Say no to "more details."

Parents and teachers often tell students to "add more details" when commenting on student writing. 

It's one of the least helpful things that you can say to a writer. 

Have you ever finished a novel or essay or memoir and wished that the author had included "more details?"

Teachers and parents say this to students because so many of them are not writers and do not seriously engage in the writing process. As a result, they simply don't know what to say in the same way I could say nothing to a apprentice carpenter or a beginning skier.

If you don't engage in the craft, you will have little to say about the craft. 

So rather than talking about craft, parents and teachers see quantity as quality. They believe - with all their heart - that an argument that be effectively made in 250 words is automatically made more effective if written with 500 or 1,000 words. 

It makes me insane.  

To this end, young writers should remember this:

Don't seek quantity. Seek quality. Rather than waxing on for paragraphs about a person or place, find the two or three words or phrases that capture the essence of the person or place, and leave it at that.

The best writers don't choose the most words. They choose the right words.  

Got kids? Here's how to turn them into writers.

As a teacher and a writer, I often give parents advice on helping their children to become effective writers who (more importantly) love to write.

My advice is simple:

Be the best audience possible for your child’s work. If he or she wants to read something to you, drop everything. Allow the chicken to burn in the frying pan. Allow the phone to ring off the hook. Give your child your full and complete attention. When a child reads something that they have written to someone who they love and respect, it is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. Treat is as such.  

Don’t look at the piece. Don’t even touch the piece. Any comment made about the piece should never be about handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and the like. By never seeing the actual text, you innate, insatiable parental need to comment on these things will be properly stifled. Your child does not want to hear about your thoughts on punctuation or the neatness of their printing. No writer does. Your child has given birth to something from the heart and mind. Treat it with reverence. Speak about how it makes you feel. Rave about the ideas and images. Talk about the word choices that you loved. Compliment the title. Ask for more. Forget the rest.

Remember: Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. Even final drafts are not meant to be perfect. That’s why editors exist. Go online and look at the rough drafts of EB White’s Charlotte’s Web. They’re almost illegible. Who cares? Writing is messy.  

Once your child has finished reading the piece, offer three positive statements about the writing. Compliments. Nothing more. Only after you have said three positive things may you offer a suggestion. Maintain this 3:1 compliment/criticism ratio always. Use the word “could” instead of “should” when commenting.

If your child asks how to spell a word, spell it. Sending a child to the dictionary to find the spelling of a word is an act of cruelty and a surefire way to make writing less fun. You probably so this because it was the way that your parents and teachers treated you, but it didn’t help you one bit. It only turned writing into a chore. If you were to ask a colleague how to spell a word, you wouldn’t expect to be sent to the dictionary. That would be rude, The same holds true for your child.

Also, the dictionary was not designed for this purpose. It’s an alphabetical list of definitions and other information about words, but is wasn’t meant for spelling. Just watch a first grader look for the word “phone” in the F section of the dictionary and you will quickly realize how inefficient and pointless this process is.

When it comes to writing, the most important job for parents and teachers is to ensure that kids learn to love to write. If a child enjoys putting words on a page, even if those words are poorly spelled, slightly illegible, and not entirely comprehensible, that’s okay. The skills and strategies for effective writing will come in time, though direct instruction, lots of practice, and a little osmosis. The challenge – the mountain to climb – is getting a child to love writing. Make that your primary objective. Make that your only objective. Do everything you can to ensure that your child loves the writing process. Once you and your child achieve that summit, the rest will fall into place.

I promise.

Except for the handwriting. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that. Just be grateful that we live in a world where most of the writing is done on a computer. 

The 5 Stages of an Author's Reaction to Editorial Notes

I just completed what might be the final edits to my next novel, The Other Mother. After turning in the manuscript to my editor, she returned it to me with editorial suggestions.

I considered the suggestions carefully, agreed with more than 90% of them, and made the changes. After reviewing my revisions, my editor returned it to me with another round of suggestions, and I repeated the process.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I think we might finally be done. 

The revision process is a good one. It always makes a book better. Typically, the suggestions made by my editor cut away the chaff, help to strengthen themes, and bring greater clarity to character and scenes.

But it's also a process fraught with emotion. I don't always agree with my editor's suggestions. Occasionally I am baffled by her ideas. Confused by her thoughts. Annoyed by her comments Every now and then, I am appalled at what she has recommended. 

I've broken this emotional response down into 5 stages.   

Gratitude: My editor has saved me from a lifetime of embarrassment. I am so stupid. A truly terrible writer. An imposter. I can't believe that she still wants to publish this book. I can't believe that she's still willing to talk to me. I have the best editor on the planet. 

Contentment: A good suggestion. A solid choice on my editor's part. So happy to have her on my side. 

Ambivalence: Fine. I mean, it could go either way, but fine. I can make that change. I'm a fairly agreeable soul. 

Acquiescence: No way. It ain't happening. I mean... if she really feels strongly about this one, I might be able to find a way to agree. Or at least meet her somewhere in the middle. I don't love the idea, but it's not like she's asking me to cut off my hand. Still, I think my way is better.

 Refusal: Does she have any idea how long I spent crafting that sentence? That paragraph? What chapter? There is no way in hell I am changing a single word of that section. She must've been drunk when she was editing this page.

Happily, about 95% of all of my editors suggestions fall into one of the first three stages.  

But that final 5% can really hurt. 

The three worst things ever

Sometimes characters in my books speak words and think things that I would never speak or think myself. 

Other times characters say words and think things that are directly from my heart and soul. In these cases, these characters are speaking on my behalf.  

In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Budo lists the three things he hates most in the world.

His list is my list.  

1. Waiting
2. Not knowing
3. Not existing

Damn Canadians are ruining my book.

Clara handed me this broken percussive instrument. "Can you fix this?" she asked.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Charlie and I are playing camping. We made a tent and everything. And Charlie's a Canadian woodsman. This is his axe. He was chopping trees, and then he tried to chop down the wrong tree. Which was actually the stairs. His axe broke. Can you fix it, because it's getting cold, and we're going to need more firewood."

All this while I try to finish the revisions on my novel... 

A possible cure for writer's block

I have thankfully never suffered from writer's block, but if you do, perhaps you could try this innovative means of writing in hopes of curing it:

Write naked.

I can't say that his work was especially impressive that day, but he was putting words to the page, which apparently is a big deal to anyone suffering from writer's block.

The very best way to earn a dollar

I have a friend who is a successful attorney. He earns an excellent living. By all standards, he is doing very well for himself and his family.

He is also a screenwriter. He has yet to sell a screenplay, but he has an agent, a manager, and a successful writing partner. He has been paid to work on various film-related projects in the past.

In short, he has potential. He writes well. He's producing screenplays. Putting in the time. Doing the work. Waiting for his big break. 

Last week he was hired to write the trailer for an upcoming film. He earned $500 for his efforts.

Writing trailers is not exactly screenwriting. It's not even creative writing. It's more like creatively writing about someone else's creative writing. 

And $500 is not much of a paycheck. In comparison to his salary as an attorney, it's not a lot of money at all. It's not a small amount of money, but it's not going to make or break his holiday season.

But when I spoke to him about the job, he said, "It's the best $500 I've made in a long time."

I understood perfectly. As much money as I might make as a teacher or public speaker or wedding DJ or tutor or life coach or minister, there is no better way to earn a dollar than to be paid for something you made up in your head.  

I'll say it again:

There is no better way to earn a dollar than to be paid for something you made up in your head.  

Owl hunters interrupt fiction writer's flow

In case you didn't know what an owl hunter looked like, here are two are in the flesh. Note the uniform: 

Pajamas. Straw hat or beach pail worn as helmets. Rain boots.

Each is also equipped with a mode of transport (scooter or tricycle) and a flashlight. 

In this training run, I served as the owl. Lights in the house were turned off because the taller of the two hunters noted that owls are not diurnal. They are nocturnal. 

You never know what is going to interrupt my attempt to get a little writing done. 

Why I choose to write in McDonald's

Two old, Italian guys are sitting in a booth beside me at McDonald's. 

FIRST GUY:  Leo, where were you? I thought you were going to take me to Avon today.

SECOND GUY:  I was. But then I got into my car and fell asleep.

FIRST GUY (with complete sincerity):  God. Damn. I hate when that happens.

This is why I choose to write my novels here, in this glorious fast food restaurant on the edge of the highway, and not in a Starbucks or some similarly upscale, fair trade, recovered railroad tie, jazz-infused coffee establishment.

There is a diversity and oddity and texture in this place that I adore. As I scan the room, I see white people and brown people. English speakers and possibly-Spanish-but-I'm-not-quite-sure speakers. Business folk and working class folk. The young and old. The very young and the very old. Singletons and couples and families. Packs of teenagers. The happy and the exhausted.  

Sitting to my immediate left is a UPS driver, head hanging low, eating a Big Mac and reading a book. He is young, thin, and black. To my right, a teenage girl with a streak of blue hair pecks away at her phone while her friend stares blankly at her like a goldfish. Directly across from me, standing in line, a woman rocks an infant in her arms while a man - perhaps her husband - orders food from a Latino teenage girl. A couple minutes ago a middle aged man in a suit and a paunch walked by my table, yapping about PE ratios to someone on his phone. An older, McDonald's employee pushes a broom off to my right.

It is a level of diversity rarely encountered in this increasingly gentrified world. 

Most of the time, I write in my home. I do not require a outside locale to ply by trade. I am not a writer be claims to need a coffee shop and cappuccino and John Mayer to write. I must not engage in public displays of writing in order to feel like a real author. The dining room table and my bottle of water does me just fine.

But occasionally my children make it difficult to write, or I need a change of scenery. This often results in a trip to the library, but it also brings me here, to this molded plastic booth and this angular, plastic table, where I can sit amongst a splash of humanity and listen and watch diversity scrape against diversity.  

If I want to sit amongst upper middle class white people, with their $6 coffees, Apple computers, high end strollers, and first world problems, I will take my work to Starbucks or its indie equivalent. It won't nourish my soul or inspire my work, but I'm admittedly more likely to find an available power outlet and a slightly more comfortable chair.    

But more often than not, you will find me here, sitting amongst the masses, armed with a Diet Coke, a small bag of French fries, and a smile. I may have a pair of headphones covering my ears, white noise or Pandora's Springsteen station drowning out the the world. 

But I'm just as likely to be headphone free, listening to two old, Italian guys navigate life in their sunset years, wondering how I might use their struggle and friendship and unintended hilarity in one of my stories someday.

You don't get stuff this good at a place like Starbucks.

Teachers of writing at any level: Read this immediately. Nothing is more important.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, who had this to say about the writing process during his acceptance speech:

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

Similarly, here are some other comments on the writing process from a variety of accomplished and respected authors:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
~E. L. Doctorow

Start before you’re ready. ~Steven Pressfield

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner

There are hundreds more like this.

Why do I bring this up?

In hopes that all of the teachers who require students to complete graphic organizers or planning sheets or move little pencils across bulletin board displays of the writing process or force their students to work on one piece at a time or assign their students specific topics for their writing assignments will knock it off and learn to write themselves instead of subjecting their students to their bizarre, inaccurate, nonproductive, and likely damaging perceptions of the writing process.

This is not to say that organization and planning should never be used when writing. About half the writers of the world plan in some way. Mystery, historical fiction, and many nonfiction writers plan their stories with great detail before they begin writing, but not all, and even when they plan, this process is often as amorphous and convoluted as the writing process itself. Rarely does it fit into little boxes and pocket charts. 

If you are teaching writing but not writing yourself on a regular basis, you are probably – no, definitely – doing more harm than good. Your ignorance of the writing process – coupled with the way you teach it – is turning out ineffective, uninspired, under confident writers.

You have made the ability to write well and love writing a rare commodity. You have made people like me more singular and valuable than we should be.

The writing process is not some finely delineated series of steps. It is not a codified system of applying words to the page. It does not adhere to structure or schedule or graphic representation. It is none of these things.

If you teach writing to students of any age, my advice is simple:


Write. Write. Write. Learn about the process that you are teaching instead of making bizarre and wildly inaccurate assumptions about it or replicating the terrible instruction that you received long ago that never actually turned you into someone who loves to write or you would already be writing and wouldn’t be forcing students to do such ridiculous things.

Just write.   

See how often you use a graphic organizer.

See how much you appreciate being assigned a specific topic.

See how productive you think it is moving a little paper pencil across a bulletin board from one facet of the writing process to another.


See how much you value the notion of prewriting.

See how un-delineated things like writing and revising and editing are. See how amorphous and undefined the writing process is, and how stupid stupid stupid it is to force students to work on one of these parts of the writing process and not another.


Please. Just write.

Either that or your choice is simple:

Stop teaching writing altogether. You’re doing more harm than good. Just let your students write, absent any instruction or interruption. Sit at the back of the classroom and read. Or eat a sandwich. Or take a nap.

Your students have a far greater chance of leaving your classroom loving to write than if you open your uninformed mouth and do all the ridiculous things that non-writers think belong in the instruction of writing.

Storyteller Interruptus

I don’t have an office. I have a sad, little room attached to the side of the house with ancient windows and no heat that would require a hat and mittens in order to spend any time in. So when I am working at home, I do the majority of my writing at the dining room table.


This is a mixed bag. Part of me loves working while my children are running around and playing underfoot, but the constant interruption of the workflow makes things extremely challenging at times (and sends me scurrying to the library or McDonald’s or my classroom in order to get things done).

Thankfully, I do a lot of my work before and after everyone is asleep, but during the day, even an benign question from my wife can bring things to a grinding halt.

In our next home, I will have an office, damn it. A heated room where I can escape and work when necessary.

Clara felt my pain the other day when she tried to use materials from school to retell a story for us. She was doing such a lovely job (perhaps she will be a writer someday, too) while her rotten brother tried to spoil everything with his rottenness.

If only the world would treat us storytellers like the delicate flowers that we are. 

I have never used an em dash. I don’t even know how to make an em dash. But you can still find them in my books.

Noreen Malone of Slate argues against the em dash.

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate."  Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period?

I’ve written five novels. Two memoirs. Dozens of short stories. Thousands of blog posts.  Countless pieces for newspapers, magazines, websites, and the like.

I have never used an em dash. Not once. Honestly, I don’t even know how to make an em dash. I’d have to Google it.

I agree with Malone. A period has almost always suffices. Occasionally a comma. Sometimes a set of parentheses.


This is not to say that you won’t find an em dash in my novels, because you will, dear reader. They are few and far between, but if you have the time to search, a handful of em dashes can be found.

But please know that when you do, it was placed there by an editor who felt that it served the story better than my original choice of punctuation.

Like I said, I don’t even know what combination of keys produces such a thing.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is an understandable but impossible-to-answer question for authors. But “Nuns at Scout camp” will be one of my answers someday.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books, which is an understandable but impossible question to answer.

There is no well of ideas. There is no secret formula. There is no one answer to that question, as much as fledgling writers seem to want there to be.

Simply put, I hear something. I read something. I see something. The flicker of an idea is born.

Something Missing was born from a conversation with a friend over dinner about a missing earring.

Unexpectedly, Milo began with a memory from my fourth grade classroom.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was born from a conversation with a friend and colleague while monitoring students at recess.

My upcoming novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, originated with a story that my wife told me about her childhood just before falling asleep.

My unpublished novel, Chicken Shack, began with a dare.

All of these are simplifications of the actual origins of these novels. There are more complex stories behind the origin of each book. In all cases, additional ideas were grafted onto the original idea to create a more complex story.

But in terms of the initial spark, that was how each story began.

Which leads me to this poster, which is displayed in the Yawgoog Heritage Museum at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the camp where I spent many of my boyhood summers.

I suspect that someday in the future, this poster will be added to the list of initial sparks for one of my novels.

A nun’s day at a Scout camp? How could this not be the basis for a novel?


Dungeons & Dragons brought me back to writing and saved my career.

The New York Times reports that Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz is a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

So too was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire.

Many more.

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

It’s an impressive but certainly not exhaustive list.

Not exhaustive, for certain, because it does not include me. I am also a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

In fact, D&D brought me back to writing and saved my writing career.

I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, when a friend  introduced me to the game. I rolled some dice, created a character, and played The Keep on the Borderlands, an adventure that I can still remember to this day. I fell in love with the game immediately, and before long, I had stopped playing and had graduated to Dungeon Master, the leader of the adventure. The arbiter of the rules, the invisible hand of fate, but most important, the storyteller. I began by using pre-purchased Dungeons & Dragons adventures (called modules) but was soon writing my own adventures for my players.


In many ways, I was writing stories for the first time.

I played D&D throughout much of my childhood, becoming a scholar of the game. When cars, girls, and high school sports injected themselves into my life, Dungeons & Dragons was pushed aside. I briefly played again after high school with friends who were attending college. Then my manuals, modules, and multisided dice were packed away and moved to the basement, never to be seen again.


Or so I thought.

Fast forward about 12 years. It’s 2002. I’ve graduated from Trinity College with a degree in English and creative writing, and for the last five years, I have been trying and failing to write my first novel. Nothing I seem to do works. Nothing I write makes me happy. After many failed attempts, I have given up on my dream. I’ve come to the realization that as much as I want to be an author, even I don’t like the things I write.

I quit. I decide that I will never be an author. 

Then I get a call from my friend, Shep, a former Dungeons & Dragons player in his childhood. He has gathered some of our friends (also former players) and wants to try playing the game again. He asks me to join the group.

At this point in my life, I am single and hoping to find the right girl, and I don’t see Dungeons & Dragons as the path to romance, so I decline.

He calls back a few days later. He tells me that I don’t need to play. “Just write our adventures. Maybe serve as Dungeon Master, if you want, but at least write some adventures for us.”

I suddenly have an audience for my writing. People want to read the words that I write. People are asking to read the words that I write. Something stirs inside me. I say yes.

I write D&D adventures for my friends for more than a year, and yes, I am convinced to occasionally reprise my role as Dungeon Master, too. I write hundreds of pages of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and as I do, the writer in me awakens. I start to feel good about writing again. I start to wonder if I can still be the writer that I dreamed of being when I was in high school.

It’s an exciting time in my life.

About a year after my return to Dungeons & Dragons, I call Shep. I tell him that I can’t write D&D adventures anymore. I tell him that I need to try writing a novel again. I tell him that I feel that pull toward the page that I have not felt in so long.

He understands. He offers to read whatever I write. Shep becomes my first reader. He remains an early reader and one of the most important readers of my work to this day.

I start writing Something Missing in February of 2005. I finish writing it in June of 2007. It publishes in 2009.


I have made my childhood dream come true. My writing career has been launched. I am an author.

Would I be writing today if it hadn’t been for Dungeons & Dragons? I would like to think that I would’ve eventually returned to the page, but I’m not sure.

Maybe not.

A friend in middle school introduces me to the game.

More than twenty years later another friend brings me back to the game.

I find my chops. I rediscover my love for writing. I start the novel that launches my career.

Take away either one of these friends and I shudder to think about what might have happened to my dream/

Take away Dungeons & Dragons and I wonder if I would be sitting here today, writing these words.

Maybe not.