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Writer’s Tip #73: Tips From Cliff

writers tips

Great tips for soon-to-be great writers

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

This list is from Cliff. As far as I can tell, Cliff is like you and me–a writer, enjoying himself, sharing his knowledge–although he has almost 2 million hits on his website which is decidedly unlike me. His Twitter profile reads:

Dr. Cliff Pickover, author of 40+ books, science, science fiction, technology, strange reality, futurism, innovation, mathematics, future of publishing

He’s written a variety of books on diverse subjects and put together a nice website of all sorts of suggestions. I copied these because some of them are hit me as exactly what I was doing wrong. Read through them. See if you get that feeling:

1. Show Not Tell

It’s better to show through a character’s actions than “tell” by having the narrator describe. Please do not “tell.”

Example 1: “Garth became nervous” is “telling.” It is better to “show” with: “Garth’s hands trembled.”
Example 2: “Garth did not want to go down the hall with the Major” is “telling.” It is better to “show” with: “What?” Garth said, “There’s no way in hell I’m going with you!”

  1. Body Movement

Occasional reference to body movement and scene interaction is important so that characters are not disembodied talking heads. It’s also important to occasionally use body movement before a person talks, in order to establish who is talking.


“When are you going to leave for France?” John asked.
could be cast as:
John took a slow breath. “When are you going to leave for France?”
(Many times beginning authors make it hard to figure out who is talking, but a quick reference to body movement before the speaker speaks makes it all clear.)

  1. Short Better Than Long

In real life, people often talk in short sentences and phrases, rather than in long drawn-out sentences with big words. Another dialog tip: use contractions often. For example, a character may be more apt to say “I’ll” than “I will.”

  1. Break the Dialog

Always insert a “he said” or “she said” as early as possible into a line of dialog (if a “he said” is even needed at all).

Never do: “Yes, I will kill him, but not until you buy the peaches for dinner,” he said.
Instead do:
“Yes,” he said, “I will kill him, but not until you buy the peaches for dinner.”

  1. Use Active Voice

Don’t say: “The paper was placed on the wall by the doctor.” Use active voice: “The doctor placed the paper on the wall.”

  1. Avoid Omniscient Narrator

Books have more immediacy if you stay within one character’s head and therefore the narrator does not have knowledge of what other people are thinking. For example, if you are in Jake’s head, we are in Jake’s head for most of the book. We can’t suddenly know how Melinda is feeling. Jake doesn’t read her mind. We can suggest how she feels through Jake’s opinions and what he sees and hears, and what she says and does. (Some people use an omniscient narrator, but the best books avoid it.)

  1. Don’t Rush The Scene

If a scene sounds rushed, with too little attention to detail and texture, then more words are needed to draw out the action and suspense.

  1. Natural Dialog

If you are unsure if the dialog sounds natural, read it out loud to yourself. This is a great way to make sure the dialog is natural.

  1. Involve All Senses

To really get the reader involved, try to stimulate more of the reader’s senses. For example, if you’ve gone ten pages without stimulating the reader (and character in the book) with an odor, or tactile feeling, sound, or taste, the book will have less immediacy.

  1. Use “Said”

I notice some beginning writers seem to dislike using “said” and try to replace the word “said” with words like commanded, remarked, uttered, began, etc. Perhaps they feel that too many “saids” stick out. However, you don’t have to be afraid of using too many “saids.” In fact, it is much worse to try substitutions. The best writers use “said” almost all the time and let the dialog convey the meaning. For example,

 “Get out of here now!” he commanded.

is much worse than
“Get out of here now!” he said.
The word “commanded” is an unnecessary distraction. In any case, it’s obvious the sentence is a command. When readers read “said”, their eyes barely pause. The “said” goes almost unnoticed. This is what you want. Replacement words, such as “remarked”, stick out obtrusively, which is what you don’t want. For these reasons, some authors don’t even use “he asked” for questions; rather they do: “Where is it?” he said.

     11. Don’t Begin To

Don’t have your characters “begin to do something,” “try to do something,” and so forth. Just have them do it. Example: “Mary began to skip down the block.” Change to “Mary skipped down the block.”

  1. Avoid “as he”

Avoid excessive “as he” constructs. Example: “Mary turned on the TV as she thought all the time about Joe.” Change to: “Mary turned on the TV, thinking all the time about Joe.” Or, better yet: “Mary turned on the TV and thought about Joe.”

  1. Provide Character Reactions

Example: When something is said or done to a character that is out of the ordinary, have the character respond. New writers often forget to show the responses of characters before moving on with the plot.

  1. Which or That?

Use “which” with a comma when the phrase seems as if it could easily be set off with parentheses and make sense. Examples with “that” and “which”: 1) I like dogs that bark. 2) I like the German Shepherd species, which has pointed ears, a tan coat, and teeth that rip.

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Questions you want answered? Leave a comment and I’ll answer it within the next thirty days.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voicebook reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachersan IMS tech expertand a weekly contributor toWrite Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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14 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #73: Tips From Cliff

  1. Jacqui,

    Again, very helpful info on body lnguage, or the actions of a character. I have struggled with ‘where’ to insert that action-location, location, location.


    • I think the body language really brings the character’s emotions to life. It’s so critical to the credibility of the book and the likability of the character. The challenge is making sure to see it through the eyes of the POV character. That’s what makes writing great.


  2. Love this list. I think our writing has suffered over the decades – society has slipped into more and more slang talk, and this has really spilled over into the written word.


  3. Great tips, I like having my topic for main purpose and creating ways to write around the subject-and I have to have a photo in mind to write. I enjoy writing my thoughts, and sometimes my stories can be jumbled just like my thoughts !! 🙂


  4. Aren’t you just the cosmopolitan man, Ryan. Great reading choices. I’ve read lots of books with varied POV characters. If the immersion is long enough (at least a chapter), I’m OK. Shorter, I feel kinda tossed around. That’s just me though. As a result, I write that way, too.


  5. Maybe I’m not reading the best fiction, but recently I’ve enjoyed books with an omniscient narrator. I’m actually reworking a project from 1st person to an O.N. to improve it.

    #12 is good. I’ve noticed many “as she’s” in a children’s book I’m writing. Editing them as advised will improve it.

    #11 is good too. I love how such simple edits can drastically improve writing. When I first started eliminating “that” wherever possible my stuff read so much better.

    #8 is huge! Reading my dialogue out loud always makes it better. Sometimes I’ll even talk the scene out before I write it. It’s helps me with the pace of the interactions.

    But, I think #1 is my favorite suggestion. C.S. Lewis offered very similar advice, “In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.” – Borrowed from http://www.epm.org/blog/2010/Dec/6/tips-writing-cs-lewis

    Thanks for the posts Jacqui.


    • Omniscient POV is popular lately. What genre do you read? I find it to impersonal. I like getting into one person’s head and understanding them more thoroughly.

      Hey, Ryan, I tried your website but it looks like you moved your blog. No biggie, just me being nosey.


      • Fixed the site. My gravatar had an old URL. http://www.nobodysnormal.wordpress.com is the correct one. By the way, nosey is cool with me.

        I read all over the place. Non fiction to fiction. Mysteries to classics. The last book I finished (Omniscient Narrator), was The Atonement Child, by Francine Rivers. I think her audience is mostly women, but this novel was very powerful. She’s a gifted writer.

        I agree about the thorough understanding of a character and I like those books. I read Dear John, by Sparks (I know another girl’s book) and I appreciated the 1st person perspective.

        The project I’m wanting to switch demands the reader be able to get in the heads of multiple characters.

        By the way, I enjoy Charles Martin, Randy Alcorn, Michael Crichton, and others.


  6. Excellent points and great tips here. I recently wrote an interview piece that I wanted to keep strictly focused on the words shared… like a story teller. I intentionally left out the usual indicators/gestures of life. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this. 🙂
    Thanks again,


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