Writing, life, politics

Three Pieces Of Creative Writing Advice For School Children

Marie Phillips (@mpphillips), author of Gods Behaving Badly, tweeted the following this morning:

Preparing my first ever day of Creative Writing teaching for teens for First Story http://bit.ly/aCq9A Any advice welcome!

Well I figured I’d bash my advice out, random and uninformed as it is, as a blog post, and then tweet that. So here it is!


When your primary school teacher told you not to use “said” in fiction she was wrong. Contrary to what she told you, said is a nice unobtrusive way of connecting dialogue to its speaker. As a rough rule of thumb, always use said unless you particularly want to convey that the dialogue wasn’t merely spoken, but was instead asked, whispered, shouted, mumbled and so on. If every time you want to say “said” you think of some alternative, you’re just providing a distraction to the reader as they try to read your dialogue.


Punctuation is important. It’s not old fashioned. It’s there for a reason. Consider the classic (and perhaps apocraphal?) line by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“Holmes!” I ejaculated.

If ever a sentence needed punctuation, I think we can all agree that by Christ it’s that one. (And as an aside, if your teacher insists that you must use words other than “said”, try throwing an “ejaculated” into your story).

A lot of people will say that they leave punctuation out of what they write because it’s quicker to write that way. That’s true, but they’ve missed the point. What counts is not how quick your text is to write, but how quick it is to read. Your text will be written once, by you, but read many times, by many people. Punctuation makes text quicker to read. It’s like a rally-driver’s co-driver, constantly instructing the driver about the twists and turns ahead.

Without punctuation, the brain has to waste time working extra hard trying to resolve the ambiguities that unpunctuated text is full of – and each time the brain guesses wrong, the reader has to back-track, which wastes even more time.

Take the sort of sentence that I often see on the Net, and which I absolutely loathe.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something I’d always wanted to do.

As you read, you stream the words in, attempting to guess the context with which they are said by guessing what might come ahead – with commas and fullstops providing “milestones” at which you can tie down certain meanings. Take the sentence above, at the point at which we’ve read the following:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging

Now because there isn’t a comma after “sledging” we know that the next word must be something like “as” or “with” or “down”. Something like:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging as it was something I’d always wanted to do.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging with my friend Dave.

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging down the hill near my house.

Except we don’t get that, do we? We get:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something

This can only make sense if you use the word “sledging” in its Australian sense, to insult someone. And even then it doesn’t make much sense. You saw that it was snowing, so you decided to go out and insult an inanimate object? Of course, as you struggle over the next few words, getting to:

When I looked out the window and saw it had snowed I decided to go sledging something I’d always

…you realise there’s a bloody comma missing. At this point you have to mentally deconstruct the sentence you’ve been building up about a snow-bound Australian, and then reconstruct it as it was supposed to be, with a change of context after the word sledging.

It’s the literary equivalent of putting a rod through the spokes of cyclist speeding past you, and as with that act, should only be done if you actually want to bugger up the person concerned.


If you have teachers who are anything like mine, they’ll have pretty strict ideas about what sort of literature you ought to be reading and writing and it might well not be anything you particularly want to write. In my case, I wanted to read and write science-fiction, and with one exception, they significantly failed to be wild about that. They chided, they cajoled, they critised (one appended a comment along the lines of “This is stupid… why can’t you write about something that might actually happen” to a story I’d written about the destruction of the ozone layer, about a year before that become common knowledge outside of hard-core greens and SFers).

In the end, they so ground down my confidence in my ability to write fiction that in my O’Level English Language exam (yes, I am so old that my education predates GCSEs) I took the safe non-fiction option in the essay writing section and got a “safe” grade B. I’ve always wondered if I might have got an A if I’d attempting the more standard fiction piece.

I was wrong to listen to them. Read what you enjoy reading. Write what you enjoy writing.

Unless it’s slash fiction, of course. I’m sorry, but having Riker get it on with Piccard is as wrong as having Will getting it on with Grace would have been. (Although I’ll make an exception for Kirk / Spock slash purely because the idea of William Shatner saying, “My. God. Spock. It’s. E-normous.” is just too delicious for words).

Anyone else got any thoughts about advice she could give?

1 Comment

  1. Sadhbh

    Right on the money, especially with the facting that writing is about being READ not written, and using simple stuff like said.

    Don’t faff about looking another way to say something when the perfect option is right there in front of you.
    Winston Churchill got it right when he said “the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

© 2021 Jonny Nexus

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑