writers resources / writers tips

Writer’s Tip #73: Tips From Cliff

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 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.

More tips on writing from authors:

Writers Tip #67: Three Tips from Carl Zimmer

Writers Tip #68: Three Tips From David Shenk

Writers Tip #69: 5 Tips From Cory Doctorow

Jacqui Murray is the author of dozens of books (on technology in education) as well as the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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

  1. All great tips, most of them are commonsensical or I’ve at least learned by making those mistakes, but easy to forget as well, so thanks for the reminder. #12 I don’t quite understand, though (most of them have good reasons for not doing them, and usually you list them). I get that the “fix” sentences sound better, but what’s inherently wrong about “as he”?


  2. Excellent tips from Cliff. “Don’t rush the scene” spoke to me about the uncomfortable feeling I have about my now completed book’s last chapter. I’ve completed my 126,500 word book, in the works for a very long time. Now I am deciding what I want to do with it. Any suggestions?


  3. I’m in the process of writing my third book and more aware than ever of what I do not know. Now I read and re-read everything, after letting it rest for a time so I can gain some perspective but the more I write now, the more I feel I must be able to read my script like a stranger to discover the real impact my words and story will have on any souls who come across my work.


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