100 Common-Sense Ways to Write Better

write better

A hundred sensible ways to write better.

Nobody’s born knowing how to read and write.

Sure, the lucky ones have talent, but we all start out learning our ABCs. We memorize the sounds that letters make, and we learn how they come together to form words. Pretty soon, we’re reading. Someone puts pencils in our hands and then we’re scribbling letters on paper. At last, we can write.

It takes years of study and practice just to be able to write a simple sentence. So, what does it take to become a proficient and professional writer, to compose thoughtful and meaningful pieces of writing?

It takes commitment and a willingness to work hard at the craft. There are big things you can do to write better, like go to college and study literature or creative writing. But there are also quicker, simpler ways to improve your writing a little bit at a time.

Write Better with These Techniques

There are innumerable techniques that we can apply in order to write better. I started writing a short list of some quick and easy things we can all do to improve our writing and suddenly found that list approaching 100, so that’s where I decided to stop. The list below is not exhaustive. In fact, if you think of anything to add, please do so by leaving a comment.

  1. Be willing to invest in your writing. Buy a book. Splurge on a professional critique.
  2. Be willing to make sacrifices. Give up one of your TV shows or skip your vacation and stay home to write instead.
  3. Start with a vision or a concept. Let that be your guide as you write.
  4. Keep it simple. Tight writing is clearer and easier to read. Let readers get lost in the story instead of getting caught up in the words.
  5. Be logical. If a character is hiking in the Appalachian mountains, she might slip and fall but she probably won’t break a heel on her high heeled shoes.
  6. Write better by avoiding clichés.
  7. Read books, articles, and essays on the craft of writing. But don’t spend more time reading about how to write than you spend writing. I recommend a book every three months for beginners.
  8. Be aware of how you structure your writing. Start with a compelling introduction and end with a closing or summary that will linger in the reader’s mind.
  9. Set word counts or time minimums for your writing sessions. Experiment to find what’s comfortable for you. My minimum is 500 words, but I can produce up to 2000 words in a one-hour session if I’ve planned what I want to write.
  10. Find out whether you work better with an outline. Many writers find that their writing is more focused when they use an outline. You can also establish mileposts (main points you want to address or significant plot points you want to reach).
  11. Stop talking about what you’re going to write. Stop thinking about what you’re going to write. Sit down and write.
  12. Avoid passive voice unless you’re writing historical fiction. This is what passive voice looks like: She was invited by her boyfriend to the concert. Active voice is far more effective: Her boyfriend invited her to the concert. You will almost always write better in active voice.
  13. There’s more to writing than just writing. Some of our most important work is done away from the keyboard. Make sure you set aside time for prep work, outlining, note-taking, research, planning, and revisions.
  14. Find your best routine. Some writers work well in the morning. Some work better at night. Some like to write in short, 20-minute spurts. Others do better with longer sessions.
  15. Write about topics and themes that you’re passionate about. Don’t set out to write a zombie book because zombies are hot right now. Write what genuinely interests you.
  16. During the first draft, allow yourself to be messy. Don’t worry if you haven’t named all your characters or if your punctuation marks are in the right places. Just get it written.
  17. Use the first draft to find your voice, discover your characters, and unearth your plot and themes. You can dig into the details later.
  18. Be flexible: many writers say their best stories take off in unpredictable directions. As the saying goes, let the characters take the reins. The discovery process is often what makes writing fun and magical.
  19. Allow yourself to write badly. It’s better to write badly than to write nothing at all. You can fix it up later, and if it’s beyond redemption, you can move on having learned something.
  20. Do not abandon one project just because you had another brilliant idea. Stay focused and finish what you start.
  21. Know your limits. Can you work on several projects simultaneously? Some people write better when they’re working on one project at a time. Others can manage multiple projects.
  22. Keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Go through an old piece of your writing and highlight all the adjectives and adverbs. How many of them could be deleted or replaced with more precise nouns and verbs?
  23. Connect with other writers. They will keep you going. Find them in book clubs, writing groups, classes, workshops, online and offline.
  24. Get an alpha reader (or two) and a few beta readers. Have your work critiqued. Feedback is essential!
  25. Be willing to rewrite — not just tweak, edit, and make minor changes, but completely rewrite either large portions or an entire book.
  26. Set deadlines. If you can’t meet your own deadlines, get someone to hold you accountable: a writing coach, teacher, or writing group or buddy. Most of us are less likely to let someone else down.
  27. Don’t stop for anything. Some days you’ll be too tired, too hungry, too stressed out to write. Give yourself some slack (cut your writing session in half) but don’t skip it!
  28. If you get stuck, find something in your project to explore. When my story hits a brick wall, I stop and work on character back-stories, world building, research, and brainstorming.
  29. If you need a special writing space, then create one. Make it a priority. But know that not having a special writing space is not an excuse. Many writers have worked in undesirable conditions. Be committed!
  30. Explore relationships and internal struggles in your writing. This is where readers connect with what you’ve written.
  31. Make readers feel or think. Preferably, make them do both.
  32. Pull out your old writing every once in a while to see how much better you write now (I do it every few years).
  33. These days, self-publishing is free and easy, and I applaud people who take the DIY route. But get someone else to publish your work at least once. You’ll learn a lot through the submission-rejection-acceptance process.
  34. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. The best writers are empathetic.
  35. Show the scenes that really matter. Don’t spend three pages with your characters engaging in meaningless small talk and then spend a single paragraph on a major event that is central to the story.
  36. Don’t skimp on research. I was just reading reviews on a historical novel, and I discovered that readers are knowledgeable about facts and aren’t afraid to call out writers who fail to get them right!
  37. Be curious. Ask questions. Get a cynical friend or sharp-minded family member to check for holes, gaps, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies in your writing.
  38. Rewrite to make the substance of your work deeper, clearer, and more concise. I recently read an essay by a writer who rewrote an entire book twelve times. Twelve times! That’s dedication.
  39. Do you want to change the world with your writing? Look for injustice and inequality (you won’t have to look hard or far). Find real stories about real people and let them inspire you.
  40. Edit your writing to make it flow smoothly. Work at the sentence level.
  41. Take breaks between drafts and between every revision.
  42. Be engaged with your work. If you’re not engaged, your readers won’t be, either.
  43. Use the dictionary and thesaurus, even when you’re not writing. Look up words you hear in conversations or see in books and online. Here’s a bonus tip: use online dictionaries with audio pronunciations. Many heavy readers are prone to mispronounce words they’ve read but never heard.
  44. When you proofread (and you must proofread multiple times), train your eyes on words and punctuation marks.
  45. Know the difference between form (fiction, poetry, blogging) and genre (romance, science fiction, mystery).
  46. Think and daydream. Writers must make time for thought and imagination. If someone asks what you’re doing, say “I’m working.”
  47. Listen to conversations. How do people talk? Dialogue feels like real conversation but it’s an illusion. Record and transcribe a real conversation and then compare it with a great dialogue scene from one of your favorite books.
  48. When you read a book that doesn’t meet your highest standards, analyze it to determine what could have been better.
  49. Keep a notebook or journal. Small paper notebooks that fit into your purse or pocket are great (don’t forget to carry a pen). In the digital age, most of us have app-capable devices. I recommend Evernote for note-taking and web-clipping because it’s easy to use and syncs to all your devices.
  50. Always stay way ahead of your deadline, unless you do your best work under pressure.
  51. Don’t ever send shoddy work to an editor, publisher, or agent. If you need help, engage a writer friend or hire a coach or editor.
  52. If you’re writing dialect, do it with care, caution, precision, and consistency. Otherwise, don’t do it at all. Good dialect is hard to read. Bad dialect won’t get read.
  53. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and take risks. If it doesn’t work out, you can always rewrite.
  54. Find out what your weaknesses are and then study or do exercises to practice and eliminate (or at least minimize) those weaknesses.
  55. Do not exaggerate. For example, in fiction: what kind of person jumps up and down screaming at the end of a job interview when she gets hired?
  56. Write every day, even if only for five or ten minutes.
  57. Learn your craft, including grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  58. If you want to be a pro, adopt a style guide (and make sure you know what that is and whether your form of writing already has an established style guide).
  59. Try to see things from new angles. What would Alice in Wonderland look like from the Queen of Hearts’ perspective?
  60. Do not rely on spell check. Also, do not rely solely on editors and proofreaders. Do your best work using your own mind.
  61. Watch your rhythm. Vary the lengths of your words and sentences.
  62. Make sure your writing is properly paced.
  63. Master the art of formatting dialogue using dialogue tags and including action throughout dialogue. Dialogue is pretty tricky, so be willing to work at it.
  64. Set two kinds of goals: one for your writing (word counts and deadlines) and one for its content (what do you want to say to the world?)
  65. Watch out for unnecessary repetition. If you’re writing an essay about horses, you’ll have to use the word horses a lot. But don’t repeat words unnecessarily, especially in close proximity. That’s what the thesaurus is for!
  66. Use language that sounds natural and flows smoothly.
  67. Get out of your comfort zone once in a while. If you’re a journalist, read some poetry. If you like science fiction, read a little Shakespeare. Write outside of your form and genre, too.
  68. Nothing makes a piece of writing pop like stimulating readers’ senses. The cool, sweet bite of a red-and-white striped candy cane can set a holiday scene more vividly than ten pages of description.
  69. Do some legwork. Are you writing a scene that takes place at a baseball park? Go to a game. Bring your notebook.
  70. Know the difference between a metaphor and a simile. Use them wisely.
  71. Do not change tense or point of view in the middle of a piece unless you have a good reason. Don’t even do it on accident (this is the kind of thing you should catch during revisions and proofreading).
  72. Don’t leave big questions hanging around unanswered. Fulfill promises that you make to your readers.
  73. Take care of yourself! This goes without saying, but writers seem to be especially prone to eating poorly and forgetting to exercise, particularly when they’re absorbed in a project. Most of us have to make sacrifices to get our writing done, but our health should always come first.
  74. What goes in comes out. If you read and watch trash, you’ll probably write trash. If you’re okay with that, then so be it.
  75. Write because you want to, not because you have to. Sometimes, writing feels like a job. Find ways to remind yourself that this is what you love.
  76. Give your writing a little literary flair by studying poetry terms and literary devices like alliteration and assonance.
  77. If you don’t know what alliteration and assonance are, then go look them up. Now. I’ll be here when you get back.
  78. Don’t use big, fancy words or old-fashioned sentence structures to make yourself sound smart. You’ll either come off like a snob or like you’re stuck in the 19th century.
  79. Know when to be specific and when to be vague. The character is wearing a dress. Is it a sundress? A gown? A school uniform? Is the color of the dress important or can that be left to the reader’s imagination?
  80. Use detail to reveal character and reflect your themes. When we find out the character is wearing a Catholic school uniform, we learn a lot about her. Cut descriptions that aren’t necessary to the piece (like the fact that her shoes were brown).
  81. Most people use contractions in their speech. Remember this when you’re writing dialogue.
  82. Don’t use formatting and punctuation marks to instruct readers on where to place emphasis. Here’s an example of what not to do: You just had to say that, didn’t you? Yes, because it’s a good “rule of thumb.” Get rid of unnecessary italics and punctuation marks.
  83. When you read something that impresses or moves you, deconstruct it. Find out what makes it so special and compelling.
  84. Study your craft closely. If you write fiction, you should know about the three acts, character arcs, and themes. If you write poetry, you should know the difference between a couplet and a stanza.
  85. Be yourself and take risks. Sometimes, we feel like we’re revealing too much of ourselves in our writing. Not everyone wants to star in a reality show, and writers are often introverts or private people. But bare your soul once in a while.
  86. Look before you leap. Think about who will be affected. Will your friends stop talking to you after your memoir comes out? Will your lover see himself in the character you modeled after him? Could you lose your job? Predict the consequences, weigh them, and move forward.
  87. Seek the truth. The best writing is honest.
  88. Don’t keep repeating yourself. You don’t need to tell the reader twice that it’s Monday.
  89. There’s a lot of grammar and punctuation you’ll need to master. Commas are the hardest and most misused. Study and practice them.
  90. By all means, use your spell check but do not rely on it as a professional editor.
  91. Do not pepper your writing with symbols & shorthand. Your book, poem, or article is not a text message.
  92. If you write any kind of list, do not end it with “and so on,” “and so forth,” or “et cetera” unless you absolutely have to.
  93. Agreement: Subjects and verbs must agree. Pronouns and nouns must agree. This is the kind of stuff you should catch during one of your many proofreading sessions.
  94. Remember that there is a time and place to break every single rule.
  95. On the other hand, don’t assume that you or your writing are the exception. Don’t break rules because you’re lazy or trying too hard to be original. People want to be engaged more than they want to read some new kind of story that’s never been told before.
  96. Try to catch all your typos (and try your best) but don’t beat yourself over the head if you miss one or two.
  97. Words like “however” and phrases like “for example” work better at the beginning of a sentence than embedded in the middle and surrounded with commas. Don’t jar your readers unless you have a good reason.
  98. When you use pronouns, make sure the nouns they represent are clearly established, especially when two people of the same gender are mentioned in a single sentence.
  99. The best way to check for awkward wording, bad rhythm, missing words, and shoddy dialogue is to read aloud.
  100. Discard any advice that doesn’t work for you. Know your own working style.

Write Better Starting Now

Here’s a way you can put this list to good use: copy and paste it into a text document. Delete all the things you’ve already mastered. Then, choose three things to focus on for the next month. Choose one thing that you can do throughout the month (like read a book on craft), something you can do in a couple of minutes when the need arises (look up words you don’t know), and something you’ll need to do every time you write (avoid passive voice). Next month, pick three new techniques to tackle.

Do you write better than you did a year ago? Five years ago? What did you do to improve your writing? Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Do you have anything to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment. And keep writing!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Writing Resources: A Poetry Handbook

a poetry handbook

Mary Oliver: A Poetry Handbook.

Poetry is the music of language, the fine art of the written word. It demands a broad vocabulary and creative thinking. It promotes rhythm and meter, and it invites imagery. Poetry triggers the imagination, engages the intellect, and touches the heart.

Reading and writing poetry are excellent practices for any writer. Through poetry, we learn the nuances of language, the power of showing rather than telling, and the necessity for clear and succinct wordcraft.

Basically, poetry reading and writing improves all other writing.

So, whether you are a poet or not, as a writer, a basic understanding of poetry will improve your writing exponentially. Can you succeed without it? Of course. But with poetry skills in your writer’s toolbox, your writing will soar. Read more

How to Write a Book

how to write a book

How to write a book.

Almost every writer on the planet wants to write a book.

Some have finished a manuscript and others are already published, but many more dream, talk, and think about completing a full draft and seeing their name on a book cover.

Some already have a book in the works while others have several half-finished drafts floating around. Some can’t even get started. They have too many ideas to choose from, or they are waiting for the right idea.

You could spend your whole life waiting.

The world is full of inspiration. Think about what moves you. What gets you excited? What are your goals? That’s where you’ll find your best writing ideas for books and everything else you want to write, whether it’s short fiction, poetry, essays, or a blog.

Ideas for Writing a Book

There’s no mystery to writing a book. You just do it. You work on it every day, and you don’t let yourself get sidetracked or distracted. You don’t drop your project to chase tempting new ideas. You chip away at it, and then one day, you have a complete draft. That’s all there is to it.

But to write a book, you have to start with a concept. Before you can sketch characters, draft an outline, or select pieces for a collection, you need a vision.

Whether you have too many visions or not enough, there are a few creative strategies that you can use in your quest for ideas or in your decision-making process. Choosing the right idea is critical. If you pick a project that you believe in, there’s a much better chance that you’ll actually finish it.

I’m one of those people with way too many ideas. I’ve also started plenty of books that I never finished (and never intend to finish). Every half-finished project was a lesson in how to better focus my energies so I can finish a book, which I finally did. Here are some of the thinking strategies I’ve been using to decide which ideas for writing a book are worth pursuing:

Explore Your Passions

If you want to write a book, start with your own passions. Are you crazy about horror stories? Write one. Are you a political junkie? Write political articles. Do you like to grow your own food? Write a blog about that. Your passion for your project will keep it going, and it will come through in your writing. Once you’ve got enough written material, you can pull it together into a book by gathering stories, articles, or blog posts into a single themed manuscript.

Tip: write a list of everything you’re passionate about. Spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas about how to turn each one into a book. Let your list marinate for a few weeks. Which idea haunts you the most? That’s probably the best one to choose.

Tell a Story

Are you full of stories? Do you love fiction? For most writers, the big dream is writing a novel and getting it published. Once you decide to write a novel, the trick is coming up with characters and a plot that you can’t stop thinking about.

Tip: give yourself twenty minutes a day to work on your story and try to burn through that first draft as quickly as possible. You can revise later. If you come up with other story ideas while you’re working on it, jot them down in an idea notebook and then get back to work on your primary project.

Engage Your Imagination 

Some of the best art happens when artists experiment and take risks. If you’re juggling ideas or can’t seem to find the right one, take an abstract approach. Forget about form, genre, and structure. Just write.

Tip: get a notebook and set aside fifteen to thirty minutes a day to write in it. Fill it up with whatever comes to mind. You can write about your own experiences, make up stories and characters, or scrawl abstract ideas and images. When you get to the end, go through and harvest the notebook to gather ideas for writing a book.

Use Your Words 

I meet a lot of writers who want nothing to do with poetry, and that’s a shame. Other than reading and writing, poetry is one of the best ways to strengthen your writing skills, and to write poetry, all you need are words. While it’s difficult to get a book of poems published through traditional publishing, you can easily self-publish a book of poetry.

Tip: write one poem a day for ninety days. Then give yourself three months to polish your poems. Look for a theme in your poetry, and choose poems that fit that theme. Finally, bring those poems together into a book. Makes a great gift!

Engage Your Expertise

Many authors find success writing about their field of expertise. You have a job or a career, and that’s one obvious subject for a book. But what about your hobbies and other interests? Have you spent thousands of hours playing video games? Attending the ballet? Perusing fashion magazines? Write a book about what you know.

Tip: a great way to write a book on a specific topic is to blog about it. You can use your blog to build an audience, and you can compile some of your blog posts into a book.

Get Personal

Readers are passionate about memoirs. There is something unique about your life and your perspective on life. Tell your story. Share your experiences. Express your thoughts and feelings.

Tip: if you’re thinking about writing a memoir, start keeping a journal. You can also write a series of personal essays, and these can be published separately or as a collection. And if nonfiction is not your thing, fictionalize your experiences into a novel.

Put a Collection Together

Have you already written a lot of short stories, poems, or essays? Were some of them published? Instead of writing a book, make a collection of your finest writing.

Tip: as an alternative, you can collect pieces of writing from various writers and act as the editor of a collection.

A Few Things to Consider Before Starting a Book Project

Here are a few final things to consider before you jump into a long-term book writing project:

  • Why do you want to write a book?
  • Do you intend to publish your book?
  • Will you self-publish or will you try to land an agent and get traditionally published?
  • Do you have a platform or an audience? If not, should you start building one while you’re writing?
  • How much time can you spend working on your book every single day?

Now You Know How to Write a Book

I hope you found these tips and ideas for writing a book helpful.

Have you written a book? Are you working on one (or several)? What have you learned about writing a book? What’s your biggest challenge in sticking with a book project? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

How to Prioritize Your Writing Ideas

prioritize writing ideas

Prioritize your writing ideas.

There are always too many writing ideas or not enough of them.

Some days, we writers are so overwhelmed with ideas, it’s impossible to get anything done. Should you work on your novel? That essay you’re writing for your favorite magazine? You have an original premise for a short story. And you feel a poem coming on.

Other days, we just can’t find any inspiration. Read more

How to Play and Pretend Your Way to Breakthrough Writing Ideas

writing ideas

Play and pretend your way to writing ideas

My little niece used to love to sit with a grown-up book spread across her lap, reading a story out loud — except she couldn’t read yet. She was making it all up — pretending.

During play, she invented new words. One time we were playing with some toys, and I asked one of their names. Without missing a beat, she made up the name Hoken. Hoken sounds to me like a great name for a character in a science fiction or fantasy story.

Play and pretend can lead to some innovative writing ideas, whether you’re looking for a simple concept for starting a new writing project or trying to break through a block in a project that you’re already working on. Read more

A Must-Read for Storytellers: Save the Cat

save the cat blake snyder

A must-read for storytellers!

“It’s the scene where we meet the hero, and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Save the Cat has been on my radar for several years; it’s one of those books I kept meaning to read but never got around to, until now. And I wish I’d read it when I first heard about it. This book is packed with goodies for storytellers!

But Save the Cat offers more than just insight on storytelling. It’s an inspiring and entertaining read. I constantly found myself wanting to set the book aside so I could go write, but I also wanted to keep turning the pages so I could absorb more techniques and ideas.

Technically, Save the Cat is a screenwriting book. Along with Syd Field’s Screenplay, it’s a Hollywood staple — not just for screenwriters but also for directors and producers. But Save the Cat goes beyond screenwriting and delves into the art of storytelling. Therefore, most of the concepts in the book are applicable to all kinds of storytellers, including novelists.

Warning: Save the Cat is very much about writing screenplays that will sell and doing so efficiently. Therefore, the book takes an approach that is more commercial than artistic, but Snyder leaves plenty of room for artistry.

Before the Draft

“All of this is intended, of course, to ultimately save you time…It’s a lot easier to see and move cards around on a board than chunks of your own writage that you’ve fallen in love with.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Snyder spends considerable time on planning and preparation, what many of us call pre-production. This is all the work we do before we sit down to write the draft.

One of my favorite tips from Save the Cat suggests writing a logline before you write your story. A logline is a summary of your story in one or two sentences, an elevator pitch. It’s supposed to entice people to watch the movie (or read the book, for us novelists). Composing a logline forces you to figure out the core essence of your story before writing it, and this brings it into focus.

Writing a polished logline is no small exercise. It must be short, concise, and convey key details about your story, giving people a sense of what it’s about without spoiling the ending. As you work out your logline, you will undoubtedly discover flaws in your story ideas. Therefore the practice of writing your logline first allows you to fix those flaws before you spend weeks or months hammering out a full manuscript.

But a logline isn’t all you should figure out before you tackle your first draft. Snyder also recommends deciding on a title and coming up with an idea for the movie poster (for us novelists, that would translate to a book cover), and you should also identify its audience. All of this preliminary work is designed to help you crystallize your story before you write it, and this will save you time later, because you’ll need to do fewer revisions. It will also minimize the risk that you’ll end up with a draft that ends up in the trash.

Plot Types and Planning

“True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Another section I liked covered Blake Snyder’s ten genres. I have to admit that I had some trouble with his use of the word genres. What Snyder offers up are actually plot types, but this is just a matter of semantics. Plenty of story scholars have come up with lists of plot types, but I found these intriguing. Here’s a small sampling:

  1. Monsters in the House: Jaws, Tremors, Alien, The Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, and Panic Room.
  2. Golden Fleece (a hero goes on a journey in search of one thing but ends up discovering something else): Star Wars; The Wizard of Oz; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Back to the Future, and most “heist movies.”
  3. Rites of Passage: Every change-of-life story from 10 to Ordinary People to Days of Wine and Roses.

Once you’ve nailed your logline, audience, and genre (or plot type), you can start outlining. Snyder refers to outlining as writing beats or “beating it out.” He provides a very detailed formula for you to follow, titled “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” or BS2 for short. Here’s a taste of Snyder’s beat sheet (numerals in parentheses refer to the pages of the script):

  1. Opening image (1)
  2. Theme stated (5)
  3. Set-up (1-10)
  4. Catalyst (12)

Snyder’s beats include fifteen distinct plot points that occur in a story and even specify which pages of a screenplay these points should occur on (page numbers wouldn’t be applicable to novelists). Within these beats, I found several that I thought were useful reminders of good, strong storytelling practices, like starting with a clear and vivid opening image and then using a closing image that is an inverse of that image, emphasizing the change that has occurred (most great stories are about change).

A Note on Formulas

“I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur).” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Snyder’s beat sheet is very much a formula. Keep in mind that this formula is designed to help screenwriters write screenplays that will sell — it may strike you as a little too formulaic.

Storytelling formulas are tricky. Al the great stories do seem to adhere to a clear formula. In movies, we can easily plug films like Star Wars or Titanic into the Hero’s Journey. And as I read through Snyder’s formula, I could see dozens of movies swirling through my head; I believe this formula can serve a screenwriter well. However, many artists think formula writing is a form of selling out, and we’ve certainly all seen utterly predictable movies that were formulaic to the point of being annoying. But since the greatest stories and movies of all time can also be matched to basic story formulas, they obviously work when applied correctly.

I think this and other formulas are useful as a kind of checklist for including certain beats and plot points. It would also come in handy as a tool for figuring out what’s wrong with a story or determining what’s missing. I would suggest exploring Snyder’s system and experimenting with it, adapting it to your own needs and working style.

The Board

“Most of all, you must try to find the fun in everything you write.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Snyder’s section about The Board was one of my favorite parts of the book. I started using a similar method while writing my third novel (the first one I published). It involves putting various bits of your story on note cards and putting them on a board (I use a huge magnetic white board). This is by far the funnest part of writing a story because it’s where all the ideas happen. It’s also tactile, because you’re working with paper and pens and using your hands, all of which is creatively stimulating.

Snyder goes into some really deep-level instruction here, laying out a system for organizing the cards on the board and insisting that when your board is done, you must have forty cards, each representing one scene. There are four rows (the first is Act One, the second and third are each half of Act Two, the fourth is Act Three). The specificity here is not for novel writing, but the gist of the board is one of my favorite tools for story development.

Get it Now

“What you are saying in essence is: This story, this experience, is so important, so life-changing for all involved—even you, the audience—it affects every single person that is in its orbit.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

save the cat blake snyder
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Save the Cat is packed with tips and ideas that will benefit any storyteller. Most of us won’t use it as an instruction manual, but we can use the strategies in the book to improve our own story writing processes. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to master the art of storytelling, for film or the page. Save the Cat is available at fine bookstores everywhere, including Amazon, where you can pick up a Kindle version or a paperback.




Where to Find Ideas for Writing a Story

ideas for writing a story

Ideas for writing a story

It always seem like there are too many writing ideas or not enough.

When you don’t have time to write, ideas come hurtling out of nowhere. Sometimes they come so fast, you can’t even write them all down. But when you sit down, stretch your fingers, and lean over your keyboard to start typing, nothing happens. Where did all those ideas go?

Chances are, you’re not really out of ideas; you’re just not in the mood to write. Sometimes, that’s okay. Take a break and do something else. Give yourself a day off. But other times, you need to dig your heels in, make those ideas flow, and get busy writing.

Where to Find Story Writing Ideas

Luckily, ideas for writing a story are all around you. As long as you can force yourself to get focused, you should easily be able to overcome a bout of writer’s block.

1. Start with a character. Don’t worry about the story yet. Make a character sketch. Don’t think about whether the character is a hero, a villain, or some secondary character. Start with the character’s name, age, and occupation. Then describe the character’s personality, beliefs, and backstory. See if a story emerges.

2. Turn to your favorite fiction. All your favorite books, movies, and TV shows are laden with ideas for writing a story. That’s not to say you should re-purpose or regurgitate an existing story. Look for details that you can work into your own story. Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a tornado sweeps a girl from Kansas to the fantastical land of Oz. In The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a storm sweeps Morris (and his trusty journal) to a land of books. And yes, the author officially recognized The Wizard of Oz as an influence.

3. Brainstorm with a mapping technique. What happens when you’re in the middle of writing a story and find yourself at a standstill? This recently happened to me: I didn’t know what my character should do next. I fretted about it for a few days, and then I made a list of all the possibilities — all the choices she could make. Then I stepped away from the list. In the hours that followed, one of those ideas stuck with me. That’s the one I went with.

4. Cull ideas from your own life. If all you need is a story starter, look back on your own life. After you graduated high school, did you think about spending a year hiking around Europe but instead got a job and went to college? Is there someone in your past, someone you almost married, but didn’t? A job you were offered but turned down? An invitation you declined? Use the crossroads from your past as a starting point for a story. Bonus tip: you can do this with other people’s lives too. Remember that story your grandma told you about how she won a dance contest when she was a teenager? Start with that!

5. Write outside the story. Forget about story and plot. Just write something, anything. You can start with a scene, a character, or a situation. Maybe what you write will become backstory or maybe it will be the epilogue. Maybe some tangent will carry you into a new story that you want to fully realize.

6. Turn on the news. You can get the news from television, the Internet, or a newspaper. Whatever source you choose, it’s sure to be packed with excellent ideas for writing a story, from a double homicide to a neighborhood do-gooder or a corporate conspiracy, you’re sure to find something that will spark your muse into action.

7. Ask a friend. Whether you’re struggling to start a new story or are stumped with a story you’re working on, you might want to try turning to friends and family for a little direction. Even your non-writer friends will have tons of great ideas to help you out. Bonus tip: friends and family are also great for bouncing ideas off of, especially when you’re working on a complex concept.

8. Freewriting. It’s the all-purpose writing activity. Use it for daily writing practice, brainstorming, problem solving, clearing your head, and getting ideas to flow. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Take out your notebook (or some sheets of paper) and write whatever comes to mind (no matter how wild or crazy) for the allotted time period. Don’t stop, don’t think. When you’re done, see if there’s something in there that could prompt a story.

9. Writing prompts. There are oodles of writing prompts right here at Writing Forward, and if can’t find what you’re looking for here, just do a Google search for “story prompts” or “fiction writing prompts.” You’ll be confronted with more story starters than you’ll know what to do with.

10. Turn to your notebook. If you’ve been diligent about jotting down your best writing ideas, then your notebook should prove to be a valuable resource when you’re feeling uninspired. If you haven’t filled your notebook with ideas for writing a story, then crack it open and use the tips above to start your own idea journal.

What kind of stories do you write? Do you ever have trouble starting a story, or are you more likely to get stuck somewhere in the middle? When you need ideas for writing a story, where do you turn? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.

whats the story building blocks for fiction writing

Tips for Developing Story Writing Ideas

story writing ideas

Tips for developing story writing ideas.

Short stories, flash fiction, novels, and novellas: there are countless stories floating around out there — and those are just the fictional works.

It’s no wonder writers get frustrated trying to come up with a simple concept for a story. One look at the market tells you that everything has been done.

But what makes a story special is your voice and the unique way that you put different elements together. Sure, there might be something reminiscent of Tolkien in your work, but so what? Echos of Lord of the Rings can be found in some of the most beloved stories of the 20th century: Harry Potter and Star Wars, for example.

I’m not saying J.K. Rowling and George Lucas intentionally used elements of Tolkien’s work in their stories. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. But I would bet both of them read and appreciated Lord of the Rings. Whether they were conscious or not of its influence on their work doesn’t really matter.

Developing Story Writing Ideas

There are countless ways to develop story concepts. You can start with an event from the news or a character you’ve created; you can base your plot on an old legend or fairy tale; or you can combine two of your favorite genres.

  • What happens when you mix Hamlet with Star Trek? Well, you might get something that looks like Star Wars. Take a traditional legend or folk tale and send it to space or place it in a magical fairyland to give it a new twist.
  • It works both ways. You can take a modern story and put it in a historical setting. Star Trek is about explorers who are deeply humanitarian. Could there have been such explorers on Earth thousands of years ago?
  • If you can create a believable and complex character, you can evolve a story from the character’s emotional landscape and personal experiences.
  • A romance horror story, a western set in space, a chick-lit war story, and a fairy tale about the business world are all ways you can combine genres to inspire writing ideas.
  • Instead of starting with a story, start with a big idea. How do you explore abstract concepts like sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, and wrath through story?

Sometimes, by brainstorming established genres, stories, and themes, you’ll find that an original idea emerges.

More Specific Story Writing Ideas

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a homeless teen who squats in a family’s Manhattan apartment during the day while they’re at work and school. It occurs to you that there are some parallels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Instead of writing off your idea as unoriginal, use the fairy tale to infuse your story with archetypes and symbols that are universally recognized: three teddy bears on the child’s bed, three chairs of various sizes in the living room, the family eating porridge for breakfast.

Here are some more specific idea starters based on fairy tales:

  • Little Red Riding Hood in Suburbia: There’s a stranger at grandma’s house.
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears in the Big City: A squatter makes herself at home.
  • The Gingerbread Phone: A smartphone becomes self-aware.
  • Dystopian Cinderella: This fairy tale been done and redone. Cinderella is apparently an exhaustive source of story writing ideas. Set your version in a bleak future.
  • The Little Badass Mermaid: Take any old fairy tale and turn the heroine into a badass.
  • Beauty is the Beast – What if the gender roles were reversed?

What’s Your Story?

Our world is full of patterns and cycles that repeat infinitely. Every story you write comes from every story you’ve read. Some writers consciously use old tales as a foundation for their work; others are surprised when they realize there are blatant similarities in their work and someone else’s.

I’m not suggesting you go out in search of stories to rewrite (and I’m definitely not suggesting you avoid coming up with your own original ideas). I hear from writers, on a regular basis, who are frustrated because they analyze every detail in their stories and stress out when they realize certain elements already occurred elsewhere in the literary canon.

So, I want to put forth the simple truth that everything has been done. Your job is to do it your way.

Where do you get your story writing ideas?

whats the story building blocks for fiction writing

101 Creative Writing Exercises

101 Creative Writing Exercises

101 Creative Writing Exercises101 Creative Writing Exercises takes you on an adventure through the world of creative writing.

Packed with fun and practical tools, techniques, and writing ideas, this book will motivate and inspire you:

  • Explore different forms and genres by writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.
  • Discover effective writing techniques and expand your writing skills.
  • Create writing projects that you can submit or publish.

You’ll learn a lot by simply reading through these exercises, which impart literary and storytelling devices that broaden your knowledge on the craft of writing.

Each chapter focuses on a different form or writing concept: freewriting, journaling, memoirs, fiction and storytelling, form poetry and free verse, article and blog writing, characters, and dialogue. By experimenting with different forms and genres, you’ll become a more seasoned writer.

These exercises also offer practical and creative idea-starters for project that you can develop and eventually publish.

Ideal for new and experienced writers alike, this collection of creative writing exercises will enlighten and inspire you.

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Read the Reviews


Watch the video above to see Marlon Manalese’s video review of 101 Creative Writing Exercises.

If you’ve been searching for a goldmine concerning all-things-writing you need look no further.

Really, working through this book in what ever order will best serve your learning or practicing needs is certain to improve your skills. I love writing and participate in writing in one form or another almost every day. Yet, as I recently spent time working through just two different exercises as set forth in this book I learned new skills.

The author suggests that moving out of one’s comfort zone is a good way to improve skills and gain writing experience. At first I wondered why I would try something that I’ve believed would be too hard for me. My writing typically focuses on the here and now, facts and information. Yet, I took pen in hand (later went to the keyboard) and began the first exercise in the beginning section of Writing Fiction.

My first hesitant steps were soon overcome by the exhilaration I felt when I began to realize that my imagination was kicking in. I was beginning to see scenes in my mind which I could translate to paper. I was setting the scene for a fictional account which I could make “real” by continuing to follow the steps as laid out in this book.

As another part of my experiment I followed one of the prompts which was more suited to what I usually write about. Once again, I felt as if I had found gold. Ms. Donovan’s simple step by step system and suggested tactics do indeed serve to make the writing experience quite productive. With these easy to follow instructions and suggestions long time writers and beginners alike are given ways to improve their writing. Period.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who really wants to learn more about the art and science of writing.

– Tonya Schulte


This book could well be used as a course study

“This book could well be used as a course study for anyone who wants to try a hand at writing or to improve writing skills. The book is broken down into several topics including freewriting, journaling, fiction, storytelling, etc. Along with each topic discussed there is an exercise to complete. Great for anyone who wants a new twist on just about every type of writing there is.” – Ann Barnes (Arizona)


This book has a lot of great ideas to get your mind going. I’m enjoying doing the exercises every day. I recommend this for any writer. If you are just starting out and need some motivation this book is perfect for you.” – 2bmixed


I really love this book, especially because it gives me the chance to step outside of my comfort-zone. Perfect for writer’s block evenings.” – Nico


This book has made teaching creative writing a lot easier.

“I can find really well thought out assignments within these pages. Well worth the money!” – Gregory P. Der


This innovative book gives me inspiration to fashion my own lessons to present to adults writing for the first time.” – Viv (Madison, MS United States)


“I was researching books to use as a resource for an online creative writing resource that I teach, and I found this one to be most helpful. If I run the class again, I am considering adopting this as the primary text.” – Joy F. Hurt


This is one of the best writing exercise books I have ever seen!

“It’s not the same type of prompts that are everywhere. She writes well herself and inspires interest in the exercises. When I sit down and write one, it often expands into a short story or essay. Even when they are similar to some I have seen and done before, they are different because of the way she presents them. This has been a great addition to my writing journey.” – Ms. Joan A. Di Masi


Reading and doing the exercises in this book made me enjoy writing again.

“I am working on my first novel and ran into some serious writers block. My story was going nowhere. I hated everything I wrote. I was going to give up and quit writing forever. 101 Creative writing exercises helped me get over my writers block.

The exercises gave me inspiration for my novel. I found the character freewritng to be very helpful. I could not find my characters voice. The solution freewritng exercise was also very helpful. This helped me work out key plot issues. Instead of sitting and staring at a blank computer screen and getting nowhere, I came up with ideas when I wrote with pen and paper.

I would recommend this book to any writer who has writers block and wants to give up writing.” – Pixiedark


Once upon a time I was in a slump and couldn’t think of what to write about, so I purchased the book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises. I found so many ideas there that I had trouble deciding which one to try first. So, what I’m working on now is as a result of one of the exercises in this book. I now have a way to come up with new writing ideas when writer’s block sticks its ugly head into my life again.” – Elizabeth L. Westra


I use a lot of Melissa’s writing tips for personal and professional projects. I really enjoyed 101 because of it concise approach in introducing each exercise. I read the book first and noted specific exercises that interested me. The practice work and discipline required for each activity carried over to other writing tasks including our writing group. Good for experienced or novice writers. In summary, it rally is a writing coach and a lot of fun.” – Amazon Customer


I discovered Melissa’s blog, Writing Forward, quite a while ago now and I couldn’t be any more thrilled that I found such an informative and inspiring blog to help keep my creative juices flowing. 101 Creative Writing Exercises only pushed me farther in my writing journey. I look back to it from time to time, whenever I’m feeling a little dull in my ideas and it is always there to spark my mind and allow my brain and heart to work together to create something magical. If you’re looking for fun, thorough and honest writing advice, this is an awesome place to start! No regrets with this purchase!” – Rachel Chryczek