The other writing secrets

Danny Stack did a brilliant series of posts last year called Professional Screenwriter. It’s ten blogsworth of advice about how to succeed as a writer and it is, as the kids say, full of win.

If you haven’t read them already, you can get ’em here:

Industry Insider
Get an Agent
Choosing Work
In the Know
Doing the Do

In addition to that, James Moran has revealed the big secret of how to be a writer. It’s four words long, and it’s answered in the very first question of his enormous writing FAQ.

So, there you go. Those eleven posts are all you need to read about how to become a writer.

But there’s a whole bunch of other useful stuff, too. Things that you can do to make your life easier, that aren’t exactly about writing itself, or how to make a career of it, but will come in really useful over the years ahead.

So, in no particular order, here are the other writing secrets.

Learn Proofing Marks

When you’re working on a draft, you need to mark it up with your notes: delete this, move that to there, add in a whole bunch of stuff here.

The typesetting industry has a standard set of marks, which are easy to read and which anyone in the print industry can understand – once you learn them then you’ll be able to mark up changes to your own drafts quickly and clearly.

This page introduces the basic marks and links to a two-page PDF which you can print out and keep next to your desk.

Learn to touch type – preferably using a Dvorak keyboard

Touch typing is faster than pick-and-peck, which means you can get the words out faster when you’re drafting, and change them faster when you’re revising. There’s nothing more annoying than having the right words in your head and simply not being able to get them written quickly enough.

There is one problem with learning to type, though, and it’s that the QWERTY keyboard is not a good design for touch-typists.

The Dvorak keyboard was created in 1932, and was specifically designed to make touch-typing easier. As well as increasing your typing speed, it’s easier to learn. And as your fingers don’t move so much across the keyboard (because the keys are in sensible places), many writers (myself included) have also found that it reduces symptoms of RSI.

It takes less than five minutes to switch your computer to a Dvorak layout, and you can find Dvorak typing tutors here.

Buy a laser printer

You might have had a printer thrown in when you bought your computer. Probably a colour one, these days.

But scripts aren’t printed in colour. And you’re going to be printing an awful lot of scripts.

You can buy a laser printer for less than a hundred quid, and it’ll save you money in the long run.

A laser printer cartridge is more expensive than an inkjet one, but it lasts longer. A lot longer. And over the life of the printer, that means it’s actually cheaper to have a laser printer.

Get a sensible email address

While I’m certain that is indeed a lovely email address that expresses your personality perfectly, it doesn’t exactly scream Scriptwriting Professional.

firstname.lastname is a good bet. It’s also easy to remember.

In an ideal world, you’d have your own domain (the .com thing) and maybe even put a website there saying who you are. Failing that, the largest free email providers are Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail.


As a screenwriter, actors are going to have to read your words and perform your actions at some point.

Taking an acting class or performing in some amateur theatre productions will give you an excellent grounding in some of the joys and problems of that.

A little bit of acting experience will not only help you to understand how an actor constructs their performance around the text, it’ll help you to provide character and, yes, even motivation.

Stand up

If you’re a comedy writer, do a couple of sets of stand-up. Many comedy clubs have open mic nights where you can get up on stage and perform for five or ten minutes. (Five minutes is more than long enough for your first set.) Performing your own material is an excellent way to hone your skills on seeing where the laughs are, and getting more.

You’re not going to be as good a standup or actor as anyone who does it for a living. But what you will get is new tools for your writing toolbox.

Learn basic typographical design

The Non-Designer’s Design Book is a book which teaches the basics – and just the basics – of print design.

We’re not talking about anything fussy or fancy-schmancy here. Just some easy ways of laying out your text on a page to make it look nicer.

It won’t help you with scripts – they have a standard layout for a very good reason – but for things like covering letters, show bibles, or pitch documents, being able to lay them out in a sensible, beautiful, easy-to-read way will set you ahead of the pack.

So there you have it. Seven useful writing tips that have nothing to do with writing.

Letters from America: Words, words, words.

originally posted 11th April 2004

So I attended the Game Developers Conference in San Jose a couple of weeks ago.

We know a lot about engendering emotion through novels and films. While telling a story in a game uses different methods of presentation (via cut-scenes and in-game dialogue, for example), we don’t need new theories to talk about how to make characters and story affect people.

Most of the writing presentations at the conference were concerned with emotion through story and character, but one looked at the emotions you can experience through gameplay itself.

The speaker was Nicole Lazzaro, President of User Experience Research company XEODesign. If any of you are thinking of developing games any time soon, I highly recommend you get in touch with her.

A large portion of the talk covered the emotions that you probably know about already: anger, frustration, wonder, awe, excitement, relief, amusement, and schadenfreude. All can be brought in via gameplay or design rather than story or character.

In a way, she’s proved that it’s simply not necessary to have a compelling story to have an emotionally involving game. But I guess those of you who’ve played Tetris or Solitaire already know that.

The most important things I took away, though, were two words.

Fiero and Naches.

Fiero is an Italian word. It’s the emotion you experience when you finally overcome adversity, or solve a problem. It’s the thrill you get from filling in a clue in a crossword puzzle, or beating the end-of-level boss. It’s the moment when you clench your fist and say: “Yes!”, or throw your arms above your head.

Naches (the ch is pronounced as in chutzpah, or reich) is from the Yiddish. It’s the emotion of pleasure or pride at the accomplishment of someone you’ve helped or trained. It’s the feeling you get as a parent, teacher, or mentor, when someone is able to succeed because of what you’ve shown them.

Now the point is, we’ve all experienced these two emotions.

But before now, I had no way to talk about them. I had no way of defining these emotions, or discussing them with other people. I had no way to consider how to analyse or engender these emotions, no way to understand or discuss them.

Without these words to define the concepts, I had no way to even *think* about them.

Today I can do things that I couldn’t do before, have thoughts and experiences that I simply couldn’t have a fortnight ago, just because I know two new words.

And now you can too.