These 3 Words Will Improve Your Writing Guaranteed

Todd VanDerWeff makes a brilliant case for why most writing fails. We too often use “and then” as the connective tissue in a story.

Riffing off of Tony Zhou’s video essay F for Fake (1973) – How to Structure a Video Essay, VanDerWeff describes the three words that structure all great narrative fiction and nonfiction stories: but, therefore and meanwhile.

Here’s how each of these words works in storytelling.

But: This introduces the idea of opposition. The hero has done something, but the villain has done something to oppose it.

Therefore: This introduces the idea of progression. The hero has done something, and therefore the world adjusts to her actions (usually with some new struggle the hero must overcome).

Meanwhile: This introduces the idea of parallelism, of two things happening at the same time, so we can always cut to something else. The hero is saving the world. Meanwhile, her friend is off dealing with the fallout.

These aren’t just good words for fiction writers; they’re good concepts for all writers to keep in mind.

Zhou learned this from Orson Welles’ F for Fake, which Zhou describes as his bible. Please watch the Zhou’s video above and read the full article here. Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

Writing Exercise, or Journalism

Several typewriters in a row on a long table.

From the 3:00 AM Epiphany

(More exercises here.)

Journalism. Write part of a story in the form of journal entries. Everything that happens in the story will most likely happen between the entries. Make sure your readers can see the events offstage, but also present your journalist’s blind spots – she will not present the whole story, just parts of it. Your journal writer may not even understand the significance of the events until a few entries later – if ever. Keep all the entries close together in time (within a week or two). This exercise will challenge those writers who think there is no limit to realism: Make sure that the journal writer is still telling a story – showing as often as telling, revealing things about herself. In other words, you have to work just as hard in this exercise to choose the words of the narrator.

February 1

Such an asshole. I can’t believe he keeps asking me to do things that he says are related to my job. No. They. Are. Not. My job is a lot of things but it isn’t the things he says. Or maybe the things he wants.

What does he want? Who knows. I mean really, who can chart the asshole’s trajectory? I can’t. At least not his anyway. And it’s not like I even want to.

On a different note, I’ve been eyeing a new tie at Neiman’s. Tom Ford. Kind of James Bondish in Quantum of Solace. I know I shouldn’t get it. But I do think I deserve it. I’m working with the asshole constantly, after all, having to do his job and mine.

If I make two minimum payments this month, and don’t eat it out for the next thirty days, I think I can do it.

February 3

God he asked me again to do some shit that isn’t related to my job. And then he had the temerity to ask me, “well what do you think your job is?” and I said, “Not that!”

Doesn’t he know that everyone at work is laughing at him? That he is the joke of the department? He seems to think he can do whatever he wants because he’s sleeping with the Director.

Now. That is just heresay. But they do oggle one another in meetings. So there must be some merit to the rumor, right?

And he is so lazy. What does he do all day? I mean I’m already working on the 53,000 other things he’s given me to do, which, I want to point out, he should be doing since these are manager’s tasks I’m doing, and what does he do?

Go for coffee. A lot. Who takes orders from a barista? If anything, I should be giving him orders.

February 3

He just sent me an email telling me I’m to meet with him and the Director tomorrow. Good. I will be more than happy to tell the Director his precious little boyfriend protege doesn’t do a fucking thing all day except go for coffee.

I’m writing this at the mall. I’ve got that new Tom Ford tie in a box in a bag next to me and a coffee and a sandwich from the little shop next to Nordstrom. I didn’t eat lunch today and I didn’t go home after work. I stayed late at work.

I’m going to wear it to the meeting tomorrow, in my grey flannel suit. The asshole will probably be wearing some shit rayon/polyester/wool number he got from the Men’s Wearhouse on sale. With a matching tie/pocket square combo. God how can a gay  man be such a shitty dresser? I mean the whole thing defies logic. A lazy asshole and a shitty dresser.

February 3

I just have to say I look sharp in my new Tom Ford tie and my grey flannel suit. I tried it on before getting ready for bed.

The asshole will be suitably (haha such a good pun) impressed, I’m sure. Especially with his shitty suit and those fucking square toed shoes he keeps buying. Doesn’t he know the oughts are naught? God sometimes I impress even myself.

I know I could have bought the tie on ebay. But I hate waiting and sometimes those ebayers don’t ship stuff when they say they do. And I’ve been working hard and I really deserve this tie. So I bought it. And I didn’t buy lunch out today, either.

February 5

I’ve been so fucking pissed it’s still hard for me to write even now. I just got off the phone with my lawyer. He told me I need to sit down and write out exactly what happened at the meeting yesterday to the best of my recollection. I also need to print out any emails pertinent to my case. But I don’t know if I can because I don’t have access to that work email address anymore.

He was absolutely shocked when I told him they fired me. He kind of paused and said something, and I said, Excuse me and then he said Okay and told me I need to write everything down.

Well, here it is: I got fired because my now old boss is a fucking transphobic asshole.

On Proper Word Choice


Learning to write is learning to make a series of choices. Which point of view, tense, genre and other decisions are ones we must make as we write fiction and nonfiction.

The fundamental building block of writing is the word.  A simple thing. Yet commit to a weak or lazy word and do it enough times and muddled, awkward and ambiguous writing results.

I’m editing a piece rejected by several journals. Each clunky word choice leaps out at me. My palm hits my face, repeatedly.  “Why did I ever choose that word? What was I thinking?”

Apparently I wasn’t. Which is why I chose poorly. Maybe I didn’t choose at all. As I reread this particular piece I sense I felt rushed, or worse, I neglected to care.

§ § § § § § § § § §

In Starting From Scratch Rita Mae Brown taught me the syntactic differences within English that arise from our two parent languages, Anglo-Saxon and Latin. The earthiness our language derives from the Anglo-Saxon while the action-oriented focus derives from Latin. Brown provides us with a partial list of our two language sources. Reading it I understood for the first time why in English we say both woman and female.

A woman is a lot of things a female is not. Yet each word describes something similar. Or does it?

Choose carefully.

S. I. Hayakawa wrote a beautiful manual of words. For years a Senator from Hawaii he started his career as a linguist (and also a journalist for the Chicago Defender.) His book Choose the Right Word defines, compares, and contrasts words of similar but not identical meaning—such as “infer” and “imply.”

Choose carefully.

§ § § § § § § § § §

Hannah Louise Posten’s “Modern Love” article “How a Kitten Erased my Partner’s Depression” recounts the salutary influence a kitten had on her boyfriend Joe, a man she loves dearly who suffers from sometimes debilitating depression. Of first encounter between the kitten and Joe, she writes:

But then I saw her sly green eyes holding his handsome sad ones, and it seemed as if there were fireworks and unicorns leaping, the aurora borealis descending between them. When the kitten tried to vogue, swoon and crab-leap sideways all at once, consequently tripping over her paws, I think Joe’s eyeballs may have rolled back into his head to reveal two glittery pink hearts pasted onto his sockets in lieu of pupils.

The next morning when we woke up, the first words out of Joe’s mouth were, “Where’s the kitten?” And the kitten’s first act, when she heard his voice, was to ice-pick her way up the quilt and jump on his face.

Vogue, swoon and crab-leap sideways all at once; ice-picked. If you’ve spent any time with a kitten, you know Posten chose well when she used vogue, swoon, crab-leap and ice-pick to describe the kitten’s actions.

Learning to write – and getting better at it – depends in part on your ability to choose the right word and use it at the right time.

Choose carefully.


We, The Narrators – Buddha in the Attic

A man's hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view
photo by Will White

Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese picture brides. Women emigrated from Japan to America in the early 20th century to marry men they had seen only in pictures. Hence the term picture brides.

Otsuka could have chosen a more traditional first- person- singular or third-person-close point of view in which to tell this story. She instead chose an unusual, novel and, in my opinion, quite successful point of view: first-person plural.

Instead of I she gives us We.

What Otsuka achieves is spectacular. Buddha in the Attic reads like a non-fiction history book where the facts (“X percent of picture brides came from the Tokyo area. All experienced racism in some form….”) become characters. The historical fact and movement of the picture brides in their plurality become a kind of singular protagonist.

This is a book that each must read alone, I think. It’s that kind of experience. Saying “Oh, it’s about all the things the picture brides experienced” does little justice to the profound insights I encountered in the pages of Buddha in the Attic. It’s as if I became a picture bride myself yet also did not.

§ § § § § § § §

Otsuka’s epigraph describes her goal for her book. It is taken from Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9:

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

Buddha in the Attic serves as both an explication and memorial for the picture brides. But this isn’t a typical history of picture brides told thorough the story of the Akiko Tanaka or some variant. No. This story is about the thousands of women who left Japan for America. An individual’s story would lose so many of the complex, factual details of the brides’ experiences. So Otsuka deftly keeps the focus on the group.

Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not know that then.

§ § § § § § § §

This sentence blew my mind. “Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand.” As I read it, my mind suspended the first-person plural. What I thought was “those women from Tokyo pretended they could not understand.” This subtle shift provided the traditional protagonist/antagonist found in fiction writing (and even non-fiction writing). I guess I needed a protagonist.

But Otsuka wants something far grander for us, which I think of as the fictionalized portrayal of a group experience.

So as I read Buddha in the Attic, I felt involved intimately with a group of women without names or faces. This sounds strange even as I write it out, which is why you must read this book to understand Otsuka’s accomplishment. We talk about the ability of fiction to enliven history. Otsuka accomplishes this and so much more.

In a manner both direct and surreptitious, Otsuka makes us both a participant and an observer of this particular historical moment. The first-person plural provided the point of view needed to accomplish this feat.