Writing Tools for your Head: My 4 R's

I don't have a writing hat. If I did it might be something like my new ski helmet- the one I just painted and adorned with an Ogden Nash poem. I don't have a special writing pen, or a certain writing chair either, but I do have "writing tools." No, you can't buy them in a writing store. Well, the one exception would be journals. Those are definitely tools I use all the time. But that's not what I'm going to talk about. These are the tools I use almost unconsciously when I'm writing. I've been talking about them in schools and teaching this when I do workshops. 

Now some of you will say, "oh, that's old hat." Yeah, but it fits. And it works. Here it is:

"Nina's 4 R's for Writing"

Every story, every idea, every concept begins with research. Even if you are writing fantasy or fiction. You have to find out the background, the important and pertinent information, the exciting details that will bring your world to life. Nowadays research is a piece of cake. Hello Internet. In the old days I used to have to use a card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System. I still haven't been able to toss my set of Encyclopedia Brittanica's circa 1973, and you should see my wall of yellow: the National Geographics that go back to the 50's. (My mom got me started.)

I love to do research. I love to learn new things. I have this insatiable curiosity that drives my husband nuts. I'm always asking "why" like a four year old. One of the other benefits of research is that you may stumble over tidbits that inspire ideas for other books. Great. Write'em down before you forget, and then get back to your main focus.

After you do your research write your first draft. Just write it. Don't ask questions. Put it all down. It will not be perfect. It may not even be good. But you did it. Have a glass of wine and get ready for:

You have to learn to love to revise. You have to want to make your work better. I revised my book, "Roberto the Insect Architect" twenty-eight times until it was finally ready. That was over a period of five years. Yes, it's a picture book. Yes, I've been asked, "how many picture books can you write in one day?" You don't want to see my face when I hear that question. It's like my first draft- not worthy of publication.

I'm working on a novel now. In fact I should be revising it, but I wanted to get this post up. Procrastination is the enemy of revision. Fight it by setting deadlines. Revising larger bodies of work is made easier for me by annotating notes in my text and saving it as a separate copy.

But what really helps me revise is:

It's not a baby thing to do. I read my writing out loud while I'm working all the time. It helps me hear my word choice. We have a tendency when we speak to use the same words over and over. I know I use the words, "really," "actually," and "very" too much when I speak. When you write you need to watch out for word abuse. Use that thesaurus - it should be on your desktop somewhere- and I don't mean some dusty old volume. Jeez, what did we do before computers? Also, if you can't take a breath at the end of a sentence, you wrote a run-on sentence. Make it into two smaller sentences. Maybe even three if you are looking for a clipped tone. Listen for rhythm. Make your prose resonate like poetry. Two words next to each other that are hard to say? Tongue twister. Hello thesaurus.

Now my fourth "R" is a little unusual.

That doesn't mean "get a good night's sleep," although that is very important. (Just ask my cat, Cali- she is a professional sleeper. She makes me jealous.) Rest is for your manuscript. Put it away for as long as possible and DON'T READ IT. If you can let it rest for a month or more you will be surprised to find so many things that need fixing when you come back to it with fresh eyes. We writers are all guilty of this at some point or another: we write something and we are so excited that we send it off to our agent or to our editor, or to a reader friend- and then three days later we think of a better ending- or we realize we left out an important transition. Let your work REST! If you still like it a month or so later- then send it out to see if it is worthy of publication. 

Then if you are really lucky, the 5th "R" will be ROYALTIES. 

In addition to my 4 R's- I also offer some other writing tools for your head: Classes and Conferences. There are so many available across the country and the world. I highly recommend the SCBWI Annual Conference which is held in Los Angeles every August. 

For something closer to home, if your home is in the great Northwest in the vicinity of Bellingham, WA, I personally will be teaching and participating in my own workshop and at a brand new Writer's Conference. 

First the workshop: I will be teaching a very intense seven-hour class called "Creating Children's Picture Books" on Saturday May 21st through Whatcom Community College Community Ed. You can read about the class here. You can register online here. The cost is really reasonable.

And now the conference...

I am thrilled to be participating in this incredible inaugural conference taking place on the gorgeous campus at WCC this June 24th and 25th. The inimitable writer Tom Robbins is coming out of retirement to grace us with his insane and talented presence. Jim Lynch, who I personally got to hang out with when he came to Lummi Island, is giving a keynote. (He even stayed at my place because his sailboat had engine failure on the way and had to go in for repairs.) The line-up at this conference is stellar and if you sign up before May 1st there is a discount.

You can read all about the Chuckanut Writers Conference here, and sign up as well. It should be a wonderful way to get inspired, meet authors, agents, editors, and book lovers- and hopefully it should add some new tools for your head.

I hope this is helpful. Happy writing- and use those tools!

With Love,


  1. I follow your R's to a T, Nina ~ xox

  2. Your four R's are very helpful, Nina. I like that you include rest as an essential one.

    That Chuckanut Writers Conference sounds fantastic! Very cool that that's happening up North. Glad you are participating.

  3. Wonderful advice!
    I wish I had let my last book REST!
    I was so excited I sent it to my publisher hoping he would act as my editor and critique.
    He kept it as is and even though I protested they had me finish the art.
    It was published in less than 4 months. Aargh!

  4. Wise words, and coming at a great time for me, as I head into the homestretch of a project. Thanks again

  5. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes! Great post, Nina. (A tad jealous of your awesome octopus helmet.)


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