The Power of Mad Libs

February 8, 2023 § 20 Comments

Tell them what to write without telling them what to write.

By Allison K Williams

You’ve seen it if you’ve written for the Brevity Blog and I was your editor. Or if I’ve ever live-edited your work in a workshop, or if I’ve been lucky enough to work with you as a client: Mad Libs.

Remember that fill-in-the-blanks game we played at parties and in the car? A flip-pad of short “stories” missing key words. Blank lines labeled “adjective,” “noun,” and “adverb” cued the leader to ask the group for words to fill in (and taught us all the parts of speech). After the list of words was written in, the text was read aloud, the inappropriateness of most words inspiring general hilarity. Invented by Leonard Stern and Roger Price, the game is still played in cars, at camp, and at very dorky parties. The books now even include pages with word lists before the stories, so you can play Mad Libs solo (for those of us too dorky even for dork parties).

But Mad Libs have a greater power for writers: by making our own blanks, we skip the potholes of agonizing over words or letting our muse vanish down an internet-research rabbit hole.

Don’t run to the internet to check the weather for that chapter opening. Just type NEED WEATHER JAN 14 1968 and keep going with the story. Don’t worry about your memory vs. your mom’s—write your version of what happened and add GET MOM’S POV AND USE JUXTAPOSITION OF KITCHEN KNIVES TO CONNECT TIMELINES. Come back later, when you’re in a research phase instead of a writing phase, and fill in what you skipped, instead of breaking your creative flow by digging out the photo albums or worrying you’ve mischaracterized a living relative.  

For writers creating rapidly for copywriting purposes, to meet an assigned deadline, or to churn out quality genre fiction as fast as readers can click Kindle Unlimited, Mad Libs is plotting on a supreme scale. Where your outline might follow the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat!, your Mad Libs can usher you through your plot moment by moment:


Subsequent books can translate that Mad Libs moment to “Luke, I am your father” in the Cloud City’s central airshaft or Dani Shapiro in her office, confronting her DNA report showing she’s not her father’s biological daughter.

For editors, creating Mad Libs blanks for your author to fill in allows very prescriptive editing without telling them what to write. You get to point out very specifically what’s missing on the page; the author decides how to fill the hole. Instead of spending precious time worrying how to ask the exact right question that gets the author to write what you know the story needs, without hurting their feelings or sounding dictatorial, give them a Mad Libs. I type it in the document itself, not in the comments, with the combination of colored text and all caps standing out as not their words.




(Authors I’ve worked with, feel free to push back in the comments if you actually hate this and find it stifles your creativity!)

Questions and comments still have their place, of course. Sometimes the process of thinking through an answer or responding to confusion is what the writer needs. But for work that needs to be done quickly—or parts of a manuscript that can be done quickly in the context of a long, difficult revision—it can be a relief to just follow instructions. Paradoxically, the more specific the instructions, the easier it is for the writer to interpret and fill in the “blank” in their own unique way. Often, the instinctive reaction of “No, I don’t need to write that—I need to write this other thing!” is itself a powerful burst of creativity. Pushing back and being pushed forward both bring us closer to the words we need to write.

I use Mad Libs for writing copy, for editing other people’s books, for writing my own articles. I even use it for Brevity blogs, which I generally write in an hour. The simpler and more obvious the blanks, the better the springboard to unique, inspired writing. And I think you’ll enjoy it, too. Use Mad Libs to vault over research, to point out what your fellow writer needs without telling them what to write, to crank out copy over and over again. I’ll be (present-tense verb) you from (place), waiting to see what you (verb).


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.

Swimming Out of the Safe Zone

January 25, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Rose Saltman

It’s that time of year again…the comment desk is looking for your evergreen pitches for December/January. Send to [The Guardian] with SUMMER PITCH in the subject line.

This tweet arrived towards the end of October. There was no guidance on word limit—I’d asked—so I decided to punt on a piece that suited the theme and was ready to go. My pitch celebrated the delight of ocean swimming in Australia and cited a 30-year history of doing laps at my local beach, one of Sydney’s most loved destinations, as evidence that I was qualified to write about this topic.

I was about to follow up two weeks later when I received an email from the deputy opinion editor.

Thank you for sending this piece. This is a lovely read, but with more than 3,000 words it’s too long for our purposes. Would you be open to editing your piece down to around 1,000 words? Thank you for considering it, best wishes.

I didn’t reply immediately. The piece was barely out of the starting gate, with only two other journals having declined it. I could put The Guardian’s offer to one side and keep trying to find a home for the long version. Going down this path, of course, risked rolling rejections.

The alternative was to grab the offer with both hands. The Guardian has a daily print-edition circulation of 111,000 and more than one million digital subscriptions worldwide. Half of the latter are outside the UK, dominated by US, Australian and European Union readers. Who was I to be precious about an acceptance predicated on something shorter?

The editor suggested I do the first cut, offering tips on where to start. Excising content peripheral to the theme—the boats I swam past, my wetsuit, a waterfront restaurant—dropped the word count to 2,700. I was now in uncharted territory, having to decide what more to prune without losing the general structure of the piece. I’d done it often enough with other writers’ work. Could I do it with my own?

I began with easy fixes: turning passive into active voice and whittling away at adverbs and adjectives. “I stop for long enough to line up a passage that will lead me to…” became “I line up a passage to….” A paragraph that wasn’t germane to the story took care of 121 words.

I assumed readers would know that the top of a hill is a good spot for admiring the view, shedding another four. The word count fell with each click of the shears, but if I wanted to get anywhere near the target, I’d have to be ruthless.

A sadness overcame me. I’d spent weeks crafting my story, its rhythms and cadences redolent of my intimacy with the ocean. It spoke to, for and of me as well as the collective that shares my enthusiasm for ocean swimming. To see this exercise through to the end I would need to don the mantle of executioner, killing darlings as dispassionately as a bulldozer clearing centuries-old oaks for a freeway.

I asked myself: did the reader need to know the history of daily sea temperature recordings (107 words), how swimmers feel about shark threats (170 words) or that the former net was both an eyesore and trapped rubbish (151 words)? No. The test was always the same: whether the piece could stand without this or that sentence or paragraph. If the answer was “yes,” out it went.

I was at 1,200 words, amazed that I’d shaved more than 60 per cent off the original. I emailed my draft to the editor. That’s a wrap, I thought.

Days passed with no response. Surely The Guardian hadn’t changed its mind?

I followed up at the end of November. Yes, things were still ticking along, she said, and I’d hear in the coming weeks about further edits and a publication date.

The editor contacted me two days before Christmas.

Thanks for your patience with this. I’ve now done some more edits additionally to the ones you’ve done, and which are great. The piece is now at around 850 words, which is perfect for our purposes. Please let me know if there’s an issue, preferably today, as it’s my last day before going on leave for two weeks.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty words? I didn’t believe that a work of such brevity could be a creature of mine. Gone were ignorant swimmers, memories of childhood squad training, how I navigated a course through moored boats, and why I had to cut short a winter swim due to hypothermia. I asked my husband for his opinion. We agreed that it was faithful to the intent of the original.

In taking the word count to 835—I double-checked!—the editor had spotted what I could no longer see: further opportunity to trim fat without compromising the piece’s cohesion.

A Solitary Morning Ocean Swim is a Salty Sanctuary for Introverts like Me was published on 27 December 2022 and syndicated across The Guardian’s global network. The response at home and abroad, has been overwhelming.


Rose Saltman is an urban planner, writer and editor who lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure, Overland Literary Journal and The Guardian, among others. She blogs at Someplace in Sydney. You can reach her at her website.

Watching My Words: A Writer Learns to Trim the Fat

July 29, 2019 § 9 Comments

JArlanby Jonathan Arlan

Once, in a poetry workshop I took in college, a student likened the writing process, in a good way, to a natural disaster. “It’s like a huge tornado,” he said. “Once I get sucked up inside, I just write and write and write.”

“Yeah,” swooned another girl, “it’s like a hurricane and when I’m in the eye, I can see everything so clearly.”

Naturally, I despised these two. Writing anything of any length had always been impossible for me. (Why the hell else would I be hiding out in a poetry workshop?)

“I don’t know,” I said, unable to think of any weather metaphors. “For me it’s like when you have a leaky faucet and you call the plumber, but when he gets there, it won’t leak. So you’re both just staring at it, waiting.

“Excellent imagery,” said our professor. “Harness that.”

In high school, I’d skirted this writer’s block by “bullshitting,” which, in the elevated parlance of me and my friends, referred to any number of techniques used to make a paper appear longer than it really was. This was done to meet the minimum length requirements set down, arbitrarily and cruelly, by teachers who, honestly, should have known better. “Five double-spaced pages on World War I?!” we’d cry. “Who do they think we are, Barbara Fucking Tuchman?!” Then we’d bump the font to 14 and the margins to two and a half inches. You didn’t have to be good at bullshitting—which we weren’t—to get away with it. You just had to be shameless, lazy, and entitled, which I was. You had to be able to hand in a three-page paper with fifty words in it and just . . . walk away. If you could do that, you’d go to college.

Unfortunately, I never considered what would happen once I got there. And since high school tricks apparently no longer worked, I had no choice but to painstakingly drag words, one at a time, from thin air until I’d amassed enough of them to hand in. I imagine these papers were as torturous to read as they were to write. And while it was true that I dreamed of being a writer, it was more true that nothing terrified me more than having to write something. At the time, this seemed a very cruel paradox.

Then something strange happened. I didn’t write much after college. But when I got back into it, I couldn’t compose anything without filling page after page with, frankly, top-notch stuff. Uncuttable stuff. Stuff my high-school self would have died for. Need three hundred words on a new Thai restaurant? I will do you seventeen hundred better! Want me to sign a birthday card? I hope you brought extra paper. Oh, around a thousand words works best for your readers? Well screw your readers and their compromised attention spans. John McPhee’s last piece in the New Yorker was twenty-two thousand words and it was about rocks. Also, could I please just have twelve hundred?

Weirdly, I was getting rejections left and right. Since I knew the problem couldn’t be that the writing was bad, I started to suspect that there was just too much of it. Plus, occasionally I’d read something short and realize that the author had managed to do in seven minutes what would take me at least thirty—though forty-five would be better. I started to obsess over these pieces. Eventually, I took to copying and pasting them into a blank document and waiting anxiously for the word count to load. “SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY WORDS!?” I’d scream at my computer.

This exercise taught me an important lesson: where my writing was slow, flat, and boring, these pieces were short, incisive, and interesting. Basically, they were good and mine were . . . long. Luckily, the internet is full of advice for this very problem, much of it from men of astonishing prolixity. Orwell rails against adjectives and adverbs. Elmore Leonard advises writers to skip the boring parts. “Kill your darlings,” implores Stephen King, author of fifty-eight books and two hundred short stories.

Inspired, I went to work editing an essay that, at nine thousand words, was very safe from publication. First, I deleted adjectives and adverbs. “I swiftly boarded the long, metal train” became “I got on a train.” Suddenly the sentence was a “boring part,” so it had to go. But without that sentence, the following section didn’t make much sense. I cut it, too. Then I cut any sentence with a comma in it. Then I struck paragraphs that were looking at me funny. I hacked away at extra verbiage, looking for something worth keeping, until the thing was pared down to a snappy title and my initials. Finally, I declared my darling dead and deleted the file.

“I want to be short and deep,” I said to a writer friend one day. “Not long and flat. And cutting length feels impossible.”

“You gotta watch your words,” she said.

“Like count my calories?”

“Exactly. Be deliberate. Nothing goes in that’s not good for you. Whole grain, organic, locally sourced, whatever. You trim the fat before it’s even there. Cut the bullshit.”

“Yeah,” I thought. “Cut the bullshit.”

“Watch. Your. Words.”

I wish I could have followed my friend’s writing-as-dieting advice. I tried. But my brain doesn’t work like that. I have to spill everything out before I can see what I’ve got. Her suggestion did, however, lead to a kind of breakthrough. These days, I don’t even look at the words I’m writing. No one cares about those anyway. Instead, I keep my eyes trained on the little number in the bottom left-hand corner as it ticks steadily upward like the meter of a very expensive taxi. I watch the word count count. And my writing has really improved. I mean, would you believe it if I told you I managed to land this essay, no bullshit, right on the one-thousand-word mark? Go ahead, see for yourself.

Jonathan Arlan is an editor and writer based in Kansas City. His first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, was a New York Times summer reading recommendation (they kindly called it “a disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan”), and, more importantly, a huge hit with his mother. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Tablet, Off Assignment, The Millions and elsewhere. He’s currently at work on yet another travel book.

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