Letter to my middle school writing students (December 2014)

(By Robert Nagle. I passed this letter to my creative writing students on the last day of class on December, 2014).

I hope you enjoyed this creative writing class. I  enjoyed being regularly surprised by what  you think and write about. Don’t worry if your writing skills aren’t fully developed or if you  feel  you haven’t expressed something perfectly. Sometimes it’s more important just to write  something down than to make it  perfect. Do not underestimate the power of your ideas or your ability to express these ideas.

Also do not underestimate the power (or importance) of writing about the mundane. Ordinary things matter, and sometimes they disappear without leaving a trace. When you write about the ephemeral, you are reminding people about the small things which give an era its flavor. Years (or decades) later, people love to be reminded about the small ephemeral things that for a while seemed to be everywhere.

At the bottom of this letter  I have put links to some free ebooks I recommend which you can download (will do soon!) I also include some book recommendations, etc. Next summer for fun I will actually do all the same assignments which I assigned you in class. In a few years, I will eventually publish the result as a free ebook. It will be called Ice Cream Follies. 

Don’t forget to visit www.tvtropes.org . This site provides an endless supply of storytelling ideas and conventions.

Below this I have compiled a list of insights and pointers which have helped me through the years.


The efficiency of words. In the digital multimedia world people make the mistake of assuming that pictures or video or audio are better at conveying stories or ideas than words. Compared to the latest music video or Youtube viral video, words can seem hideously unsexy. In fact, writing is still the most direct, economical and efficient way to convey something. Although it may take a while for the writer to write it well, an audience member can digest prose pages 10 times more easily and quickly than any movie or Youtube video.

You are your own best reader. Perhaps you assume that a teacher or professional editor is better able to judge your writing and offer feedback, but in fact, even the best teachers or editors can miss what you are trying to do and not be the right person to evaluate it. Any suggested changes by a teacher or editor are precisely that — suggestions. Listen to advice, but resist the temptation to write exactly the way the editor or teacher wants you to.

Writing in academic settings can sometimes feel like torture. That’s because the writing topic you are being ordered to write about isn’t something you would normally be doing. If you despise this kind of writing, look for opportunities outside of class to write about things you want to write about. Good writing demands a kind of enthusiasm.

If you can, edit what you wrote after getting a good night’s rest. When you look at something fresh, you can recognize problems more quickly, see what doesn’t belong and come up with new ideas and transitions. A good nap even lets you edit with heightened powers. NAGLE’s POWER LAW OF NAPS states that MORE NAPS = BETTER WRITING.

Writing is a slow man’s game. In school everything is due quickly and you always feel rushed to get things done. Arrgh! Do what you must to get the assignment in, but remember that the best writing has no deadline. It’s just done when it’s done.

Write with nouns and verbs. These provide the action and are easier for the reader to get through. Occasionally a sentence requires other parts of speech, but really, a good writer can express most things with just nouns and verbs.

The hardest part about writing is getting the ideas. After that, it’s organizing the ideas (I didn’t get good at that until the age of 30). After that, it’s editing, proofreading and grammar. If you start with a good idea, you’ve won half the battle. Actually, another hard part of writing which belongs near the top is figuring out how to interest people in reading what you have to say.

Writing and Fun. Whenever you start a writing project, there comes a point when continuing with it no longer seems fun anymore. That’s a normal sensation, and there are several ways to deal with it. Work on something else for a while and come back to it. Or if it is time-critical, try to work on the next section and come back to it later.

Overcoming Writer’s Block. Here are my methods.

  1. Walk the dog.
  2. Take a nap.
  3. If all else fails, try to write the paragraph as badly as you can — then try to fix it.
  4. Don’t try to force it. If you’re dry, you’re dry. But the well will replenish itself on the next day (or the next).

WRITING AND MUSIC. Yes, background music really helps your level of concentration. All-instrumental is best. Classical is great, but electronic or experimental music can also get the writing cylinders to start chugging. While writing this, I am listening (for the first time) to Burton Greene’s “From out of Bartok.” It’s amazing. If you want to listen to some remarkable instrumental/electronic music, google these things:

  2. [plive0501] Swerve – Malaysia
  3. Tryad’s “Listen” (album) — p.s. I interviewed this band!

I’m sure you can find your own music, but it’s important to block out distractions while writing.

Taking risks in writing. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your writing, but for heaven’s sakes, be careful. Try to imagine how someone might interpret it or respond. Try to respect people’s privacy. It’s a lot easier to hide your controversial ideas inside the forest of fiction than nonfiction. Fiction may be harder to write than nonfiction, but you can explore dangerous ideas more freely.

If you are writing stories, create your characters from scratch. “Fan fiction” (stories written by fans which use characters from their favorite books and TV shows) sounds fun to do – and maybe it is good writing practice – but it’s an intellectual and commercial dead end. When you create your own characters, you don’t have to worry about copyright issues and can take your story any way you want.

Revising. I love revising. When revising, you already know the rough shape a piece of writing has, so it’s all about making things stronger and prettier. Tighter prose causes people to think you’re more brilliant than you actually are.

Omitting words and phrases. The difference between a novice and advanced writer is that an advanced one knows which words can be safely removed from a sentence without harming the original thought.

Reading aloud. A good test of whether a sentence works is whether you can read it aloud easily. Reading prose aloud can make it obvious which phrases are really tongue-twisters and which ones are making you run out of breath. Even during silent reading a reader’s brain has to pause between sentences (in much the same way that a person breathes). When editing, you have to make sure the rhythm of sentences is right; that often requires reducing not only words but syllables.

Rearranging words inside a single sentence. Changing where a word or phrase appears in a sentence can change emphasis and even make it easier to read. Should the adverb go near the end or the beginning? Would a sentence work better if the main subject is delayed until the end? Word order is the writer’s secret weapon.

There are two ways to start a first draft: by writing fast and writing slow.

  • The “writing fast” strategy has the aim of just getting words on paper while knowing that you will have to edit heavily later. This kind of writing produces a rough draft which is messy and practically unreadable until you clean things up.
  • The “writing slow’ strategy has the aim of producing a first draft which is fairly clean and readable.

Before word processing programs, “fast writing” was the norm for first drafts because it was tedious and distracting to correct things at the same time you wrote them. Nowadays, this is no longer so big a problem;  word processing programs make it easy to move text, auto-correct things and write a sentence several times before you get it right.

The advantage of slow writing is that you end up with a clean draft, and although you may totally revise or rethink things later, having a clean draft lets you focus more on tweaking and less on performing major surgery. It also allows time to reflect on what you are writing and give you more time to phrase something exactly right.

On the other hand, if you are still unsure of the essay’s overall direction and don’t have everything mapped out beforehand, it may be easier to write fast and worry about corrections later. The main caution about doing so this is that you may end up having to do two revisions instead of one.

Word Count. I play all sorts of word count games on my word processor. As said before, I like to write slowly, but after i finish my draft, I notice the word count and then keep track of how quickly I can get the word count to fall. Once I had a story totalling about 14,000 words, and gave myself a goal to get it under 10,000. It was hard, but I ended up getting it to 9800, a feat I never would have imagined to be possible.

For writers in middle school and high school (and to a lesser extent, college), first paragraphs are often wordy and unnecessary. After the first draft, ask yourself, are there any entire paragraphs which I can delete without damaging the  overall theme?

In the real world of adults (outside of schools and classes), you will find it amazing and even shocking how little adults actually read.

Don’t be alarmed if other people have no time to read or enjoy the things you write. Of course, it’s good to get recognition and praise, but your growth as a writer should not depend on how much time your friends and family have to give you feedback and praise. Most of their feedback is unhelpful anyway.

Motivation and Character. Most of good storytelling is figuring out and describing why people say and do the things they do.

Don’t bother going to Venice. When writing fiction, I used to assume that I couldn’t write about things unless I had direct experience about them. I once wrote an entire story taking place in Chicago without having ever visited Chicago. But after doing a little Internet research, I was able to write a good and plausible story about Chicago which worked reasonably well — and nobody ever suspected me of faking it. (I later visited Chicago and confirmed that I got the details basically right). I am currently working on a story taking place in Venice. I never have felt “handicapped” because I never had the opportunity to go to Venice. You shouldn’t either. Writers get great at faking things; that’s the whole point of writing!

Everyone is Marcel Proust. As you know, Proust was the one who tasted a French cake and unlocked a long string of memories of childhood which he spent decades writing about. Probably the most enjoyable part of being a writer is writing to preserve memories (both from the present as well as the past). Many memories are still hidden away in your brain, waiting to be unlocked by the random memory trigger.

Remember the rule of “So What?” It’s hard for young writers to make their subject sound interesting to the reader. It’s often more important to show WHY readers should care about what you’re writing about than to let the reader try to figure it out. That’s partly a reason why the first paragraph (or page) has to involve a reader immediately and you cannot afford to waste time with introductions.

Writing is a way to pursue a subject that fascinates you. I have ended up writing an essay on some topic after realizing I cared way more about a subject than practically anybody else in the world. That is almost always why writers decide to write about something.

Some kinds of writing are just not productive. Writing on social media and online forums wastes valuable writing time and energy. Indulge a little in these things, but it’s better to work on things which can end up as a story or essay.

Write letters (but don’t go overboard). A good letter can be a way to talk through your thoughts with another person. Reading an old letter can feel like opening a time capsule.

Talking about your writing. Talking too much about what you intend to write can spoil the desire to write it. Write the damn thing first and then you can talk about it.

(READING ADVICE). If you have to write a paper about some book or story, try to avoid doing Internet research. It’s much better to read things blindly and have to figure out things on your own than to rely on Internet insights (even if you end up making mistakes). Students rely too much on Internet research because they are afraid of sounding wrong or foolish. But I would prefer to sound wrong or foolish than to give an opinion which sounds too much like what someone has said.

Writing and careers. Except in rare cases, writing by itself rarely leads to a career. Writing becomes a lot more useful (and profitable) when combined with another interest or academic discipline. Lawyers use writing to draft briefs and correspondence; scientists use writing to report on research; business managers use writing to write business plans and marketing strategies. One of my big career breaks came when I combined a strong interest (and aptitude) in Internet technologies with writing skills. Often you don’t get hired BECAUSE of your writing skills, but if you are already comfortable and confident about writing, that makes you more valuable to a company.

Always listen to the people around you; don’t be afraid to talk to strangers! Even the most ordinary of idiots can teach many things about life to the writer. During college three students and I had lunch with a very famous writer named Joyce Carol Oates. To our surprise, she didn’t talk much about herself, but spent most of lunch quizzing each one of us about our lives. She learned a lot more from us than we learned from her.

Expressing the inexpressible. Until the age of 25 or so, I used to assume that some emotional states or ideas were simply too complex or difficult to express in words. It was both a shock and a delight when I realized that words and sentences could let you convey any complex thing reasonably well. You just have to find the right verbal vehicle for doing so. That may involve coming up with a good analogy or figure of speech; it may simply involve revealing a complex thought gradually through a series of sentences. If something seems impossible to express in words, be patient with it.

Writing is a kind of meditation. Sit with it, breathe with it and savor the alternating sensations of frustration and victory.

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