Writing tips

Why would you want to spend time reading this blog when there is so much ‘out there’ on how to write and get published?

Well for starters, I’m not trying to sell anything or tease you into signing up for anything. I do have a crime novel out – The Crocodile’s Kill – and you are welcome to buy it to see how I have applied what I’m writing about in this blog. But you don’t have to buy it and nothing in this blog requires you to buy it in order to understand the tips I am providing here.

Second, we all respond differently to what we read. My ‘style’ may not grab you but then again, it might. Read on a little and make up your own mind.

Firstly a bit about me: I was a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia’s oldest and most respected newspaper) for 15 years and, after leaving, continued as a columnist for another 5. During most of the period I worked for the newspaper full-time I’d write 3,000 words or more a week. For about three years I was a section editor, which meant that I was dealing with what other people wrote: cutting, clarifying, strengthening the central points, etc. This period made me a better writer because it’s easier to be critical of what others write than of what we write ourselves and so you learn about what to avoid and what strengths to build on.

As a section editor, however, I didn’t get much opportunity to write for my paper. In frustration I started to write for other publications – magazines in Australia, newspapers in the UK and the US. I also began to collaborate with a friend on features for some American newspapers and out of this came our first co-written work of non-fiction – Unfinished Business: America and Cuba after the Cold War, 1989-2001 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2002). Over the next 16 years, he and I wrote two more books together and co-edited a third (two published in the US and one in the UK). I also solo authored The Chosen Ones: The Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005), co-wrote two others with different colleagues, and edited another (all published in Australia).

For 20 years I taught various forms of writing (news, features, descriptive, analytical) as a lecturer in journalism at Charles Sturt University. When I left, I turned my attention to crime writing and am currently completing a series set in Timor-Leste (East Timor) the first of which, The Crocodile’s Kill, is published by Coffeetown Press (US) in May, 2022.

I mention all of this to make two points: first, I’ve made a living out of writing in one way or another for most of my working life, and, two, writing has taken me in all sorts of directions none of which I could have anticipated when I started. All have been exciting and very rewarding.

So needless to say I love the written word. I used to tell my students at university that if an alien ever asked me to name the most incredible thing humans had ever done I’d say ‘invent writing’ because to inform, educate, entertain, arouse, inspire and enlighten people with nothing more than marks on a page (or a screen) strikes me as simply amazing.

The writing process:

It took me about nine months to write The Crocodile’s Kill, another 12 months to get a publisher, and three more months working with the publisher’s editorial team and series editor to get it ready for publication. All up, I would have edited/reworked/polished the manuscript at least 14 times. I could have worked on it another 14 times but whatever improvements that would have made would have been of lesser and lesser importance. After 14 goes at it, I was sick of reading the same thing over and over – and that is not a bad time to let go. The point, though, is that you’ve got to love writing to persist with the same manuscript 14 times and, let’s be honest, if you’re not prepared to do that, you probably don’t have what it takes to be a professional writer.

In my collaborative non-fiction writing, each of us would have read over the manuscript at least eight or nine times – for a total of about 20 times. That kind of work is par for the course of professional writing because very few writers get it right straight off. This is particularly true for “early career” writers – and, with my journalism and books chalking up well over one million published words, I often still consider myself an early career writer especially when it comes to fiction!

The blog:

Over the next few months on this blog I want to share some of the things I know and more of the things I’ve learnt about writing. Starting with fiction, I will post some simple but what I regard as key notes on:

  • words plots
  • characters dialogue
  • clarity
  • tension
  • descriptive writing techniques
  • writing routines.

I’m happy to answer questions (my email is on the landing page of this website) so long as you are patient about getting a reply: writing is my main preoccupation these days and, when I’m writing, emails are the last things on my mind. When I’m not absorbed in writing I’m usually travelling (as I will be for most of May and part of June).

Please but aware that I don’t read manuscripts. To properly critique a manuscript of 70-80,000 words will cost you anywhere from $3000-$5000. That’s how much work is involved to do it properly (it should focus on the negatives to improve your work not emphasize the positives to make you feel good) and that’s not the work I do. What I may be able to do is help you develop your own critical sense so you save yourself time (and money) by avoiding the most obvious problems in writing.

So let’s make a start.

How much of ‘writing’ is actually writing? When most people imagine what writing a book is like, they think of someone sitting at a desk typing sentence after sentence into paragraph after paragraph that will make chapters and eventually a book. In fact ‘writing’ is s small part of writing. Every book of non-fiction I wrote or co-wrote involved about 60 percent of my time researching, 30 percent writing and 10 percent polishing the manuscript.

For fiction – where plot and character changes tend to be made as you go – I’d break that down roughly into 40 percent, 50 percent and 10 percent. The point is, there is a lot of work to do before you start tapping on the keyboard and, if you don’t do it, the work you produce (if you produce anything at all) will be the worse for it not having been done.

So before you think too much about plot and character(s) get yourself ready by preparing the materials you’ll be drawing on to put your story down and make it a compelling read. Two of these, which are too often ignored, are observational skills and the building blocks of writing – words.

Develop your ability to ‘see’:

Writers need a keen observational eye. Detail is what takes your reader to the scene you are describing and, for anyone whose read Ernest Hemingway, it can be done quite spectacularly in only a few words. But that’s if you are consciously engaged in observing.

How well do you observe? Try this simple exercise: put an acorn on the desk in front of you. Describe it in 80 words. If you can only think to write “It’s brown and it’s round” what are you going to do to get the other 75 words? And how interesting would a reader find a description: “It’s round and it’s brown”?

Now draw the acorn. Take careful note of its actual shape, the tone of its various colours, how the light falls on it, whether it casts a shadow, how it ‘sits’ in its context (the desk). What does it weigh, how does it smell, what ‘sound’ does it make? (Move it and listen again.) Now describe it once more in 80 words. This is not an exercise in creative writing: don’t give the acorn a personality or imagine it as part of some fanciful story. Describe it as totally as you can.

Do this exercise several times over a number of weeks. Do it with scenes, people, animals, trees, buildings, streetscapes. Each time you try you are developing your observational skills – you are learning to detect and amass the detail you will need to bring life to your descriptive writing.


Imagine there is a dictionary in your head. What kinds of words does it contain and why?

When I started writing fiction, I realised the dictionary in my head was full of nouns and adverbs because I’d used so many of these writing non-fiction. And I realised that for fiction I needed a dictionary with lots of verbs and adjectives instead. So I had to compile them (and still am compiling them). I have a notepad beside me when I read and when I watch anything on television or listen to the radio. I jot down words that strike me as vivid, colourful, textured, interesting. I also use a thesaurus, of course, but that is a slow(er) process and can be a distracting one once you get into the swing of writing.

So start to build up the dictionary in your head with verbs and adjectives and start doing it before you write the first sentence of your book.

Next time (soon) I’ll look at plot and characters so stay tuned if this has interested you.

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