How to be a Better Writer

A notebook in a bookstore coffeehouse, with coffe.

About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, “So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?”

I don’t claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I’d posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn’t able to find the post.

Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I’m afraid that if I do that, I’ll just end up going several years without posting it.

SO! Here’s that email, largely unedited, on “How to be a better writer!”

Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer – I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn’t find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.

  • First, just write! That’s the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly – preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you’re not trying to practice when you’re on the spot.
  • Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages – writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to – you’ll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
  • Take a creativity course. The book The Artist’s Way is one of the most famous of these, and it’s what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I’ve never finished this course – I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
  • Read more than you write. You can’t consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it’s important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
  • Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you’re aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them – and what makes them tick.
  • Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand’s (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I’ve ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner’s On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it’s hard to pick one.
  • Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences – hands down.
  • Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these – The Artist’s Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
  • Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
  • Join a writing group. Not a critique group – those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
  • Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing – but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end …
  • Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you’re writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it – but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
  • Don’t edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that …
  • Let your manuscripts cool off. It’s hard to have perspective right after you’ve finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime …
  • Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you’re not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
  • Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it’s not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It’s worth working on something a bit until you can’t see anything obviously wrong to it.
  • Share your work with a friendly audience. You’re not ready for a critique group yet; they’re often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness – and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
  • Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you’re ready to send it out – to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
  • Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you’ve got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
  • Don’t argue with your critics. Whether it’s a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they’re not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there’s some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself – why wasn’t your story so clear that they got it the first time?
  • Solve the problems your critics raise, but don’t feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don’t feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise – but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
  • Learn from your genre. Whether it’s writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
  • Learn from the style guide. If you’re aimed at a particular market, whether it’s a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn’s document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it’s the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
  • Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you’ll find something about it you’d do differently now, whether it’s a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
  • Find a great critique group. By this point, you’ve been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind – and that’s the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
  • Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that’s what you want.
  • Find a great program – or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. 😀
Well, that’s about it for the short version. As I said … the long version’s probably a book. 🙂 I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that’s not a repeat!
-the Centaur

June: “You thought March was bad? Hold my beer.”

Me in the airport, on my emergency flight out.

So, March was pretty bad: I had to fly back East because Mom ended up in the hospital, we had a mad rush to finish a paper which both screwed up my time at GDC and Clockwork Alchemy AND failed to get in on time, and I found out I was suffering from chronic sinusitis.

Not to be outdone, however, June decided to throw me a bigger one.

What was left on Mom's breakfast room table.

So, Mom’s gone. She passed after what sounds like a beautiful week with friends and family – I spoke to her the day before she died, and she went to visit the neighbors and swing on their back porch until almost nine – and then collapsed while changing the bed linens in her own bedroom in the house she’d lived in for forty years. Of ways to go, that’s a good one.

Regularly scheduled blogging will resume … sometime.

Goodbye, Mom.

The forest sky of the Atlanta airport.

-the Centaur

Robots in Montreal

A cool hotel in old Montreal.

“Robots in Montreal,” eh? Sounds like the title of a Steven Moffat Doctor Who episode. But it’s really ICRA 2019 – the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation, and, yes, there are quite a few robots!

Boston Dynamics quadruped robot with arm and another quadruped.

My team presented our work on evolutionary learning of rewards for deep reinforcement learning, AutoRL, on Monday. In an hour or so, I’ll be giving a keynote on “Systematizing Robot Navigation with AutoRL”:

Keynote: Dr. Anthony Francis
Systematizing Robot Navigation with AutoRL: Evolving Better Policies with Better Evaluation

Abstract: Rigorous scientific evaluation of robot control methods helps the field progress towards better solutions, but deploying methods on robots requires its own kind of rigor. A systematic approach to deployment can do more than just make robots safer, more reliable, and more debuggable; with appropriate machine learning support, it can also improve robot control algorithms themselves. In this talk, we describe our evolutionary reward learning framework AutoRL and our evaluation framework for navigation tasks, and show how improving evaluation of navigation systems can measurably improve the performance of both our evolutionary learner and the navigation policies that it produces. We hope that this starts a conversation about how robotic deployment and scientific advancement can become better mutually reinforcing partners.

Bio: Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr. is a Senior Software Engineer at Google Brain Robotics specializing in reinforcement learning for robot navigation. Previously, he worked on emotional long-term memory for robot pets at Georgia Tech’s PEPE robot pet project, on models of human memory for information retrieval at Enkia Corporation, and on large-scale metadata search and 3D object visualization at Google. He earned his B.S. (1991), M.S. (1996) and Ph.D. (2000) in Computer Science from Georgia Tech, along with a Certificate in Cognitive Science (1999). He and his colleagues won the ICRA 2018 Best Paper Award for Service Robotics for their paper “PRM-RL: Long-range Robotic Navigation Tasks by Combining Reinforcement Learning and Sampling-based Planning”. He’s the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed publications and is an inventor on over a half-dozen patents. He’s published over a dozen short stories and four novels, including the EPIC eBook Award-winning Frost Moon; his popular writing on robotics includes articles in the books Star Trek Psychology and Westworld Psychology. as well as a Google AI blog article titled Maybe your computer just needs a hug. He lives in San Jose with his wife and cats, but his heart will always belong in Atlanta. You can find out more about his writing at his website.

Looks like I’m on in 15 minutes! Wish me luck.

-the Centaur


Tiny Lion

Gabby the cat, guarding the front porch.

In the words attributed to Trevor Noah, “Why do you invite a tiny lion into your house to pee in your box of sand?” Well, he’s small, cute, and furry, and emits calming noises. Kind of like an animate stuffed animal. After years of exile during his Yellow Years, Gabby is once again an inside cat, and this morning he crawled atop the bed and fell asleep atop me.

Here’s hoping he keeps up his good behavior. I need a little something that takes the edge off the stress. Not that I have existential worries to stress about; humans adjust to set-points, so my main stress is figuring out how to make my very good job become a slightly better job, or how to prevent it from becoming a slightly worse job, all while still having time to write.

Not that I have enough time to do that either, but at least I can blog again.

-the Centaur

Viiictory #23

Wow, I just won {Nanowrimo|Camp Nanowrimo} for the twenty-third time!

For readers of this blog who have missed, like, 75% of my posts over the years, National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November, and Camp Nanowrimo is its sister challenge in April and July. I adapt this to write 50,000 words on top of whatever I’m currently working on, and have been doing it since 2002.

This is my 25th Nano or Nano-like attempt, and my 23rd victory. (Interestingly, my two failures were times that I tried Nano on my own, without the motivation of the Nano “Validate your Project” button).

This month, because of friggin’ March, man, I started out pretty far behind, compounded by my robot work and the fact that I was working on JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE. This is less a novel than a series of loosely connected novellas, each slightly different in setting and tone, and has been my most research-heavy project to date. But, nevertheless, I got back on track and climbed the mountain.

Interestingly, a couple of the days in there were my most productive writing days ever – 7,000 and 8,000 word days, right up with the 9,014 word day that I did once on the last day of Nano. I didn’t want to do that again – I wanted to take today off – so I powered through 8000 words on Saturday, finished with 2,600 words on Sunday, and leisurely wrote 2,000 words today unpacking a few of the ideas I had that were still fresh.

And now, the traditional excerpt:

“So,” General Weiss said, sitting down. “You desire to become one of my acolytes?”

Jeremiah glanced over at him, trying to contain her glare. “I desire to learn, sir.”


“What I have to teach is not easy to learn,” Weiss said, patting her leg. “It requires long-term commitment, supreme dedication, self-sacrifice—”


“Are …” Jeremiah felt her brow furrow, tried to control it. “Are you aware of—”


“The nature of your injuries?” Weiss said. “Yes, I heard you were reckless.”


No, sir,” Jeremiah said. She hit the switch to raise her bed until she could look the man more closely in the eye. “I have been injured, repeatedly, because I have been sent into the line of fire without adequate support, repeatedly, and I did my duty, repeatedly.”


“The story goes is that you tried to leap across a city street, four stories up.”


“No, sir,” Jeremiah said. “A monster that had killed dozens was about to make its escape, and I leapt for it, sir, dragging it down to the street, possibly saving hundreds more lives—well, that’s debatable, but I definitively stopped it, at least that is not in dispute—”


“No, no, you’re quite right about the outcome of the operation.” Weiss rubbed his hands together. “And whether I think you’re reckless in the large, I would never dispute the actions of a operative in the clinch. But do you know why the enemy exposed itself to you?”


“I …” Jeremiah said. “But it didn’t. We caught it, and tracked it—”


“Yes, yes, and let’s not dispute that either,” Weiss said, leaning forward. “A hypothetical. Imagine you had two operations running, physically separated, one large and important, one … less so. To protect them, you can run recon missions looking for the enemy, but the enemy might find them. You can run ten recces in the operation period. Where do you put them?”


“Er, well,” Jeremiah said. “Proportionally on the more important—”


“No,” Weiss said. “You run five. All around the least important one. Why?”


“Er …” What clues had he given? “The larger force, is well, larger. It can defend itself.”

“Yes. And?”

Jeremiah’s eyes narrowed. “You want the recces caught?”

“No, not really, but I do, yes.”

“But the smaller force, exposed—”

“And overwhelmed,” Weiss said, “by a mass mobilization of the enemy. Away from my primary force. Now the other five recces probe ahead of the main op, clearing the way while the decoy fights for its life. If done properly—if the decoy force is given both a true objective and the best chance of success, their fight for their lives will only attract more enemy forces. If they win, you have a true two-front victory. If they fail, you don’t even need to send reinforcements—the moment the main force engages the enemy, the enemy will naturally pull back.”

Jeremiah’s brow furrowed.

“Yes, yes, there are many specifics which would make this kind of plan succeed or fail,” Weiss said. “To truly instruct you, we’d need to work through many more patterns, then make them concrete for the kind of forces you will end up commanding—”

“All of them,” Jeremiah said.

“What?”

“I’m going to command all of them,” Jeremiah said. “My aim is to be Minister of War.”

“Oho,” the general said. “Then we have a lot of work to do. Tell me why the thing exposed itself to you. Quick, now.”

“They’re—” Jeremiah’s mouth fell open. “The things are wearing us down.”

Sounds like they have a lot of problems on that boat. The first of the stories in THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE is already out: A Choir of Demons, at Aurora Wolf. For the rest … well, you’ll have to wait a bit. Enjoy!

-the Centaur

Friggin’ March, Man

Gabby and Loki the Cats sitting on the Centaur's Lap

Wow, it’s been February since I posted. I mean, I knew February was busy working on robots, and that slowed me down some, but March, man. I found out my long-running cold was actually chronic sinusitis, my Mom ended up in the hospital and I had to fly back to see her, and then we had another big robot push, right in the middle of the back-to-back Game Developer’s Conference and Clockwork Alchemy steampunk convention. The robot push didn’t work, necessitating another solid month of work.

SO, yeah, March, man. 

Now, at last, things seem to be chilling out. Let’s see if we can get to that blog backlog …

tupperware avalanching out of a cabinet

-the Centaur

Pictured: Gabby and Loki, mortal enemies, chilling with me on my lap on my front porch. They got up there by themselves, I swear.

Information Hygiene

Our world is big. Big, and complicated, filled with many more things than any one person can know. We rely on each other to find out things beyond our individual capacities and to share them so we can succeed as a species: there’s water over the next hill, hard red berries are poisonous, and the man in the trading village called Honest Sam is not to be trusted.

To survive, we must constantly take information, just as we must eat to live. But just like eating, consuming information indiscriminately can make us sick. Even when we eat good food, we must clean our teeth and got to the bathroom – and bad food should be avoided. In the same way, we have to digest information to make it useful, we need to discard information that’s no longer relevant, and we need to avoid misinformation so we don’t pick up false beliefs. We need habits of information hygiene.

Whenever you listen to someone, you absorb some of their thought process and make it your own. You can’t help it: that the purpose of language, and that’s what understanding someone means. The downside is your brain is a mess of different overlapping modules all working together, and not all of them can distinguish between what’s logically true and false. This means learning about the beliefs of someone you violently disagree with can make you start to believe in them, even if you consciously think they’re wrong. One acquaintance I knew started studying a religion with the intent of exposing it. He thought it was a cult, and his opinion about that never changed. But at one point, he found himself starting to believe what he read, even though, then and now, he found their beliefs logically ridiculous.

This doesn’t mean we need to shut out information from people we disagree with – but it does mean we can’t uncritically accept information from people we agree with. You are the easiest person for yourself to fool: we have a cognitive flaw called confirmation bias which makes us more willing to accept information that confirms our prior beliefs rather than ones that deny it. Another flaw called cognitive dissonance makes us want to actively resolve conflicts between our beliefs and new information, leading to a rush of relief when they are reconciled; combined with confirmation bias, people’s beliefs can actually be strengthened by contradictory information.

So, as an exercise in information hygiene for those involved in one of those charged political conversations that dominate our modern landscape, try this. Take one piece of information that you’ve gotten from a trusted source, and ask yourself: how might this be wrong? Take one piece of information from an untrusted source, and ask yourself, how might this be right? Then take it one step further: research those chinks in your armor, or those sparks of light in your opponent’s darkness, and see if you can find evidence pro or con. Try to keep an open mind: no-one’s asking you to actually change your mind, just to see if you can tell whether the situation is actually as black and white as you thought.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the book pile, containing some books I’m reading to answer a skeptical friend’s questions, and other books for my own interest.

That Jodie Whittaker Ratings Thing

So the new Doctor Who has finished her historic first season, which I found had its ups and downs: episodes like Arachnids in the UK, Kerblam! and The Witchfinders really resonated with me, whereas The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Rosa really did not. Episodes like Rosa, Arachnids and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos wrestled with great ideas and even reached for greatness at points but had baffling lapses in logic, whereas some of the most iconic images and ideas, like the crane leap and the “I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe” came from episodes I find myself the least interested in rewatching.

But leave all that aside: from th beginning, this Doctor caused a sharp divide among fans, there’s a huge gap between audience and critic ratings, and there’s a persistent rumor about this Doctor being a failure because of low ratings. Go out into the blogosphere, and you’ll see conspiracy theories of a particular blogger telling his fans to downvote Series 11, and other conspiracy theories by these fans that the viewing numbers of the series are somehow inflated because people just can’t possibly be watching it.

I won’t dignify conspiracy theories about reviews or ratings: there’s a lot of genuine fans unhappy with the new Doctor, and there are millions of people watching it, more in my circle than have ever watched it before. But I can address one question solidly with real data: is Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor doing worse in the ratings than the Doctors who came before her?

No, she’s not doing worse; she’s doing just fine.

Taken from the Wikipedia articles on this series and its predecessors, along with the Doctor Who Guide, I was able to put to rest the conspiracy theories about Jodie Whittaker having some kind of ratings dropoff compared to the other Doctors. Nope. All of the recent Doctors start well, drop off, and rise near the end of the season. Jodie is right on track – in fact, slightly better than average for 11 episodes into the season. True, she hasn’t had the insane spikes in ratings that David Tennant and Matt Smith got near the end of their runs, but those were series of highly promoted event specials.

I rather like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, and I love the emotional arcs of the new series, and Bradley Walsh is so damn good I could probably enjoy watching him watch paint dry, but the stories in the new season need a little work on basic logic and truly threatening monsters. Logic in the new Who was always a bit dodgy, but it’s getting worse, and the lack of series-long arcs and recurring monsters is doing the Doctor no favors.

Here’s hoping in the 2020 season the Who team keeps doing what they’re doing well, while also finding ways to do more of the things that made classic, um, New Who great. 

-The Centaur