Don’t leave your reader clueless and confused

So I’m reading a book or an essay or a story or a poem and I get to the end of the first page and I still don’t know what’s going on. Who are these people? Where are we? Is the narrator male or female? Is it modern times? Are we on earth? At that point, if I’m not required to keep reading for work purposes, I’m going to quit. If I’m wearing my editor hat, I’m going to mark it with a big fat “no.”

I’m all for catchy openings and a reasonable amount of suspense, but as writers we have a duty to orient the readers. Get as weird as you want in the opening line. Do whatever you have to do to draw readers in, but then, very soon, like by the third paragraph, you’ve got to tell us who, what, where, when and why. You don’t have to tell everything, but do tell enough so the reader won’t give up, saying, “I can’t figure out what’s going on.” It’s a mistake I’m seeing all the time, and I just want to say, “Stop it.” Give me some facts to hold on to. Maybe you know what it’s all about, but we the readers don’t unless you tell us.

You know how in some movies they flash words on a screen, such as “Bombay, 1915” or “Five years later”? You can do that too. It doesn’t take a lot of words, just a few key sentences to clue us in. Set the scene so we can be there with you as we transition from the catchy opening into the meat of the story.

In journalism, the paragraph orienting the reader is called a nut graf (“graf” being newspeak for paragraph). It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story. Read this great article about the nut graf by Chip Scanlon. Jack Hart writes in his book A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, that “the nut graf answers questions such as ‘What’s it mean?’ ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ It tells readers why they should bother investing their time and effort in reading the story.”

Take another look at the beginnings of your pieces. Does the lead grab one’s attention? Great. Does what follows tell us what’s going on? If not, fix it.

End of sermon. Now let’s go write.

Stuck? Try another point of view

A member of my critique group has been struggling with his novel for months. Every two weeks, he’d bring us his pages, excited about the story he was telling, and we’d say, no, this doesn’t work. We couldn’t identify with the characters or put ourselves into the scenes. It read like a textbook, boring. Brave soul that he is, he never got angry or gave up but went home to try again.

At our last meeting, I suggested he open a new file and try something radical: Write a few pages in first person and present tense, as in “Suddenly I  realize the gun is pointing straight at me” instead of “He realized the gun was pointing at him.” Oh my gosh, what a difference. Today’s pages are wonderful. I feel it, I see it, I am in the mind of his hero.

I like first-person writing. I think it makes it easier to slip into a character’s voice. But writing in first person doesn’t work for every situation. Often in fiction, you need the distance of writing as an observer. In first person, the narrator can only know what the character knows while the third-person narrator can know everything. In other kinds of writing, such as poetry, writing in first person can allow you to take on someone else’s voice, or it may lead you into verse that is too self-involved.

Nonfiction is a whole other thing when it comes to point of view. If you’re writing articles for a magazine, newspaper or website, you have to go with the publication’s style. If most of the articles are in first-person, yours should be, too. If not, the word “I” should not appear anywhere in your story.

Point of view is a huge subject I’m not going to cover in depth today. You can link on some of the sites listed below for details about POV. I’m just saying if your manuscript isn’t working, try changing point of view. It can make a huge difference.

As for present tense vs. past, it’s up to you. Past tense is the traditional way to go with fiction, but writing in present tense has become quite popular. It definitely helps the reader get into the scene and feel as if it’s happening right now. But it’s tricky to keep all your verb tenses in line. My nearly finished novel is in present tense, and I keep promising myself that I’ll go back to past tense with the next one. With poetry and creative nonfiction, you can go either way. If you’re writing articles, check what the publication does and do likewise.

Sometimes when we’re working on a writing project, we get locked into however we started it, feeling as if we’ve gone too far to change. But it’s never too late. Whichever way you’re doing it now, try a few pages the other way. It might make a huge difference.

Visit these sites to read more about Point of View:

Now (second person, present tense), go write.

Don’t let the holidays keep you from writing

Happy day after Thanksgiving! The holidays are upon us. Christmas is less than a month away. New Year’s is the week after that. Hanukkah is happening right now. It’s getting hard to concentrate on writing, isn’t it? Other things are pulling your attention away. Got to buy gifts, send cards, decorate the house, plan and attend holiday events. Maybe you’re traveling. You’re tempted to set your writing aside until the holidays are over in about five weeks. Don’t.

Writing is a lot like an athletic activity or like playing music. If you don’t do it for a while, your muscles get stiff and your skills take a dive. It will take you at least another month to get back to where you were before. If you’re writing a long project, such as a novel or a nonfiction book, you need to keep your mind in it or you’ll forget and have to start over. Trust me, I’ve been there. If you’re submitting articles, a gap in activity will cause a gap in assignments and pay later.

I know how harried the holiday season can be. I’m worried about the Christmas presents I haven’t purchased, and I’m leaving for San Francisco on Monday, and the end of the year is coming and . . .

But I’m a writer and writers write. If you’re a self-employed writer, you do not get vacations or holiday pay. It may not be possible to work full-out the way you might in an ordinary month like September, but don’t quit altogether. No matter what’s going on, you can find at least an hour a day to work on your writing projects. Freewrite, gather ideas, do research, write queries, add a page a day to your work in progress. Adjust, but don’t give up.

I plan to keep at it. Promise me you will, too.

Now go write.

Why write when you don’t feel like it?

I’m having one of those days when I don’t want to write. In fact, I don’t want to do anything. I’m leaving on a trip in a couple days, I’ve got someone coming over later today, and I’m worn out from Fourth of July, so I just want to bag the whole business. Why not, you might ask. Lots of folks are taking a long holiday weekend. Good question.

There’s always a good excuse for not doing it. So what are the reasons TO do it? Take a moment here to think about your reasons or try to guess mine.

Got something in mind? Good.

Here are my top five:

Momentum: If I stop in the middle of a project, it’s going to be hard to get my head back into it when I return to it. And I might be tempted to stop altogether. I’m also a musician, and I know that when I’m trying to learn a song, if I don’t keep coming back to it, I never really learn it. Same thing with writing.

Keeping my writing muscles in shape: If I don’t keep to my writing schedule, I get rusty. It gets harder. I don’t like that.

Time: I’m old enough to order off the senior menus, and I’m all too aware that people my age—or any age—can suddenly die or become too sick or disabled to work. If/when that happens, I want to have written everything I possibly can.

Money: I want to publish as much as possible and keep as much money coming in as possible. Self-employed writers do not get sick leave, vacation time, or days off for not being in the mood.

Readers: I have at least a few people who look forward to my next book, article, poem or post. If I don’t keep at it, they’ll lose faith in me and find another writer to read.

So there you have it. I have now written two blog posts and plan to get back to my novel. What are you going to write? What are the reasons that keep you going? Please share.

P.S. Starting Sunday, I’m going to have limited Internet access for about a week. Please forgive me if I’m slow approving comments or putting up new posts. I’ll be back.

Now go write.

Three Quick Tips: Renegade Writers, rockin’ queries, byline dreams

Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.


Everyone who writes and/or teaches about freelance writing offers the same basic information, how to find ideas, write queries, do research, write, revise, yada, yada, yada, but the Renegade Writers tell you the stuff the rest don’t tell you. Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, who have turned one Renegade Writer book into a collection of books and blogs, offer advice, free e-books, e-courses and other goodies at


You guessed it: The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, now available in print and as an e-book, will tell you all the good, bad and ugly about freelance writing. And don’t stop at this one book. They have others, including The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Selling More Work Faster and A Renegade Writer Kick in the Ass: 30 Riffs from the Renegade Writer Blog to Help you Bust Your Excuses, Light a Fire Under Your Butt, and Become a More Motivated & Productive Freelance Writer.

Try This

Be a renegade writer yourself. Close your eyes and picture your byline on the one thing that will make you feel like a successful writer. It could be a book, an article, a short story, poem, script, or song. Now open your eyes and write for at least 30 minutes about what you need to do to make it happen. The word “can’t” is not allowed.

Now Go Write