Category Archives: basics

Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing

Historical Woodcut Having a double-major in history and anthropology one of my writing goals is to remain true to good historical writing.  To update my knowledge of the topic I went searching on the internet (and if it’s on the internet, it must be true!). Much of the information I found to be guidelines for the college student writing for senior level or graduate classes – been there, done that.  I did find a nice little gem and I give thanks and recognition to Theron F. Schlabach, a professor of history at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.  He provided the following Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing and gave permission to reproduce his document with him to receive credit.  I have provided key points (topic sentences) he included, so I encourage you to read his entire article at:

Many of these commandments apply  to any writing genre.

I. Thou shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy central idea.

An outline built around a THESIS AND SUBTHESES will do the job much better than one that only categorizes information or puts it into chronological order — although topical analysis and narrative also have their uses.

II. Thou shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.

Draw your reader’s attention to the points you are making, not to yourself and all the misery and sweat of your process of research and writing.

III. Thou mayest covet other writers’ ideas but thou shalt not steal them.pen and books

Document EVERY quotation, paraphrase, or crucial idea that you borrow from a source.

IV. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness; thou shalt not use jargon when common language will serve, nor a large word when a small one will serve, nor a foreign term when an English one will serve, nor an abstract term where a vivid one is possible.

Learn first of all to write lean, tough, logical, precise prose.  After you have learned that, you may begin to experiment with metaphors, allusions, and fancily turned phrases.

V. Remember thy paragraph to keep it a significant unity; thou shalt not fragment thy discussion into one short paragraph after another, and neither shalt thou write a paragraph that fails to develop a topical idea.

Think of the paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea.  The paragraph should have a recognizable idea, usually as a topic sentence.

 VI. Thou shalt write as if thy reader is intelligent–but totally uninformed on any particular subject;  hence, thou shalt identify all persons, organizations, etc., and shalt in every way try to make thy paper a self-sufficient unit.

Here, the chief temptations are:  to plunge into a subject without adequately establishing time, place, and context; and, to refer to authors and t obscure historical events as if everyone knew of them.

VII. Thou shalt use quotations sparingly and judiciously, only for color and clarity; if thou must quote, quotations should not break the flow of thine own language and logic, and thy text should make clear whom thou art quoting.

Effective quotation is a literary device — not a way to transfer information unprocessed and undigested from your sources to your reader.

VIII. Thou shalt not relegate essential information to thy footnotes.

Normally, discursive footnotes should be very few.  If the information is important enough to print, get it into the text; if not, save the paper.

IX.  Thou shalt write consistently in past tense, and in other ways keep thy reader firmly anchored in time.

The “historical present” causes more confusion than it is worth.  Sense of time and context is first among the historian’s contribution.  Writing of past events in the present tense is usually evidence that the author lacked appreciation for historical setting.

X.  Thou shalt not use passive voice.

Passive voice destroys clarity because often it does not make clear who did the acting. (“The order was given.”) In such cases, it fails to give complete information.  Or even if it does give the information (“The order was given by Lincoln.”) it gives it back-end-forward.  Why not:  “Lincoln gave the order.”?

These commandments provide excellent points to review on a regular basis during your writing process.

Donna Otto




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Filed under basics, Nonfiction, Writing

Pants vs. Plans

Woman and Typewriter with crumpled paperHow do you write? Do you plan every little detail in a well-organized outline, or do you sit at your keyboard and channel the spirit of a fourteenth-century minstrel? Okay, maybe that’s a little “out there,” but you know what I mean. Everybody has their own method, and there are pros and cons to both.

If you’re a planner, you know exactly where all your characters are from, what they are thinking, and where they are going. Your protagonist probably follows the perfect path of the hero’s journey. Your story arc peaks at precisely the right time. Your word count is impeccably perfect. There are no surprises. But that’s the down side, too. Everybody enjoys a surprise sometimes.

If you’re a pantser (a term designated for authors who write by the seat of their pants) your stories are filled with surprises. Your characters speak to you, and when they do, they say the craziest things. They make U-turns right in the middle of a scene, and you have no idea what they’ll do next. You sometimes wonder who is writing your story. The problem with pants-ing is that you may get to the end of your story and discover you have 50,000 more words than your editor wants or needs, and half a dozen too many characters to track.Flying by the seat of the pants drawing

So which method is best? Both, and neither. I think most really successful authors blend methods like a French chef creating the perfect sauce. He sets the precise temperature and uses all the best instruments at his disposal, but in the end, his taste-buds tell him when it’s done.

I like to make a rough outline on a story-board with sticky-notes. This gives me a goal and a sense of pace for the overall tale. I do, however, listen to what my characters say. Sometimes they rebel. I would never say that! How about this?

In the process, I’ve written some of my favorite scenes.

The secret is being open. Plan the bones, but let the characters have character. Give them voices and allow them to speak. Just remind them that you, and your editor, choose what makes the final cut.

Kimberly Black

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Filed under basics, character arcs, characters, plot, rewriting, scenes, techniques

Hold Their Feet to the Fire

Hold feet to fireAccording to marketing studies, people tend not to report small complaints about products to manufacturers or distributors. Perhaps they lack confidence in their ability to protest amicably or believe their opinions don’t count. Writers, however, possess the skill to express themselves clearly. Use that talent and most businesses will reward your efforts.

Why? When businesses know what pleases you, it helps them target new business. They also like to know what displeases you. Evidently,  for each person who takes time to contact a company with regard to a product, 250 have thought about it, but failed to follow through. Your comments represent approximately 250 customers who remained silent.  No wonder companies value your opinions, even the critical ones.

When a purchase fails to meet your expectations, contact the manufacturer or seller. Remember, you are speaking or writing on behalf of 250 reasonable customers who want to register an effective complaint. Do it in four simple steps.

1. Establish rapport. Start with something positive.

“The train set our family, friends, and my school chums enjoyed well into our teenage years still occupies a room in my parent’s basement. Over the years, we purchased most of the cars and rail scene accessories from your company. We have hundreds of pieces that still look new. My sister attributes her interest and subsequent career in architecture to the buildings we constructed from your model kits.”

2. Then move into your complaint.complaints sign

“Following family tradition, Santa assembled a starter set for our son. Can you imagine our disappointment in the coal car’s wheels being out of alignment? Also, once in motion, the train’s shipping containers continuously fall from their platform when the car runs over a rail joint.”

3. Add details, but avoid emotional comments, such as your frustration with the product or how a malfunction made a child cry. Keep it brief.

“I have included three attachments to this email. One is a photograph showing the toppled shipping containers. Another is the receipt showing payment for the set. The third is a news video made at my sister’s graduation celebration. Our local TV station KJPT gave me permission to send a copy of it. Note that the trains, pulling cars decades old, run smoothly on tracks that wind up mountain ridges, through tunnels, and crisscross in the train yard and at junctions between two towns.”

4. Now invite a response with a question or simply a pause.

“Your company,  with its proud tradition of producing quality products, surely would not want my son to begin his train collection with a defective set. What procedure should I follow with regard to my returning the set for a refund?”

5. At this point, the conversation can move in several directions. If your complaint involves a low dollar product, such as groceries, dining out, or cosmetics, expect to receive a gift card or generous coupons.

satisfied customerBe prepared. The higher the dollar amount, the more a company is apt to balk at so much as an acknowledgment that their product is in any way faulty. Be polite and professional, but stand your ground. You may have to take your complaint to a small claims court.

How many dollars do you waste annually on products that disappoint? How do you typically handle the issue? Panhandle Professional Writers can help you write effectively, and you win in the long run.

Bernice Simpson

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Filed under basics, complaint letters, How to write letters, Writing

Keep it Simple

Keep it SimpleWhen writing anything—essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels—clarity is key. Word counts are important. Explanations should be concise, but what can one do to keep the writing tight when presenting complicated information?

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

When I’m writing something historical or technical, I do hours of research. I look at lots of pictures. Most importantly, I talk about it. I like to repeat what I’ve read and seen to others—friends or family who know nothing about my subject. If they understand it right away, I know I’m ready to write. If they look at me like I’m speaking Klingon, I know that I have more research to do.Albert Einstein

Some of the best, and simplest, rules for writing can be found in George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He presents a set of guidelines for tight writing that every author can use.

My favorites include, “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

I struggle with word-whittling every time I write. Sometimes it’s for lack of understanding, and sometimes it’s because I just adore a particular word. I love the sound or the look or the feel. But like the darling of any good story, the word must be cut to keep the action going. As soon as a reader puts down your book to find a definition or explanation, you run the risk they will never return.

Long, flowery words look pretty on the page, but if they trip your reader, let them go. Find a thesaurus if necessary. Find a short word. Keep it precise and readable. In today’s busy world, audiences prefer quick reads that deliver value. When it comes to wordsmithing, less really is more.

What helps you keep it simple?

by Kimberly Black

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Filed under basics, rewriting, Writing, writing advise

The Elements of Story

A CamelThere are four basic elements of story, whether you are writing a short story or a novel.  The first of those elements is a strong hook.  My favorite example of a strong hook is:

The last camel died at noon.” from The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett published in 1980.

It immediately grabs the reader’s attention and pulls him into the story.  Questions come to mind instantly and one is compelled to find out why the camel died and how the characters are going to make the trek through an apparently scorching desert without a ride.

I’m sure you can think of many more first lines that grabbed you by the throat and dragged you on to the inevitable end of the story.  But a story needs more than just a great hook.  It needs a hero/heroine with a desire he or she wishes to obtain and obstacles to that desire that prevent her from reaching her ultimate goal.  The final element of story is a resolution, a satisfying end.  The hero must obtain their final goal or come to grips with why they didn’t need what they desired in the first place.  All loose ends must be tied up and the villain must be foiled.

A good story is like a series of mountains and valleys.  The heroine starts out her journey on a peak with a goal she wants to achieve. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Let’s take Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an example.  She lives on a dull farm on the plains of Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and three goofy but sweet farm hands and her little dog, Toto.  Dorothy dreams of a place where there is excitement, a place where all her dreams can come true.  Along comes an old hag of a neighbor who threatens to take her dog away from her and down into the first painful valley of despair she goes.

She eventually finds herself in a place where nothing seems normal, there are frightening creatures and witches who want to destroy her and no matter how beautiful the place is or how kind some of the inhabitants are, her only desire becomes to find her way back home to dreary old Kansas and her Aunt and Uncle.

She meets some good people who try to help her on her way, but they have their own troubles, and being the kind young lady she is, Dorothy endeavors to help them with their problems while they try to help her.  She experiences happy times and sad times, trials and tribulations along the way and eventually she finds her way back to her aunt and uncle and discovers that what she really wanted all along was never far from her.

While this is a simplistic view of the elements of story, it is easy to see what makes the story a classic.  The heart of the story is Dorothy and her desire for a home, and the peaks and valleys of her journey is the road she takes to find true happiness.

Give your characters a goal, an achievable goal and put roadblocks in their way.  Make them suffer, suffer and suffer some more.  But above all, make their journey both internally and externally satisfying.

Happy Writing!

Suzanne Bogue


Filed under basics, books, characters, plot, Story Elements, Writing, writing advise

New eBook on Plotting

From time to time I have recommended various books on writing, and shared the wisdom of some of the great writers.  I don’t know or pretend to pass judgment on the wisdom or fame of Aaron Allston, but I can say that his new book on plotting is worth the money and the time to read.  It includes basics on plotting for the beginning writer and insight into solving plotting problems for the seasoned writer.

Allston is the son of a local journalist, Tom Allston, who wrote for the Pampa newspaper as well as the Amarillo Globe-News.  I hope you like the book.

Aaron Allston Releases Plotting: A Novelist‘s Workout Guide
New York Times bestselling novelist Aaron Allston has released his first full-length nonfiction work in e-book form.
Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide describes the craft of plotting novels. In the book, Allston provides methods for creating scenes, determining the meaning and functions of story events, shaping plots and sub-plots, developing character arcs and themes, fixing plot problems, and writing outlines. Also included are numerous writing exercises and Blood Kin, a complete outline for a novel, demonstrating the plotting process from initial concept to finished proposal.Plotting ebook


Title: Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide

Price: &9.99 USD

Publisher: ArcherRat Publishing (

Length: 120,000 words

Central Texas native Aaron Allston, who has 25 years’ professional experience as a fiction writer, is best known for his work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. His bibliography includes 22 novels and numerous pieces of short fiction released by traditional publishers such as Del Rey Books, Baen Books, Tor Books, and Bantam Books, and digital publishers including WordFire Press. ArcherRat Publishing, publisher of Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide, is Allston’s digital self-publishing line.
With colleague Michael A. Stackpole, Allston has for years taught the Inner Circle Writers’ Seminars at venues across the United States. Their next teaching appearance, in association with acclaimed science fiction author Timothy Zahn, will be as guest lecturers at Arizona State University.
Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide is available from:

For additional information, please e-mail Aaron Allston at

Check this book out if you like.  List some of the books you’ve already read on the subject of plotting that have helped you solve your plotting troubles.


Filed under basics, character arcs, exercises, organizing, plot, techniques, writing advise

Research for Fiction? Of Course!

ResearchI’m in the process of writing a piece of historical fiction, based in first century Macedonia. Though the work is fiction, there is a huge amount of research that goes into the development of the story. Clothing, food, religious practices, vocations and geographical studies all play a part in the setting and set-up.

Finding reliable sources can be a challenge. Religious works are usually vague or absent of concrete details, and historical data can be politically skewed and conflicting, and usually relies on the objectivity of the researcher.

In school we were taught to find multiple resources. With the internet, it is easy to find information—often too much is available. The challenge becomes sifting through piles of speculation and opinion to glean accurate information and truth. And even then, how do you know for sure?Computer Research

My rules have become basic. First, as I study through articles and essays, I look for archeological evidence and historical documentation. I compare commonly accepted fact with what the evidence shows. Next, I find corroborating sources. I look for two to three unrelated resources that say the same thing. Thirdly, I look for details within those articles that propel the story I want to tell. Interesting tidbits that don’t help my story are useless to me.

Lastly, I rely on my gut instinct. If the story idea took hold of my brain in the first place, why? What was it that was important enough to latch on and develop? I look for information that develops that hook. If I’m hooked, the reader will be, too.

What works for you in researching for a story?

Kimberly Black

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Filed under basics, books, description, methods, novels, research, story, Writing