I don’t know, maybe it’s stress, but I think this week I’m going to channel my inner Chuck Wendig and yell at everybody about some simple components to the craft of writing that I used to see very rarely, then it was surprisingly often, then it became most of the time, and now it seems we’ve fully entered this bizarre era of people who think that having to learn to write well in order to be a writer are Tools of the Man.

Who is the Man? Big Publishing, or the Evil Agents of Literature, or whatever the heck we’re railing against by refusing to work on our craft like we ought to. This idea that the Era of the Evil Gatekeeper is finally over and all those faceless editors and agents who were rejecting my work solely on the basis of [insert paranoid fantasy from Writer’s Paranoid Fantasy Generator, below] has been defeated by the Great E-book who has made it so I can publish my own book, which is not just as good as being published by a publisher but actually better.

Writer’s Paranoid Fantasy Generator

Roll 1d12 to determine why agents and editors hate you

  1. They hate everybody.
  2. They’re liberal (if you’re conservative) or conservative (if you’re liberal).
  3. They can see into the future and know that you’re going to be so awesome someday that they’re going to be fired for not publishing your very first story so now they’re trying to sabotage you in order to change the future.
  4. You are not the bastard love-child of Stephen King and Anne Rice, or any other two successful authors.
  5. You don’t live in New York, unless you do live in New York in which case they hate you because they’re sick of writers who live in New York.
  6. They’re stupid.
  7. It’s all just a random crap shoot over which you have no control and you’re just unlucky.
  8. They’re snobs who look down on the genre you write. If you write Westerns, re-roll, because this is actually true for you so doesn’t count as “paranoid.”
  9. You didn’t go to college, unless you did go to college then it’s because you didn’t go to the right college.
  10. They’re jealous of you.
  11. They only care about money, and for some reason you’ve convinced yourself that you either won’t, or don’t want to, make money with your writing.
  12. All of the above, unless you write Westerns, in which case it’s just eleven of the above.

Good news? That list is funny because none of that bullshit is true. In fact, everyone you send your work to in the horrible Big Publishing Empire is desperate as hell to discover the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or James Patterson, and though some agents have a full roster of clients and can’t add another and still be able to work hard enough for the writers they represent now, and almost all editors have very small budgets and can’t just publish anything and everything they like, everyone wants to find that amazing new breakthrough author. Everyone.

And yes, that amazing new breakthrough author may very well be you, but only if you work your ass off to be worthy of it. Just because you have a story rattling around your head doesn’t make you a writer. My father used to absent-mindedly whistle little tunes, but that didn’t make him a songwriter. I cook for my family every night but in no way consider myself a master chef. You have to actually want to get better at it, try to get better at it, and work to get better at it, and when you’re good enough at it, your work will be worth reading.

That established, let’s move on to some amazingly common flat-out mistakes that may very well be working against you, especially, as I have recently seen, when one or more occurs in the first sentence of your novel or short story:


And when I say “learn how to” I don’t mean take a wild guess or make up a rule of your own because you’re an Artist and Artists can’t be bothered with, like, learning stuff. Artists break the rules—and you should break them, too—but intentionally breaking a rule for effect is entirely different from not knowing the rule in the first place. Here are some examples of how to do it:

“The first word of the dialog attribution following this complete sentence of dialog, which ends with a comma, should be in lowercase,” advised Phil.

“If you want the dialog attribution to indicate a pause,” Phil said, “note the commas there and not periods.”

“Do question marks work the same way as commas?” a curious student of the craft of writing asked.

“Why yes they do, and so do exclamation marks!” exclaimed the excited teacher.

Verbs of speaking (said, asked, shouted, etc.) should be something that can actually yield words from the human mouth. You can not smile a line of dialog, much less pour a cup of tea a line of dialog. If you do anything else, that’s a separate bit of description:

“It’s perfectly fine to let us know your character is going to do something between lines of dialog.” Phil looked back over his manuscript and was proud to see that he correctly ended that line of dialog, and this sentence, with a period. “Now I can start talking again.”

And more. You can pick up great tips for how to do that by reading any novel, except maybe self-published novels by authors who have convinced themselves that people are okay with bad writing and editors are unreasonable Evil Gatekeepers who just want to make you feel bad about yourself.

This is not true. We just want you to write better. Imagine how good being a good writer will feel!


Strange, I know, but true.

Farther indicates an increase in distance: “The space probe has gone farther into space than any manmade object in history.”

Further means, more or less, “in addition to”: “We have further information about the loss of the space probe.”

Believe that, adopt that, because y’all are driving me nuts with this.


. . . which is a bit of an odd thing to write in all caps, but what I mean is, never use all caps for emphasis, even if you really want us to know that someone is REALLY YELLING REALLY LOUD! Use italics for emphasis, and if you need some additional emphasis, make that clear in context: Phil screamed at the top of his lungs, “No all caps ever!”


Every second you spend making your manuscript look extra fancy translates to twenty minutes of an editor wanting to hurt you and an hour of a typesetter planning the perfect murder, with you as the victim.

I know you think that if you provide cover art and set everything in some complex cascading scheme of user-defined styles it will “catch their eye,” like that’s a good thing, but no. I mean, yes, it will catch their eyes, just long enough to warn them to delete it, unread.

There is still a standard manuscript format and there is no reason to stop using it just because you have lots of fonts and can make things be in color and have animated gifs in them. If you want to design a web site or something, please go design a web site or something. If you send me a story, I just want to read the story, and if all goes well, send that story to a professional typesetter who will make it just exactly as fancy as it needs to be and would appreciate not having to try to figure out how to undo your fancy in order to begin his or her work day.

Go here to download a free PDF that will explain standard manuscript format in detail.



Oh, and there are so many more, but I feel adequately cleansed for today.

Now frickin’ adopt this in your writing. Yes, you too!

All of you!

The Great Gatekeeper has spoken!


—Philip Athans, Tool of the Man since 1986


PS: So it turns out I may have been wrong about westerns! According to Publisher’s Weekly, western was one of only two adult fiction categories (along with graphic novels) to grow in 2014. Westerns grew in sales by a modest 7% (graphic novels at a better 13%) while adult fantasy sales fell 13% and adult SF fell 7% in an overall decline in adult fiction sales of 8%. The YA category is still a big growth area, with YA SF/horror/fantasy growing by 38%, the biggest gainer in the juvenile fiction category, and across the board.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Craig says:

    “It’s a good post,” Nodded Craig pensively.

    Ah crap… 🙂

  2. But how do you REALLY feel about all caps?

  3. Tharcion says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t feel as patronised as when Mr Wendig does these.

    Most of those were moderately simple, but the more I work with a proofreader, the more I learn that English needs to be rewritten with an axe. Seriously, the rules are insane, when you can define a solid rule. A lot of times I get a query which goes, “How do you want these? There’s no really firm rule, but we should be consistent.” But yes, most of your points are good ones and well made. Even if not in a Wendig way.

  4. Rebecca Patajac says:

    Haha, great work. I’m sure you’re in the same boat as many other writers, published authors, editors, publishers and probably quite a lot of readers too.

  5. James says:

    Nonsense! Give me five minutes.

    No, actually, wait. I’m quite sure I have all that — with the possible exception of Further and Farther* — so I look forward to your next diatribe, for more morsels.

    *Actually, as of this writing I can say that I do have the difference between Further and Farther, but I can’t swear I did five minutes ago. And if I ever get done tracking down errors long enough to finish something, I might have to look up the approved manuscript format.

    I’m personally glad that many people don’t appreciate the need to learn these things. Should provide me a significant advantage, in time.

  6. Sean Durity says:

    Well done and funny!

  7. Pingback: WRITE IN ECSTASY, EDIT WITH INTENT | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. Pingback: LESSONS FROM THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: ITALICS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  9. Pingback: ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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