By Brett Battles

Today I want to talk about four things that I think are essential in helping to write well and smarter.

I call them ROWE.

What’s ROWE? Simply this:

R –> Read
O –> Observe
W –> Write
E –> Experience

If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. I’m sure most authors do all of the above without even realizing it.

The first teachers we have as writers, the first who really begin to shape our skills, are the authors we read when we are young. We didn’t even know we were in training then. But the way sentences were crafted, the way dialogue was presented, even the subconscious realization of point of view, all were seeded in us beginning with that first book we read.

But the learning process doesn’t stop there. The best writers continue to read everything they can. Learning, soaking it in, and just enjoying. Each book is like a classroom. Even the bad ones (perhaps even more so than the good.) We learn what to do and what not to do. What sounds right and what sounds forced. We learn that sure, sometime you can get away with short cuts, but we also learn that when short cuts aren’t taken how much better a story can be.

It doesn’t happened all the time, but when it does it always surprises me when I hear about a writer who doesn’t read much. Mostly, this has been people I’ve met in old writing groups. And when I read their submissions, more times than not, what was on the page was not very good.

We stand on the foundation of those who have gone before us. To ignore that is just stupid.

Reading is probably our most important tool…

…but it is not the only one.

Good writers are able to see what others do not see. We observe life. We watch the interactions of strangers. We sit in a coffee shop and try to guess at the lives of those around us. When we walk into a room, we not only see the person waiting there for us, but we also see the couch that’s slightly askew, the stack of comedy DVDs next to the television, the dying flowers in the vase across the room. We may smell the chicken baking in the kitchen, or the scent of rain that has followed us in from outside.

We see place. We see character. We see life in levels others don’t even care about. This is what we do. This helps to make us better story tellers.

Hand in hand with observation comes experience. You can’t always do everything your characters need to do. But you can do things that will help you understand them better. If your main character is a risk taker, then jump out of a plane or take hang gliding lessons or just drive on the freeway for an hour. If she or he loves to travel, then travel. If your character shoots a gun, go to a range and take a handgun lesson. Know what these things feels like as best as you can. Drink the wine that they drink. Watch the movies that they would watch. Go to the places they would go.

Experience your own life then use that in what you write.

And really, that’s what it comes down to. Writing. We must write. Every damn day. Even if it is just a paragraph that you toss in the trash as soon as you are done.

There is no excuse not to.


Love to hear your own thoughts and ideas to writing smarter…so leave a comment and share with us.


Today’s Song: ABC by The Jackson 5

12 thoughts on “ABC

  1. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Brett,Simple. Succint. And absolutely right on.

    I used to want to take a vacation and go somewhere fascinating. Now, I want to take a vacation and just read. I miss being able to spend hours and hours with other people’s books. Most of my reading happens at night, when everyone in the house is asleep and a I grab a few moments for myself. But, boy, do I love it.

    On the observe, write and experience — well those are the cornerstones, aren’t they?

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Well put, Brett. Although, I think that ROWE also can apply to acting. That’s one of the ways I’ve developed characters I’ve played on stage. Okay, maybe it would be ROwE. (Read the script, Observe, not so much writing, Experience)

  3. Dana King

    I am always amazed to hear of, or speak to, a writer who says he doesn’t read much. “It takes time away from my writing.” Bull. Reading is to writing what listening is to a great musician. As a recovering musician myself, I know that, while you can get better without listening much, you will only grow as an artist by hearing what’s possible. Reading is the same in relation to writing.

    I do all the others, too, including writing every day. I’m on a summer hiatus from fiction, but I blog, write reviews, and post comments to well-written, informative, and erudite blog posts every day.

  4. Rob Gregory Browne

    This is one of my favorite philosophies of Brett’s. We talked about it on one of our Battles and Browne writing podcasts ( last year and it has stuck in my mind ever since.

    One thing I’ve noticed about debut authors is that they tend to range in age from about their mid-thirties to their late forties. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the new authors I’ve run into have quite a bit of life experience under their belts. That includes a lot of reading, observing, writing and experiencing.

    They say we should write what we know. And the way I figure it, the more you know, the better off you’ll be.

  5. Louise Ure

    Well said, Brett. I’ll even forgive you the Jackson Five recommendation.

    But I’ll also give you a new song to write to, this one from the new Ry Cooder CD, “I, Flathead.” The lead song is “Drive Like I Never Been Hurt,” and that’s how I approach writing. Cushion no blow, check no emotion, hold nothing back.

    That’s part of experience, too.

  6. Wilfred Bereswill

    Good stuff Brett.

    I used to read a lot. Since I’ve started writing… Well there’s only so much you can fit in a day. But I just happened upon an old copy of Lee Child’s first Reacher novel, “Killing Floor.” (I think it was his first.) I’m really enjoying his style. And I’m learning from it.

    Living with a wife and three daughters, I’ve learned to Listen, Observe and Experience. Oh, and keep my mouth shut. I write instead.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great post, Brett, and my best advice is along the lines of Louise’s – WRITE BIG. Be over the top at first, even if it seems melodramatic. You can always rein it in later but the first draft is to be daring and provocative and startling. The worst writing sin is to be boring.

  8. Jake Nantz

    Excellent stuff, Mr. Battles. I teach very much the same thing (though not as succinctly put) in my creative writing class, and I can assure you I’ll be using this post to back me up. Provided that’s okay, of course.

    I first saw the “writers read” philosophy from ON WRITING, and my biggest problem nowadays is that my wife rides to work with me. It’s a problem because I used to do books on CD when I drive, but she gets tired of it (loves the books, but wants music in the car).

    Oh, and Mr. King, like you I’ve also heard the “It takes time away from my writing” argument. Well, I read constantly, and it does take time that I might be writing, but I also know it’ll make me a better writer. That way I’m not wasting time writing crap (okay, not AS MUCH time).

  9. Fiona

    YES. I might add, read a variety of stuff.

    Throw in some NF that’s not research (for current project) add some well written essays to the mix, pick up a book you loved as a child–you will be reading a different book because you are a different person.

    That goes for trying new experiences, too. Take a few music lessons, go see a play that isn’t in your “usual range” listen to live music that a teenager suggests, or go to an art exhibit that is edgy for you.

    Part of the experience is observing the OTHER PEOPLE THERE.

  10. billie

    Great post.

    I agree – read read read. And go live in your characters’ skins. That’s where the gritty real details come from.

    Thanks – I’m on writing retreat and this is a wonderful reminder as I settle in to work.

  11. J.T. Ellison

    Brett, sorry to be so late chiming in, I’m on the road. Again.

    This is fantastic advice. I think reading is the number one way for improvement. Reading your posts is a close second : )

  12. I.J.Parker

    I’ve read all my life, mysteries mostly, but also trash and literature. Not sure what I learned from it because there was this incredible and contradictory variety. I do know I learned from writing, writing over and over again and worrying because it so very rarely becomes just right in the end, no matter how many times I revise.In my case, there is a fifth time-consuming exercise: research. I mostly like this, but it takes a lot of time from the writing.As for going for the big effect: that troubles me, because as a reader I like subtlety. Still, the sales go to the stunning effects and my subtleties rarely ever get noticed or understood. Ideally, I’d like a book to run the gamut between the two.


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