Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Words to Write By

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 14•13

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.” ~Norah Ephron

This column is written in the spirit of the late Norah Ephron. How can you not love a woman whose advice included use butter, wear a bikini when you’re 26, eat the last meal of your life today, and take notes because everything is copy? Obviously a practical woman we might want to emulate. So here goes:

Take your writing, but not yourself seriously.

Be real. Many writers end up with beige sentences devoid of personality. Readers want to hear the writer behind the words. If you’re naughty in real life, be naughty on the page. If you’re a serious sort, then find a way to make your seriousness palpable. In the case of fiction, the protagonist must be kick-ass original and fascinating.

Skip the unicorns and rivers of blood. This means do not, not write what has been written to death or is outdated.

Take your readers to unexpected places.

Be persnickety. About grammar, punctuation, voice, language, imagery.

Say something meaningful through your work.

Worry more about story and craft than getting published. Published comes after a long apprentice. If you plan on a short apprentice, then write short pieces.

Don’t chase trends because trends change. These days faster than in previous times.

Avoid scammers. The online world is teeming with them.

Voice is the easiest thing to screw up. No matter how hooky and enticing your opening, without an authentic voice, one the reader hears inside his head, the words will be empty, the scenes unfulfilled. Voice comes from practice and listening to words read out loud. It also comes from analyzing the voice in everything you read.


Doubt is normal.

So is despising your finished project. Take it from me.

Forget about talent, nurture discipline.

Failure cannot wreck you. It can only teach. The hard way.

Write every chance you can. There is no surer way to succeed.

No one owes you anything. Not a review, blurb, sale, or their time. Especially their time.

Master the stages of revision.

Figure out your online presence. Are you online to meet other writers, make friends, sell books? If you’re only about selling you’ll soon bore online communities. Nothing duller than a self-published author who tweets 10 times a day various versions of “buy my book.” Instead cultivate actual friendships. Engage in conversations, inspire, make people laugh and think.

Don’t lug around dead, cannot-revive-with-an-army-of-paramedics stories. If a story just never comes together; if you cannot figure out an ending; if you’ve grown to truly loathe the project, pull the plug. It’s the merciful thing to do.

On the other hand, don’t blame writer’s block for your drawer stuffed with unfinished manuscripts. Writer’s block often comes from horrible things going on in your life—illness, death, divorce, children who are prone to being arrested—in other words, you are depressed and miserable and writing is the last thing that you want to engage in. Writing takes lots of energy and courage and if these are being used up by an ongoing crisis, recognize this and give yourself a break. The other main source of writer’s block stems from not learning how to outline. I know the ‘o’ word is a dirty one to some writers. I realize that some writers find their story only by writing it. However, the truth is that you can often outline—and by outline I mean crafting the opening, plot points and ending—your way out of stuckness.

Play nice. I’m borrowing this from Scottish author Nicola Morgan: “Always assume that those you are contacting will think you are the least important and most irritating thing that has happened all year. You may ultimately turn out to be the most wonderful author ever but you cannot force them to believe this yet. Essentially, you have interrupted them doing something which probably IS bringing an income and you must understand that, even if you are brilliant, they are more used to being contacted by idiots / nasty people / useless ignoramuses and they just think you are another one.”

So there you have it. Words to write by. Hope 2014 is productive and full of words and joy.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Camille says:

    So many truths in here. I heard a great interview on NPR (Fresh Air) the other day with Norah’s sister. They had an amazing childhood. Their parents were screenwriters and were always saying things to them like, “Write that down, it’s good copy!”

  2. Don’t mean this to sound slobbery. It is just that the genius in you inspires the devil in me. I have been saving your words in a Jessica file for years. Like to read a bit of you as I start ea session. Keep talking. Thanks for being there.


  3. Nicki Chen says:

    I particularly like your advice on voice. You said it “comes from practice and listening to words read out loud. It also comes from analyzing the voice in everything you read.” The never-ending, fascinating work of being a writer.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks for reading. I had a conference in October and Lidia Yuknavitch gave a workshop called Voice is a Muscle. That term really stuck with me. And about that ‘never-ending fascinating work’–couldn’t agree more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.