writers resources / writers tips

14 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 over 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 on diverse subjects and put together a nice website of all sorts of suggestions. Some 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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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 the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

38 thoughts on “14 Tips From Cliff

  1. This was the best list I’ve ever read because it came with concrete examples. And I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to remember to do these things. It’s not like you don’t see these tips in almost every writers book, but it takes loads of practice to remember what to do.


      • Actually, I never used them–where I grew up it was Cole’s Notes, and woe to the student caught in the possession of the yellow and black books. But I like that the term (Cliff Notes, here in the States and Cole’s Notes in Canada) has come to mean any short cut summary (though sometimes derogatory in that it strips out deeper meaning.) Me? I was too cheap and too stubborn to stoop to such literary short cuts. The last thing I ever farm out is thinking.


      • That was always my reaction to Cliff Notes–someone else drawing conclusions for me. I go even more extreme–I like raw data better than graphs and charts, so I can make my own connections rather than being distracted by automatic ones.


  2. Hi,
    Some of these things I know about and I have especially heard about the one concerning the omniscient narrator. Personally, I like to use the omniscient narrator and multiple point of view when I am writing.

    Thanks for this refresher.


    • ‘Using said’ is one that stood out to me. I remember when I first heard that and didn’t believe it. I liked saying ‘commanded’ and ‘croaked’. Then, I noticed its abundance among my favorite authors. It allowed me to read more quickly. It moved the plot along with alacrity. Now, I like it.


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