On Writing

My favorite Stephen King quote.

If you don’t read, you can’t write

I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me at book signings and writing clinics and told me they want to write a book, have to write a book, they’re going to write a book! But I can tell you that in every one of those instances I’ve replied with, “That’s great. Now tell me, what are you reading?” All too often the responses have been a mix of blank stares and the following:

Nothing. I can’t recall the last time I read a book.

Who has the time?

I don’t have the patience for books. Do magazine articles count?

Right here and now, I’m going to tell you what I told those lovely people. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s that simple.

And no, magazine articles don’t count. A piece of fiction or memoir, excerpted from a book and placed in your favorite magazine is fine, great in fact. I hope you read it, love it, and run out to buy the book and devour it from cover to cover. But an article on planning for retirement? Choosing the right eye shadow? Which celebrity wore what wherever? Nope. None of those count. And, full disclosure? I’m a magazine editor and a full-blown magazine junkie. I love those glossy tomes and read them all, but not one copy of my beloved Real Simple will ever replace my passion for the pile of books by my bed.

Part of the reason people think they can write without reading is that a large majority of us have gotten it into our heads that if we write how we speak, it’s all good.

It’s not.

There isn’t an editor in the world who is ever going to publish phrases like, “If you’re wanting a great gift,” “The store is so popular, and they’ve only been open six months,” and the one that makes me the craziest, “We ate McDonalds.”

Really? You ate McDonalds and somehow David Muir missed it? Clearly you need a new publicist.

But of course, what you really need, particularly if you’re at a loss for what’s wrong with any of the aforementioned phrases, is to read a book.

And then another book.

And when you find a book you simply can’t put down, I beg you, read it two, three, five times in a row. Read it until the author’s voice impacts the words you speak, (please God, no more eating McDonalds), those you write and, most importantly, the way you write them. Don’t worry; you’re not “stealing” someone else’s style. You’re simply improving your own.

If you really want to write a book, read, reread, and read some more. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s that simple.

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On Repetition

“When we came out of the theater, we all agreed: the film was a waste of money, a waste of time, and a waste of energy.”

Ah, repetition.

People, particularly presidents of countries, cult leaders, and motivational speakers, use it frequently in speeches made to huge crowds. In this scenario it usually works well, gets folks on board, riled up, ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

Other people, like parents, also use it in speeches, sometimes very loud speeches, made to their offspring. In this scenario it has about a 50/50 chance of getting the desired result unless you parent as I do, with the occasional threat of bodily harm or, worse, the cancelation of somebody’s cell phone service. I know, threatening is not a politically correct parenting tactic but from my perspective it works, as evidenced by the disappearance of the small, crawling pests that used to shop my kid’s room like a Costco.

Often though, repetition is simply proof that the writer has never been properly introduced to a thesaurus. (It’s also proof that the writer doesn’t read, but I’ll beat that drum another day.)

Speaking of repetition, repeat after me: Thesaurus.com is your friend and Powerthesaurus.com is your best friend.

I don’t know how anyone – professional writers, business people, students – anyone, writes without consulting Thesaurus.com or Powerthesaurus.com. They’re always open on my computer, as are Google and Urban Dictionary, and I use them constantly.

Let’s say I’m writing about the menu at a restaurant, and let’s say it’s a five-star restaurant. How many times can I use the word food before the reader faints from boredom? Once. Maybe twice. People, I implore you, think. It’s a five-star restaurant. It doesn’t serve food. It serves cuisine, fare, a rare treat for your taste buds, gastronomic delights, died-and-gone-to-Heaven deliciousness.

What would you rather eat – food, or died-and-gone-to-Heaven deliciousness? That’s right: died-and-gone-to-Heaven deliciousness. And your reader would, too.

Repetition, when used properly, is a powerful tool.

Repetition, when used because you’re too lazy to crack open a thesaurus and find new, fun, interesting, cool, thought-provoking, exciting synonyms is a sure fire way to put your reader to sleep.

I have spoken. Don’t make me repeat myself.

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Happy-olas 2

Gladiolas are one of my favorite flowers. Chris knows this and, as a surprise, he planted a dozen in front of our house. Aren’t they pretty? When I discovered them, I said, “Thank you, honey! They make me so happy!” To which he replied, “I know they do. That’s why I call them Susan’s Happy-olas.”

When I’m sitting here, doing my best to cobble together a few hopefully funny sentences, I glance outside and think, 500 more words, and you can take a break and cut a bunch! They’re a great incentive, and they smell a whole lot nicer than the wet dog flopped at my feet.

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I always go to my desk dressed as if I’m at the office. Hair, makeup, heels, and today, this really fun ring I bought when we were in Napa. Or maybe it was Sonoma. I can’t recall. What I do remember is thinking it was a neat piece and it would come in handy (ha ha) for when I finally got back to writing and needed something to inspire me when I got stuck. It’s working pretty well. As I’ve previously confessed, I’m easily distracted. But at this moment the laundry is still in the washing machine, the dishes are still in the dishwasher, and my butt is still at my desk.

What do you do to help you stay focused on your work?




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