Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Formatting Like a Microsoft Word Ninja

“Format guidelines were not instituted to drive you crazy. That’s just a perk.”
—Janet Reid, Literary Agent

The other day I was reading a blog post by agent-blogger Janet Reid (of Query Shark fame), who had some interesting things to say about the importance of manuscript formatting:

“I’m reading (as are all other agents and editors) a LOT of manuscripts,” she said. “When mss follow a consistent format, it helps me assess the pacing. If I get to page twenty and I haven’t yet gotten a glimmer of what’s at stake for Our Hero/ine, then I know there’s a problem. It’s essential that page twenty be about the same amount of words across the board.”

She went on to note that page 20 comes at about the 6,000-word mark if the text is formatted in Times New Roman. In Verdana, the 20-page point will come at about 5,000 words. With Courier, it’s more like 4,400 words.

Simply put, formatting matters. If you follow standard formatting conventions of font size, margin width, and so on, professional readers (including agents, editors and publishers) have an easier time gauging the pacing of your book. Even more importantly, formatting your work correctly can make you look more professional—and more “serious” as a writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Microsoft Word is still the number one tool writers use to, well, write. (Yes, I know there are other programs, and I know a lot of writers are migrating to Google Docs.) As I scrolled down the comments on Reid’s post, I was amazed at how many writers don’t know how to perform the simplest formatting in Word. We’re talking basic stuff: auto-indenting paragraphs, inserting chapter breaks, inserting automatic page numbers, and so on. I was flabbergasted to hear some people still indent their paragraphs by hitting the space key five times, or that anyone would manually number the pages of a manuscript. But apparently, Reid sees this all the time.

Since I’m something of a Microsoft Word ninja, I thought I might pass on some important skills to help you get your manuscript submission-ready. The post will be long, but I’m hoping it will be helpful.


First, a quick Q&A:

Q: Is there a standard industry formatting convention?
A: No, there isn’t a single, super-secret document that tells you exactly how to format your manuscript for submission. Some publishing pros still want manuscripts formatted in Courier. Others prefer a 1.5″ left margin because they spiral-bind their submissions. Check the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines before doing your final formatting.

Q: What makes you an “expert”?
A: I edit and format documents for a living. In putting together this post, I consulted about a dozen sites on manuscript formatting, most published by authors, editors, and other industry insiders. I’ll throw a few of the more helpful links down below.

Q: Can’t I just format my manuscript any old way?
A: Absolutely! But if you want to be taken seriously, you should consider using the formatting that agents, editors and publishers prefer.

Q: But isn’t Comic Sans more “fun” than Times New Roman?
A: No. Using Comic Sans in any context other than a hastily printed “Restroom Out of Order” sign is a crime against humanity. Stop the madness!

Basic Formatting Guidelines

Most of the sources I consulted agreed on the basics:

  • Pages: Pages should be letter-sized (8.5″ x 11″), oriented vertically with one-inch margins all around.
  • Font: Text should be in 12-point Times New Roman. When emphasis is needed, italics (and not underlining or boldface) should be used.
  • Paragraphs: Paragraphs should be aligned left (not justified) and double-spaced with no extra padding above or below the paragraphs. The first line of each paragraph should be indented by half an inch.
  • Chapters: Each chapter should begin on a new page. Center “CHAPTER” (in all caps) and then the chapter number at the top of each chapter, then begin the text of the chapter four to six lines below that.
  • Page Numbers/Headers: Page numbering should begin on the first page of Chapter 1, and should continue unbroken to the end of the book. Manuscripts should have a header that includes the author’s name and a shortened title of the work.

CAVEAT: I’m using Microsoft Word 2016, so if you have an older version, some of the controls and menus may show up in different places.

Formatting Pages


To configure your document in Microsoft Word, click on the Layout tab and set the overall document formatting using the first three icons.

  • Margins: Click the Margins icon and select Normal (1″ on top, bottom, left and right).
  • Orientation: Click the Orientation icon and make sure the document is configured for Portrait (vertical) instead of Landscape (horizontal) display.
  • Size: Click the Size icon and make sure your pages are set to Letter 8.5″ x 11″.

That’s it. Once you configure these settings, they should apply to your entire document.

Formatting Fonts

font-menuThe preferred font for most agents and editors is 12-point Times New Roman. To format your manuscript font, first select the Home tab.

Select all of the text in your document by pressing Ctrl-A (⌘-A on a Mac). With all of the text selected, pull down the Font menu and scroll down the alphabetic list of fonts until you find Times New Roman. Click to select it.

font-size-menuNext, with the text still selected, click on the Font Size menu (it’s right beside the font menu) and select 12.

Now here’s a trick a lot of people don’t know about. Select one of your paragraphs, either by clicking in the left margin of the document or by triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. If you consult the Styles menu, you’ll see that your paragraph is probably defined as “Normal” (default) style. The styles show up as rectangular tiles on the menu, and you know the style of the current selection because it’s outlined in gray. To ensure that Word doesn’t default back to Calibri (or some other font) at random, right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.”


Formatting Paragraphs

One of the biggest mistakes some writers make with manuscripts is with paragraph indenting. As Reid mentioned in her post, some writers still use the “five spaces” method to create an indent. Others tab over to the 0.5-inch tab stop. If you’re doing either of these things, stop now! You’ll have no excuse once you know how to indent your paragraphs the right way.


To get started, select one of your “Normal” paragraphs by clicking in the left margin or triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. Once you’ve done this, look for the Ruler (it should literally look like a ruler) above the text, right below the menu ribbon. If you don’t see it, click to the View tab and check the box next to “Ruler” in the “Show” section of the ribbon menu. At the zero position on the ruler you’ll see a widget that looks like an hourglass with a rectangle at the bottom. Click and drag the top half of the hourglass over to the tick mark at exactly between the left margin and the 1″ mark. The first line of your selected paragraph should now be indented by exactly half an inch.

update-normal-styleOf course, that’s just one paragraph. You’ve got lots, right? Make sure the Home tab is selected, then right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will automatically indent all the paragraphs in your document.

“But wait!” you may be thinking. “I don’t want my chapter headings or section breaks indented!” Don’t worry. We’ll fix that.

align-leftNow let’s make sure the other paragraph settings are correct. With a paragraph selected, click the “Align Left” button on the “Paragraph” menu of the Home Ribbon. You can also press Ctrl-L (⌘-L on a Mac). Please resist the urge to justify your right margin. Though justified text looks nice and polished (published, even), professional readers hate justification because the variable spacing makes the copy hard to edit.

line-spacingRight beside the “Justified button,” though, is the line-spacing icon. Pull down this menu and select “2.0” to double-space your text. If the “Remove Space Before Paragraph” option shows up at the bottom of this menu, pull it down again and click it. Do the same thing is “Remove Space After Paragraph” appears on the menu. You don’t want this extra padding.

Once you’ve aligned your paragraph and fine-tuned the line spacing, right-click on the “Normal” style in the style menu again and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will apply the formatting changes to all of your “Normal” paragraphs.

Fixing What You Broke

What if you’re reformatting a work in progress that uses tabs (or, deity forbid, spaces) to indent each paragraph?

First of all, AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH! Second of all, it’s easy to fix.

Press Ctrl-H (⌘-H on a Mac) to open the “Find and Replace” dialog box. This box is movable, so you can drag it off to one side if you have enough screen real estate. The window opens in its default configuration, but you’ll want the “Word ninja” version. Click the “More>>” button to expand the box to maximum ninja power.


First, click the “Find what” field. Find the “Special” menu at the bottom of the dialog and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Find what” field.

Second, if you’ve been using five spaces to indent, click directly after “^p” and type five spaces. (Since they’re spaces, you won’t see them in the box. But they’re there.) If you’ve been using a manual tab to indent, Select the “Special” menu again and select “Tab character.” After you do this, you’ll see “^p^t” in the “Find what” field.

Third, click the “Replace with” field. Pull down the “Special” menu (at the bottom of the box) and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Replace with” field.

What you’re telling Word is to look for a tab character (or five spaces), but only at the beginning of a paragraph (right after a paragraph mark). When Word finds this pattern, it will replace it with just a paragraph mark, effectively deleting the stuff you don’t want.

If you’re feeling cocky, click the “Replace All” button and let ‘er rip. If not, click “Find Next” and then “Replace” again and again until you feel brave enough to just click “Replace All.”

Now, repent and never use tabs or spaces again to indent your paragraphs.

Formatting Chapters

Now it’s time to put some structure into your manuscript. I know a lot of people don’t bother using styles, but in my opinion, you can’t afford not to use them.

Each chapter in your novel should begin on a new page. You can create a page break two different ways. The clunky way is to click the Insert tab, then click the “Page Break” icon. The easier way is to press Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). If you’re editing with white space hidden—that is, if the document looks like one continuous strip of white—the page break will show up as a horizontal gray line across the document window. If white space is being displayed, and the text is broken into discrete pages, you’ll see an actual new page.


center-textNow let’s create a chapter heading. Type “CHAPTER,” followed by a space, followed by your chapter number. Right now, the heading is probably formatted like all of your other text: 12-point Times New Roman, indented half an inch. Select the heading, either by clicking in the left margin or by triple-clicking on the heading itself. Then center the heading, either by clicking the “center” icon on the Home ribbon, or by pressing Ctrl-E (⌘-E on a Mac). Then, with the heading still selected, drag the top of the ruler’ “hourglass” widget to the zero position so your chapter heading isn’t indented.


Now let’s style the heading as a heading. Find the “Heading 1” tile on the Styles menu, but don’t click it! Instead, right-click on the tile and select “Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.” Boom—this updates the style and applies the style to the heading.


navigation-paneHere’s the awesome part. When you style chapter headings as “Heading 1,” they show up on the “Headings” list on the Navigation Pane. (If you don’t see the Navigation Pane on the left side of your document window, click the View tab and check the box next to “Navigation Pane.” It also shows up when you press Ctrl-F or ⌘-F to Find text.) Now scroll down through your document, styling each of your chapter headings as “Heading 1.” As you do this, they’ll appear in the Navigation Pane. This menu of headings is interactive, so when you click on a heading, Word takes you straight to that chapter in your document. As you edit, Word highlights the heading of the chapter you’re working on, helping you keep track on where you are in your book.

This is one of the most indispensable features in Microsoft Word. Use it to your advantage!

The text of your chapter should begin four to six lines below your chapter heading. Since both your “Normal” and “Heading 1” styles are double-spaced, this means you should leave either one or two blank paragraphs between the heading and beginning of your chapter. Now go through your manuscript and make sure everything is consistent.

Extra-Special Awesomeness

While you’re drafting, you can make your life even easier by adding a brief description to your chapter headings. For example: “CHAPTER 1 – Sally meets Billy at the park,” “CHAPTER 2 – Sally goes to school,” and “CHAPTER 3 – Billy loses his socks.” These descriptions show up on your Navigation Pane, forming a clickable quick-reference outline of your entire story as you go. (If the Navigation Pane truncates the heading, just hover your mouse over it and the entire thing will be displayed.)


Obviously, you’ll want to go through and delete these descriptions before you send your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher. But while you’re actively drafting and editing, they’re really helpful.

Formatting Scene Breaks

Scene breaks, also known as section breaks or blank-line breaks, are those separators within chapters that usually appear in published novels as an extra space between blocks of paragraphs. When they fall at the bottom or top of a page, they’re sometimes indicated by a short line, a row of asterisks, or sometimes an ornamental glyph.

create-new-styleIn your manuscript, scene breaks should be set off as a separate, double-spaced paragraph, with either a number sign “#” (or “hashtag” if you’re under 20) or a row of three asterisks “***” centered between the margins. You shouldn’t include any additional blank lines before or after the scene breaks.

The easiest way to manage scene breaks is to set up a style to handle them. To do this, type your “#” (or “***”) and format it correctly by centering the paragraph and eliminating the indent. Then right-click the selected paragraph and find the “Styles” icon on the pop-up menu. (It should be on the top one, at the far right.) Pull this down and click on “Create a style.” This will open a dialog box called “Create New Style from Formatting.” Name your style “Scene Break” and click “OK.”

The “Scene Break” style will appear as a new tile on the “Styles” menu on the Home ribbon. Now, when you want to create a scene break, just type “#” or “***” and click on “Scene Break” and Word will format it for you. Easy peasy.


Title Page and Table of Contents

Do you need a title page? Yes. Do you need a table of contents? Not necessarily, but if you’re going to export your manuscript as an e-book for alpha or beta readers, a table of contents can really come in handy.

Title Page

Title page format is one of the least standardized manuscript elements. Opinions vary, but most everyone agrees that the following elements must be included:

  • Title of the work
  • Author
  • Author’s contact information
  • Word count

Some sources suggest that you include the work’s genre as well as information about your agent, if you have one.


Click to View Larger Image

Here’s a good template for a title page, based on an analysis of a number of industry recommendations. Beginning at the top of the page, at the left margin, type your name (on one line), your address (on two lines) and your phone number and email address (on separate lines). Single-space this block of text.

Skip down to roughly the middle of the page and type the title of your work, in all caps, centered on the page. Skip a line and type “by,” then skip a line and type your name. Skip two lines and type “### Words,” replacing “###” with the word count of your manuscript, rounded to the nearest hundred. (Some guides say to the nearest 1,000.)

You can add your genre if you want, though if an agent or publisher has requested a manuscript they probably already know the genre of the work.

One thing you shouldn’t bother putting on your cover page is a copyright notice. But don’t take it from me; take it from Janet Reid:

Your work is protected by copyright law as soon as you write it.

Once your work is sold to a publisher, there’s a clause in your publishing contract that says the publisher will register the work with the US Copyright office.

You should not register something with the copyright office at the query stage. And you also don’t need to put the (c) notice on your manuscript.

Basically, including a copyright notice in your manuscript makes you look like a newb, and you don’t want that, do you?

Table of Contents

Sure, you can create a manual table of contents, but why would you want to do that when it’s so easy to have Word create one for you?

toc-menuThe table of contents should come directly after the title page. First, create a new page by pressing Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). Type “Contents” or “Table of Contents” and format as a heading by clicking the “Heading 1” style. Then hit Enter a couple of times.

Now click to the References tab. (In some previous versions of Word, this feature was in the Insert tab under “References.”) Click on the “Table of Contents” icon and select “Custom Table of Contents…” In the dialog box that opens, make sure that “Tab leader” is selected to a row of dots, and click the down arrow beside the “Show levels” setting until the number is “1.” Then click “OK.”

toc-dialogYou should now have a table of contents containing the names and page numbers of all of the chapters you’ve marked using the “Heading 1” style. To make sure the table is formatted correctly, select it by clicking on the table and then un-indent the lines using the top-hourglass slider in the Ruler. Make sure the font, font size, and other settings are consistent with the rest of your document. When you’ve done this, right-click on one of the lines, pull down the “Styles” menu and click “Create a Style.” Call this style “Table of Contents” and click “OK.”

The table of contents doesn’t track your content in real time, so you’ll have to tell Word when you want it to update. To do this, right-click on the table and select “Update Field.” An “Update Table of Contents” dialog box will open. Click the radio button beside “Update entire table” and click “OK.” Voila! All of your chapters, chapter headings, and page numbers will synch up with what’s in your manuscript.

Formatting Headings and Page Numbers

Remember Janet Reid’s comment about the crucial page 20? The only way readers will know when they arrive on page 20 is if the pages are numbered. What really blew me away was when Reid said, “Recently I’ve had several authors who have inserted page numbers by hand….” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? This actually happens? Yes, and apparently it’s not uncommon. This means, of course, that one little change to the text on page one can throw off the pagination for the rest of the manuscript. For the love of Mike, don’t do this!

Besides page numbers, another key aspect of manuscript formatting conventions is the inclusion of a header at the top of every page. Imagine a busy agent carrying a stack of five unbound manuscripts. She drops the stack and the pages get mixed up. Without a header on each page, the agent wouldn’t be able to sort the identically formatted manuscripts back into proper order.

Here’s another tricky part. The cover page should not have a header on it. Any pages before the first content page of your book should use lower-case Roman numerals. The actual numbering should restart at chapter one (or your prologue, if you have one), so that page 20 comes at the actual 20th page of the text of your book. We’ll call this point the “story beginning.”

Here’s how to make that all happen.

To get started, go to the View tab and make sure “Print Layout” is selected under “Views.” (The other options are “Read Mode” and “Web Layout.” You don’t want either.) Now, look at the page breaks in your document. If you see just a gray line (and not actual page boundaries), position your cursor over the gray line. It will change to the “Show white space” cursor, which looks like a capital H with up/down arrows in the pockets. Double-click on the line and you’ll expand the continuous page to individual pages.


You can collapse this later in the same way: just point to the break and double-click.


Now we need to convert the page break before your first chapter or prologue to a section break. Click to the Layout tab and click right before your first chapter heading. The insertion point should be right to the left of the word “CHAPTER” (or “PROLOGUE”) at the story beginning.

breaks-section-next-pageNow find the “Breaks” option in the “Page Setup” section of the Layout tab. Pull down the menu and click on the “Next Page” option under “Section Breaks.” Nothing will look different, but this is a crucial change.

Click over to Word’s Insert tab. Click the “Header” icon and select “Edit Header.” (You can also double-click directly on the header to edit it.) The ribbon will change to include some new options only available when working with headers. (“Header and Footer Tools” under the Design Tab.)

link-to-previous.pngFirst, find the “Navigation” section of the Design tab. You’ll see an option called “Link to Previous” that is probably selected (grayed out). Click on it to deselect it. The “Same as Previous” message at the bottom, left of the header will go away. You should now just see “Header -Section 2-.”

Click on the header area and type the following: Your last name, a slash, a shortened title of your book, a slash, then the word “Page.” For example, if your name is Smith and your book is called “The Short, Happy Life of Wendell Jones,” you might type something like, “Smith/Wendell Jones/Page.” If word is indenting the heading, move the top-hourglass widget back to the zero position to make it stop.


With your cursor still at the end of the header line, press Ctrl-R (⌘-R on a Mac) to right-align the text. (You could also click back to Home and click on the Align Right icon in the Paragraph menu, but this is quicker.) Now, with your insertion point to the right of “Page,” type a space and then click the “Page Number” icon on the Design ribbon. From the menus, select “Current Position” and then “Plain Number.” The number you see will likely be 2 or 3 or even higher.

page-number-formatClick on the “Page Number” icon again and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Make sure the number format is set to “1, 2, 3, …” Down where it says “Page numbering,” Click the radio button next to “Start at” and make sure the number next to it is “1.” When you click “OK,” you should see the page number at the story beginning change to “1.”

What you do next depends on how much “stuff” you have before the first actual page of your story.

If you just have a title page…

Scroll back to your title page. The label beneath it should say “Header -Section 1-.” You’ll probably see a duplication of the header you used for your main chapters. Select the whole header by triple-clicking on the text and hit delete. Click “Close Header and Footer” and you’re done!

If you have a title page and other stuff…

If you’ve added a table of contents or other pages before your story beginning (like a dedication page), you’ll want to retain the header, except for on the title page, but change the numbering before the story beginning.

Scroll up to the page right after your title page. This is likely where your table of contents or acknowledgments page is. If the header isn’t selected for editing, double-click on it to edit.

Click on the “Page Number” icon and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Click on the “Number format” menu and set to “i, ii, iii, …” then click “OK.” Now click on the checkbox next to “Different First page” under the “Options” section of the ribbon. Then click “Close Header and Footer.”

If you did everything correctly, the title page should display no header at all, and the first page after that (but before the story beginning) will have the “Name/Title/Page ii” combination on it. The header at your story beginning should be “Name/Title/Page 1.” Mission accomplished! Once you set this up, you shouldn’t ever have to mess with the headers again … unless you change your title (or your name).

A Few More Formatting Conventions

Spaces Between Sentences

If you know what a “typewriter” is, you were probably taught at some point to hit the space bar twice after sentence-final punctuation (periods, question marks, exclamation points, close quotes). If this old practice is still fossilized in your mind, it’s time to re-train your brain. If you can’t get out of the habit, use “Find and Replace” (Ctrl-H or ⌘-H on a Mac) to find all of your double-spaces and replace them with single spaces.

Formatting for Chapter Beginnings

Published novels will oven employ drop caps or a line of words in small caps at the beginning of chapters. Resist the urge to so this in your manuscripts. Agents and editors don’t want manuscripts that look frou-frou and professionally typeset—they just want a clean, simple copy they can read quickly.

Italics, Underlining and Boldface

Most formatting guides indicate that you shouldn’t use underlining or boldface anywhere in your manuscript. If you need to emphasize a word or phrase, use italics. Back when typewriters were the state of the art, underlining was the norm. Today, italics are standard. To quickly set text into italics, press Ctrl-I (⌘-I on a Mac).

Manuscript Format Links

16 Manuscript Format Guidelines (Daily Writing Tips)

How to Format a Novel Manuscript (Scribophile)

Correctly Formatting Your Novel Manuscript (Advanced Fiction Writing)

Format Your Novel for Submission (The Editor’s Blog)

What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript? (Writer’s Digest)

Proper Manuscript Format for a Novel (First Manuscript)

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Novel Writing Lessons from the Movie ‘Fences’

 Did you ever ride on the back of a garbage truck as a black man in 1950s Pittsburgh? Or narrowly miss a shot at playing baseball in the Major Leagues? Probably not. I didn’t either. However, when you sink into the leather seats of the theater surrounded by darkness except for the lighted screen and the held breaths of other moviegoers, you’re transported into the world of trash collector and would-be baseball star Troy Maxson. The movie Fences based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson offers a master class in how to craft a novel.


Make your characters multi-layered and complex.

In the movie, Maxson, played by Denzel Washington, is charming and playful, yet he can also be cruel, his caustic monologues often making his younger son flinch and his wife turn away. He wants to protect his boy from the disappointments of a racist America, while also fearing that his son will shine in ways he never could. Even as he pushes away those closest to him, you never doubt how fiercely he loves in the only way he knows how.

Our first instinct as writers is often to go with one-dimensional characters who are good, bad, happy, sad, bitter, or sweet. You get the idea. The characters we create in our fiction should be just as complex as Maxson and the rest of us. Even the baddest of bad guys in thrillers can have a soft spot, something that makes him smile, someone who renders him vulnerable and puts a dent in his armor. It’s often those redeemable, human qualities that make the character come alive on the page and grab us in unexpected ways.

Deepen characterization through dialogue and details.

Fences uses the boisterous voice of Maxson to show the quiet desperation of a man who picks up other people’s trash all day, comes home and whacks a baseball hanging from a tattered rope in his backyard, makes love to his wife in a cramped little house and then does it all over again the next day. Those are the kinds of details that bring authenticity to our stories and richness to our characters.

In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Maxson’s wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, sheds her quiet demeanor and delivers one of those lines that makes you tremble and forget to breathe:

“You not the only one who’s got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”

How powerful is that? In that one piece of dialogue, we learn so much about Rose. She’s a strong, long-suffering woman who’s had to swallow her own dreams for the sake of her family. Let’s think about how the dialogue in our own novels not only advances the story, but also helps the reader understand who the character is at her core.

Explore universal truths that connect with readers.

The books I enjoy most have something important to say about the world, not in a preachy sense, but in a way that makes me say “aha” and helps me understand humanity through a new lens. Fences explored loss, racism, squandered chances, abandoned hopes, fatherhood, manhood, suppressed dreams and more. Maxson delivered a simple truth when he described how he’s survived over the years by “taking the crookeds with the straights.”

Our novels should be more than a series of acts and scenes that entertain, but do little else. Universal truths are ones that help us make sense of life and allow us to see ourselves in the characters we root for on the page. Again, while we may not look like Maxson or have his life experience, we know what it’s like to lament over unfulfilled dreams and we understand the toll that merely surviving takes on us and those we love. Don’t give your readers a sermon, but tell a story that builds empathy, one that connects on a visceral level with their own wants, needs, joys and struggles.

nancyNancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her
personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.

How to Write When You Just Don’t Wanna

Can we all just agree that the last two weeks have been the worst? I mean it. No matter what side of the political debate you fall on, the aftermath of this election has taken a toll on all of us.

I’m not here to get political, but I do want to address this toll and the effect it has had on our writing. Many—MANY—of my friends and colleagues have expressed how hard it has been for them to write lately. Many haven’t been able to write at all. I’ve seen several posts over social media bemoaning the looming end of NaNoWriMo and how behind everyone is because the election stress threw such a wrench in their ability to focus.

I’m one of them. At 22,000 words, I’m over 10k behind where I should be right now. I have massive amounts of writing to do if I’m going to hit 50k by the end of the month. I could just give up. I mean, it’s just an arbitrary contest. It’s not like my career is hinging on whether I can write 50k in 30 days. And everything else going on in the world right now feels much more important to me than finishing my draft.

Besides, I’ve failed NaNo before. Several times before. It’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this month, I made a promise to myself that I was going to REALLY DO THIS this time. I was going to finish this novel this month, come Hell or high water. Well . . . some might argue that Hell and high water are here, and now I’m struggling to keep my promise. I do still want to reach my goal, but when it comes to actually sitting down to write? I . . . don’t wanna.

I. Just. Don’t. Wanna. I mean, I do, logically. But I don’t have the mental energy for it. I’d rather take a nap, thank you very much, and hopefully not wake up until the year 2020 has come around.

Despite this, however, I’ve been managing to push myself through this writing slump, and so I thought I’d share some tips for how to get words down, even when you just don’t wanna.


1) Allow yourself a few day’s break

This seems counter-intuitive. “Wait, so in order to get yourself to write, you . . . didn’t write?” Yup, I didn’t write. I gave my brain and emotions some time to try and work themselves out, with the promise that after a certain amount of time, even if I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could write, I would try to write anyway. That day came, and I turned off all social media, and told myself I couldn’t get back on until I’d written 4k. And amazingly, I wrote 4k. I’m still not sure how, but I did. And you probably can too if you really set your mind to it. But first allow yourself that break.

2) Break it down into small chunks of time

Not words. Time. You’ll probably surprise yourself by how much you’ll get written in that small amount of time. One thing I’ve done on days when I’m especially having trouble focusing, is I’ve set my alarm to go off once every hour. When it goes off, I drop whatever I’m doing (or not doing, as the case has been lately) and write for five minutes. If I hit flow, I’ll keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s like a little shove on the back of the sled to get you to the start of the slope. Once you’re there, your sled will tip, and gravity will carry you the rest of the way down.

3) Multitask

I’ve become quite the fan of writing via dictation, and the bulk of my NaNo draft has actually been written via this method while I’m doing other boring tasks, such as folding laundry, picking up clutter, and waiting in the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school. Somehow, for me, I’ve been finding it easier to break through the I-don’t-wannas this way. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you do.

4) Find a second creative outlet

Set aside some time every day to work on something else creative and/or relaxing that has nothing to do with your draft. Adult coloring books are great for this. Also crafts, such as knitting, crochet, or other needlework—basically anything that relaxes you but also stimulates the creative side of your brain. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll find my mind wandering off to work on my story without me, solving plot problems, coming up with new characters, all while in a nice, relaxed, state of mind rather than while stressing out over a blank page.

5) Don’t panic

If none of this works for you, and you just can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Stress is a nasty beast that sometimes takes longer to defeat than we would like. Allow yourself the extra time you need. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go to bed at a decent hour, and take lots of bubble baths. Your ability to write has not left you forever. It will come back when it’s ready.

I do hope these strategies help you as much as they’ve been helping me. I will point out that they don’t work one-hundred percent of the time. Some days I just have to throw in the towel and admit that writing isn’t going to happen. But even if it works only a third of the time, that’s better than not at all. Also, if you have any tips of your own, please do share them in the comments. I’d love to give them a try.


When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Speak Your Mind: A Real-Time Dictation Experiment

This . . . is going to be an interesting post to write. I need you, Reader, to bear witness to a little experiment.

Here’s the background: I’ve been playing around with Dragon Dictation for my iPhone lately, mostly to record quick ideas that I come up with while I’m in the car and can’t safely type. I’ve found that it picks up on my speech very well. So today, with this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo in mind, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Home version for my PC Laptop. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I feel like it will be worth it to keep my writing flow going. I could just go ahead and keep using the mobile version, but the problem, I’ve found, is that the mobile version will randomly stop recording (maybe because I’ve paused for too long? I’m not sure), and I won’t realize it until I pull my phone out of my pocket to see where I’m at. The PC version isn’t supposed to do that. So far, I’m finding this is true. The mic hasn’t turned off unless I’ve told it to.

Anyway, I mentioned an experiment. This is it. This post that you’re reading right now . . . is the experiment. I’m using Dragon on my laptop for the first time while “writing” this, and I will now tell you, in real time, what’s working for me and what’s not. I know. Meta.


So here’s the first thing I’m noticing: remembering to add in punctuation as I speak is really slowing me down. It’s tripping up the flow of my thoughts. In fact, remembering to say “comma,” “period,” and “new line” means my dictation is actually much slower than my typing. This may change as I get used to it, but . . . hmm . . . how about I try something else? How about I just ignore all punctuation, and speak, not as if I’m dictating, but as if I’m casually talking to another person in the room? I can go back and edit in the punctuation and paragraph breaks afterward. (Obviously, most of the punctuation that you’re seeing right now has been added post stream-of-consciousness word vomit.)

The main purpose of writing via dictation for me is to get my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Sometimes (not all the time) I have trouble doing that while typing, as if somewhere along the journey between my neural pathways and the muscles in my fingers, my thoughts run out of gas and have to pull over—a bit ironic seeing that I’m writing this post for a blog called Thinking Through Our Fingers.

This occasional brain-to-page disconnect is why editing and revising is so much more pleasant for me than drafting. Once I have my thoughts down, I have something tangible to work with. It’s easier to replace and move around words that are already there.

A way that I’ve sometimes been able to get past this is to switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. And now I have dictation as a third option. And that makes me think of another way in which I will surely be using dictation to assist me with my writing—dictating handwritten pages into my word processor will be so much faster (and easier on my joints) than typing it in.

And here’s something else I’m enjoying about dictating this post. I can get up and move around. I’m not tied to my keyboard. Sometimes pacing and other forms of movement can help get my thoughts flowing, and I know this is true for a lot of other people as well. I may, (dare I even think it?) even find myself dictating my novel while exercising, or doing the dishes, or knitting, or even soaking in the tub. Yes! While taking a bath! With my laptop out of harm’s way, if I speak loudly enough for the mic to pick up my voice, I’m sure it could work. This also means I have no more excuses not to write. Hmm . . . maybe that isn’t such a bonus after all (says the chronic procrastinator.)

Now let’s pause for an update. Remember how in the beginning of this post, I observed that having to dictate punctuation was slowing me down, so I decided to stop? It has now been about five minutes, and I’ve written about 600 words. That would normally take me a half an hour on a REALLY good day—and hour or more on a bad one. Granted, here’s a screenshot of those words:


Ugh. It’s one huge run-on-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. The editing may take me at least three times as long as the initial dictation took. Not only will I need to add in punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it looks like I’ll also need to remove or rewrite garbled sentences that I swear sounded much better out loud than they look on the page. But as I said earlier, I’m fine with that. I’m just thrilled to have so many words down so quickly; so many words to work with that would never have made it onto the page before.

Overall, I’d say that for me, this experiment has been a success. I am going to dictate the heck out of my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s going to be so great. I’m am so very, very excited. I may change my tune in December when I’m faced with gargantuan revisions, but for now, I think this is going to work.

Do you use dictation for writing? If so, please tell us in the comments what you think of it, and if you have any good tips!

(Note: I forgot to keep track of how long it actually took me to edit this, but I’d say it was probably around fifteen minutes, for those of you who are interested.)


When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.


The poet Richard Hugo has a wonderful chapter on the nuts and bolts of writing in his classic book on writing called The Triggering Town. In it, he shares the minutia of his writing practice. It starts with what should you write with (#2 Pencil), moves on to what should you write on (National 43-581), and then gets to his preferences for handwriting and typing (it was the 70s, after all ). There is a luscious specificity to what Hugo shares in this chapter, but all of his axioms are framed by the understanding that these are his rules and they are what he does to get his work done. He makes no claims for universality, but he says “if they work for you, good.”


I have gotten off in the weeds regarding the tools of the trade before. It’s a great form of procrastination and resistance to doing the work. Once, a few years back, when I learned that Cormac McCarthy writes his drafts on an Underwood Olivetti Lettera 32, I lurked on eBay until I found one and scored it for $75.00. Of course I didn’t believe using that machine would transform my prose. I just like having it around with my other typewriters: my mother’s Olivetti Studio 66 and the Underwood #5 20’s Standard Antique my great-grandfather used when he worked for the Great Northern Line. The Lettera 32 and the other machines are just talismans. They’re no good for my workflow, which is now primarily digital.


With this in mind, I thought I’d take my next few posts on Thinking Through Our Fingers to talk about my writing workflow, focusing on the nuts and bolts of it but also on why I decided to go the direction I’ve gone.

The Year I Broke Up with Word Processors

About five years ago, I walked away from word processors. I’d struggled with applications like WordPerfect, Word, and Pages for almost twenty years. These are great for short documents you’re going to print on 8.5” x 11” paper, but they are terrible for longer projects such as a thesis, dissertation, or book manuscript. For a long time, it seemed like there was no alternative. When you were going to process words, you needed a word processor. Except the thing is, writing isn’t processing words. I didn’t need the everything Word packed into its application. In fact, I usually need about five percent of all that. I needed something light, something fast, and something that would let me move around in a document quickly. Word was not that. Even great applications such as Nisus Writer, never hit the mark, and the big issue for me was the fact that word processors tied me to a single machine, even once I started carrying files around on thumb drives (which always get lost, right?)

My break up with word processors was hastened by the appearance of Scrivener in 2007. It was, and still is, a revelation. It was the right tool for fiction writers. I know a lot of people who love it, but that wasn’t me. Scrivener could do everything, but it was too much, too fiddly, and didn’t feel right. I wrote a draft of a collection of stories in Scrivener, and I felt like I was fighting it. It also bound me to a single machine. The big revelation for me came when I learned that the solution was right under my nose, and it had always been there: text files.

I Write Everything in Text (.txt) Files

Breaking up with word processors didn’t solve the problem of what kind of application I should use. I needed something that wasn’t bloated with features, that gave me small files, that didn’t add in all kinds of proprietary formatting, that didn’t tie me to a single machine, and that was likely to be compatible with new applications that may come along in the future.

A blogger named Merlin Mann had the answer: text files. Here’s one of Merlin’s early posts about his system, how he sets it up, and how he uses it.

The idea is to write everything in these infinitesimally small text files, then using a combination of smart file names and the OS’s file search functions, you can find what you need. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and it worked great. Once cloud storage came online, this got even better. I adapted his methods for myself right away, and I haven’t looked back.

I now have a folder on Dropbox called Text Files and that folder synchronizes with every device I own. Because .txt files don’t have rich formatting or proprietary code in them, the files are application agnostic, which means I’m not restricted in the applications I use to write. This has allowed me to experiment. Right now, I’m using Byword and NValt to write short things, and Ulysses for fiction and blog posts. These applications all have beautiful onscreen typography, that really reduces eyestrain. Byword and Ulysses also allow me to create special style sheets, so I can import these documents for screen, PDF, .docx, with special parameters that I’ve decided ahead of time.

Another virtue is that everything is synchronized, so everything is also backed up. I used to worry all the time about hardware failure, fire, flood, or other data catastrophes. I don’t fret about that stuff now, because the system is simple and adaptable. I’ve ported these files across three computers now with out a hitch.

To Make Text Work Better I Use Markdown

A text file is pretty spartan, and some formatting is useful, so a couple years ago, I started using a simple formatting markup language called Markdown, which was devised by the blogger John Gruber to help writers work across a variety of platforms and formats, but mostly for web writing. The ins and outs of Markdown and its variants are well documented, and we’ll get past nuts and bolts and down into the weeds pretty quickly if I go down that road. A simple Google search will get you on your way.


Text Files are my baseline, and here’s how my workflow is structured

Text files are the foundation of my workflow, which lets me store things easily in the cloud, quickly use system-wide searches to find files, and makes it easy to move writing from one format to another. Markdown is a visual way for me to see what formatting I’m using and to make sure my formatting is unambiguous, like the publishing tradition of PLACING TITLES in ALL CAPS.


This part of my workflow comes from David Allen’s great productivity book Getting Things Done, which talks about having a system of “ubiquitous capture.” Wherever you are you need to be able to catch an idea and put it someplace where you know you’ll find it again. I used to have a paper system for capture, but I’ve moved this process to my phone and smart watch using, using an application called Drafts.


Drafting is the most chaotic and messy part of my workflow. I draft on my phone, tablet, and laptop. One of my primary goals in designing this stage of my workflow was to remove as many barriers as I could. Writing has to be easy, so I can jump in and start. I’ve also got it all set up so there I don’t have to manually save or back up things. This all happens automagically because of the text-files-in-the-cloud system I described above. Good drafting also requires a way of keeping track of versions, and my system provides a lot of ways to create snapshots of work at a given point in time.


The revision stage of my workflow still involves paper. I print drafts on legal paper without changing the document dimensions, which gives me all kinds of extra room to write. I even use red pens (The Pilot G2 is my jam), not because I’m an English Professor, but because red and black are so Bauhaus. Once I’ve revised on paper, then I make changes in the text files, and upload them as Google Docs. This gives me another backup and snapshot of the project and is the platform I use for my alpha reader team. I have to readers, one in Japan and the other in Louisville, and Google Drive’s editing basically allows us to “redline” drafts in a way that is an order of magnitude better than Word’s Track Changes. In a future post, I’ll go pretty deeply into how this works for us.


The formatting stage of my workflow could be really cool, if all the folks who receive my documents were also hip to Markdown. Most of the time they aren’t, and that’s okay. My tools allow me to create formatted versions in HTML, PDF, Word, and RTF. It all works with style sheets that allow me a really high level of control, which I love. Unfortunately Word is still a publishing industry standard, so I keep it around to pre-flight all important Word documents that go out to agents and editors. Any workflow needs to be empathetic to the needs of people downstream. It doesn’t matter how amazing your workflow is if the people paying you can’t fit your files into their systems.


I’m sure there are many reasonable people who will look at this workflow and say, “How is this complicated mess better than just using Word?” I can only say that this system has never frozen, stalled, or crashed on me. It auto-saves and auto-backs up. It’s device and platform agnostic. I can port it to new machines in minutes and everything is in the cloud. Best of all, the money I spend on these apps goes to independent developers and not corporations, which I love. It’s the digital equivalent of buying books at your local bookstore or eating at a local restaurant instead of a chain. It’s a system that feels genuine and personal, like an old typewriter or fountain pen for the 21st Century and beyond.

Next Post: Capture


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

The Rule of Nine: Learning to Willingly Fail

To succeed you must fail.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to fail. Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you really don’t want to fail either. 

I don’t want things to be hard. I don’t want writing to be hard. I want to sit at my laptop and let magical brilliance flow from my fingers to the keys and fill the screen with breathtaking magnificence. 

Instead, it’s a whole lot of work. And sometimes there are problems. And sometimes I feel like I’m failing royally. 

When I come to a problem with my plot, a character, or the whole stinkin’ book, I want to come up with a solution. Right away. Or, better yet, 10 minutes ago. I want my brain to instantly supply the perfect solution. Or I want to go for a drive, talk to myself a bit, and then have it all work out in a nice, tidy manner.

But it’s more like this:

Positive me: We have a problem. But it’s okay. We just need to think it through. We can fix this.

My unhelpful internal editor: You suck.

Me: No, I can do this. I’m going to come up with the perfect idea.

My snarky internal editor: Not something lame again, right?

Me: No, of course not. (insert nervous laughter) This is going to be a stellar idea. Yep. Any minute now….crash! It’s going to come to me.

My overly dramatic internal editor : The book is ruined.

Me: Hold on. What about this? No. That won’t work. Or this? Nah, it’d mess up that other story line. Maybe this?

My just plain rude internal editor: I thought you said you weren’t going to try another lame idea?

Me: You’re right. I suck. Maybe we should spray paint something. Let’s go look at Pinterest…

Hmmm. So, that’s probably not the best way to fix anything. Although, I do have many lovely spray painted items. (I’ve also given loads of spray painted junk to the thrift store)

Recently, I learned a better way to come up with ideas from the book, The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. It’s called the rule of nine. The idea is simple. For every ten ideas you come up with, nine are going to be utterly rotten. And once you come to terms with this it frees you up. Go ahead, jot down ten possible solutions. Sure nine of them are going to compete with the stink in the back of your fridge. But who cares? You already knew they weren’t likely to work.

Vorhaus says, “Depressing? Not really. In fact, the rule of nine turns out to be highly liberating because once you embrace it, you instantly and permanently lose the toxic expectation of succeeding every time. It’s that expectation and the consequent fear of failure that give your ferocious editor power over you. Remove the expectation and you remove the power.”

I recently hit a rather large snag in my WIP. You could even say that I fell into a massive pit of deep, dark despair. I walked around metaphorically banging my head on every flat surface, trying to come up with the perfect idea, for days and days. For some reason, this didn’t work very well.

Then I tried the rule of nine.

I entertained every possible solution to this problem and jotted it down. I didn’t let my internal editor say a word. (Okay. She probably mumbled things here and there about me being a lamebucket, but I ignored her.)

I was ready to try anything. And as I let myself think beyond that dratted box we all end up in from time to time, I began coming up with more and more ideas. But I didn’t love, LOVE any of them. 

So, I kept going. I filled pages and pages with ideas. Way more than ten. And way more than nine failed. But then…I found it. I found the one! I’m excited again. And now I can get back to writing. 

If I’d continued letting that miserable, killjoy internal editor call all the shots, if I’d continued fearing I was going to fail and simply sat still, not taking any chances I’d still be moping around the house like some whiny girl who can’t choose between a hunky werewolf and a sparkly vampire.

What tricks do you use to give that pesky internal editor the shaft? 


Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist.