing insight The Changing World of Book Publishing, The Leonard Lopate Show with two guests Amy Einhorn (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) and Ben Schrank (Razorbill, imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group) here or on wnyc.org.

-Andrew Stanton here (maker of Wall-E/Toy Story on storytelling. Beware it starts w a rude joke.) 

-Neil Gaiman (notes taken during his talk on fairytales at the Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden)

-Grammar tips from Grammar Girl. Not sexy but quite useful: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl

Grazia Magazine March 2010

Dame Vivienne Westwood– Learn from those who’ve come before you. This is true for any discipline, not just fashion. It’s a sickness of the modern age all too often, people decide they want to do something but don’t take the time to master the discipline in the first place

Bonnie Greer, Author of Obama Music and Entropy-I heard recently about a piece of advice Ms Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot champagne) gave her granddaughter: The world is in perpetual motion and we must invent the things of tomorrow. Act with audacity. Audacity. It’s the best way to live and I keep this in mind in everything I do.

Sarah Sands, Deputy Editor of the London Evening Standard -I keep work and home entirely separate and that’s why I have no family photos in the office. As Lucy Kellaway (management columnist at the Financial Times) once wrote “You don’t have pictures of your colleagues up at home, do you?” Keep emotions out of the work place. You should always be civil and considerate to your colleagues, as it’s not the place for emotional dramas and hurt feelings.

Nicky Kinnaird, MBE, Founder of Space NK – No doesn’t necessarily mean no. Develop a compelling argument as to why someone should say yes.

Gail Rebuck, Chief Executive of Random House UK – Always do more than is asked of you.

Grimm Tales by Philip PullmanPhoto, cover of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young and Old


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