On Writing

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

–Mary Heaton Vorse, American writer and social reformer

How to Create Stories that People will Want to Read 

Writing is a skill that improves with time, maturity, and practice. Your experiences, successes, failures, and
relationships will help shape your writing. Journal writing can be helpful, but don’t make it a chore. Don’t write in it every day, only when events occur that make you happy, angry, jealous, sad, frustrated. Pay attention to basic technical requirements—grammar, sentence structure, and style (similes, metaphors, dialogue). Read everything possible, including fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, poetry, newspapers, magazines, Shakespeare, and even the bible. In many famous literary works, like the C.S.  Lewis Narnia series, the plot parallels the bible’s stories of good conquering evil.

Well-written books can be the best teachers for expanding vocabulary, showing how characters grow, and for  dialogue techniques. Look at how a book is written, and think about why you like or don’t like it. Are the characters real, flawed, and interesting, or are they stereotypes? Does the setting evoke all five senses, so that it becomes real in your mind? Is the dialogue believable, or stiff and awkward? Do you like the way it’s being told (first-person, third-person)? Is it character or plot-driven?


Four Examples of Beautiful Writing:

Connie has a “high, breathless, amused voice which made everything she said sound a little forced,
whether it was sincere or not.”—Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going, Where  Have You Been?


She was wearing pink linen shorts and a matching blouse, white sunglasses, and pink nail polish. She
sounded like an actress playing Blanche du Bois in summer stock, and looked and smelled as if she’d groomed herself as painstakingly for that morning as I had the morning I got married.–Anna Quindlen, Black
and Blue


There is a stop sign at the 7-Eleven, and you go onto Robin Song Lane, then right onto Sparrow Court, and
Wayne and Laura Paschke’s house is the third on the left, the same model as the neighbor’s, but painted an out-of-date sherbert green, with a big chicken-wire thing on the side, left there by the previous tenant—and the hard lawn and the oil-stained driveway which always provide a landlord with a reason for keeping the damage deposit.—Louis B. Jones’s, Ordinary Money


“I don’t believe in God.”

“Get out of those dungarees, Alex, and put on some decent clothes.”

“They’re not dungarees, they’re Levis.”

“It’s Rosh Hashanah, Alex, and to me you’re wearing overalls! Get in there and put a tie on and a jacket and a pair of trousers and a clean shirt and come out looking like a human being. And shoes, Mister, hard shoes.”

“My shirt is clean.”

“Oh, you’re riding for a fall, Mr. Big. You’re fourteen years old, and believe me, you don’t know
everything there is to know.”

–Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint


Writing Exercises

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes and start writing whatever comes into your head.
  2. Write a description of two completely different kinds of feet.
  3. Describe the smells in a hospital waiting room, public bathroom, library.
  4. For girls: a father andhis 11 year-old son are kicking the soccer ball around after dinner. Write the
    dialogue between them.
  5. For boys: A mother and her 11 year-old daughter are choosing a CD to play in the car. Write the
    dialogue between them.
  6. Name three things an ear looks like.
  7. Choose a painting that interests you and write the story it suggests.
  8. Use these three words in a brief paragraph—magazine, pantry, telephone.
  9. Compare happiness to an animal.
  10. Pick up a random novel and turn to any paragraph. Write a new first and last sentence for that
  11. What is your biggest regret?

Suggested Reading

  1. The newspaper—compare coverage of an event from one paper to another
  2. Magazine articles
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird—Harper Lee
  4. Who has seen the wind?—W.O. Mitchell
  5. Who do you think you are?—Alice Munro
  6. A tree grows in Brooklyn—Betty Smith
  7. Boy—Roald Dahl
  8. Sunshine Sketches of a little town—Stephen Leacock