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Instincts. Animals have ‘em, uber-incredible paratrooper ninjas have ‘em…and writers have ‘em.

It’s something we all develop over time, and they become essential in crafting your unique voice and characters. The subtle nudge that tells you to use this plot twist instead of that one, the savviness to know when to let your MC take off and do her own thing versus when to rein him in.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have a few born-with-it author instincts, none of us are experts in all areas. The trick is to keep building them and, more often than not, the best way to do that is to READ.

Pay Attention: When you’re reading, make notes of places where you admire what the author did. Then, go back and figure out why you liked it and how the author set it up. Study those same writing techniques until you’re confident enough to put your own twist on them.

Narrow Your Focus: Pick the two or three areas where you really want to improve over the next few months—dialogue, pace, writing believable characters? Now, go find authors who are at the top of their game in those categories. Read A LOT. If you’re focused on pacing, for example, pick one fast-paced and one slow-paced book and read them in parallel. You will quickly see the different approaches each author employs. Write down those differences, and it becomes your guide for tightening your own pace.

Do a Subtlety Exercise: Go find your favorite scene in your favorite book. Re-read it, put it away and write down these things:
  1. A description of what happens and why it’s important to the story
  2. How you felt after reading it
  3. What makes you love it so much

Using what you just wrote down, go back through the scene and see how much (or how little) of that is included word-for-word by the author. If you like the scene because the characters are just so madly in love and worried about each other, does the author actually say that? Or is their emotion shown through something else entirely, like a tense argument about which one of them must go into danger?

You might have liked it for the “romance,” but what you actually read is an argument. The key is that a powerful writer can imply emotion without ever scripting it directly. You’ll be amazed how much authors leave off the page, allowing readers to fill it in on their own.

One of the hardest and best lessons in writing is learning what NOT to put on the page. If you can hone your instincts here, it usually means lower word counts and seat-riveting scenes where every word is packed with power and meaning.

Over time, you’ll develop a gut sense of the best approach and learn to trust YOUR instincts.


  1. I always claim my understanding of grammar is purely instinctive since I'm dyslexic, and throwing around grammar terms and rules pretty much equals a migraine ;)

  2. Great tips! Have a great Fourth! :)

  3. These are some excellent suggestions. I'll have to try out this Subtlety Exercise sometime. :)

  4. I like the idea of doing a comparison.

  5. Excellent tips! Enjoy your 4th! :)

  6. I like the subtlety exercise - sounds like a great tool to get into that zone of giving every word power. Great tips :)

  7. Hey,

    I'm already noticing that as I begin WIP#2 that as ideas pop into my head I'm adding them to the story and I can always go back later and review or delete - but at least I'm following m instinct and putting *it* in for now.

    PS: Happy Fourth to you and yours, Nicole:)

  8. Ooooh, you've tapped into a subtle observation here. The implied is almost always more powerful than the blatantly stated. And you gave a most practical exercise to learn those often elusive methods. Very nice.

  9. I definitely need to "narrow my focus." I always take on too much at a time and get distracted easily. I need to establish a habit of finishing one before moving on to another. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. I definitely like going back and rereading pieces that I really liked! Great advise!

  11. 1000th Monkey - Instinctive grammar is a good thing.

    Christine - Thanks! It was a blast.

    David - It's one of my favorites. I always admire authors who do it well.

    Alex - I find it helpful too.

    DL - Thanks! Hope you had a good one too.

    Jamie - Exactly.

    Mark - You get an "instincts" merit badge for that one!

    Jeff - Glad you liked it. It's one of the things I try to focus on in my writing.

    Sylvia - Me too! It's easier said than done. ;)

    Ashley - I'm a big re-reader.