If I Were a Carpenter: The Tools of the Writer
At times it helps me to think that writing is like carpentry.
That way, I can work from a plan and use the tools I've
stored on my workbench.
You can borrow a writing tool whenever you'd like. And here's
a secret: you don't have to return it. You can pass it on to
another writer without losing it.
Here is my list of 20 writing tools. I've borrowed these from
reporters and editors, from authors of books on writing, and
from teachers and coaches. I've learned how to use many of
them by reading the work of storytellers I admire.
In this space, I can offer only the briefest description of how
to use the writing tool, but I hope it is enough to help you
build your own collection.
Sentences and Paragraphs
- Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting
subordinate elements branch off to the right. Even
a very long sentence can be clear and powerful
when subject and verb make meaning early.
- Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple
present or past tense. Strong verbs create action,
save words, and reveal the players. Beware of
adverbs. Too often, they dilute the meaning of the
verb or repeat it: "The building was completely
- Place strong words at the beginning of sentences
and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as
a stop sign. Any word next to the period plays jazz.
- Observe word territory. Do not repeat a key word
within a given space, unless you intend a specific
- Play with words, even in serious stories.
- Dig for the concrete and specific: the name of the
dog and the brand of the beer. Details help readers
see the story.
- When tempted by clichés, seek original images.
Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by
- Prefer the simple over the technical: shorter words and
paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
- Strive for the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Recognize
that common themes of newswriting (homecoming,
conquering obstacles, loss and restoration) have deep
roots in the culture of storytelling.
- For clarity, slow the pace of information. Short
sentences make the reader move slowly. Time to think.
Time to learn. See what I mean?
- Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length.
Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader
down a stream of understanding, creating an effect that
Don Fry calls "steady advance." Or stop a reader short.
- Show and tell. Begin at the bottom of the ladder of
abstraction, at the level of bloody knives and rosary
beads, of wedding rings and baseball cards. Then ascend
to the top to summarize and analyze, discovering meaning
in the world's random details.
- Reveal telling character traits and the glories of human
speech. Avoid adjectives when describing people. Don't say
"enthusiastic" or "talkative," but create a scene where the
person reveals those characteristics to the reader.
- Strive for "voice," the illusion that the writer is speaking
directly to the reader. Read the story aloud to hear if it
sounds like you.
- Take advantage of narrative opportunities. You want to
writestories, not articles. Think of action, conflict,
motivation, setting, chronology, and dialogue.
- Place gold coins along the path. Don't load all your best
stuff high in the story. Space special effects throughout
the story, encouraging readers to find them and be
delighted by them.
- Use sub-headlines to index the story for the reader. This
tool tests the writer's ability to find, and label, the big
parts of the story.
- Repeat key words or images to "chain" the story together.
Repetition works only if you intend it.
- In storytelling, three is the magic number. Four is too many.
Two is not enough.
- Write endings to create closure.