Set the Page on Fire

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Secrets of Successful Writers

Thinking, Talking, Writing, Reading

An excerpt from Set the Page on Fire by Steve O'Keefe | Posted June 20, 2019

All writing originates in thought, so it's understandable that thinking and writing sometimes get confused. It is amazing how many people, myself included, think of the thought streams in our minds as "writing." That is a seduction to be avoided. I've spoken with dozens of people who want to be authors — and think they already are — because they have thoroughly worked-out streams of stories and articles in their heads. Until you translate those thoughts into words, you're not writing. You're thinking. They're two different things.

You cannot think your way through an entire novel, in advance, and just lay it down onto paper. Not even a single line is going to come out on the page the same way it sounds in your head. Something gets lost in translation. As soon as you render an idea in writing you'll see it's missing something: inflection, voice, nuance, shading, timing. Your thoughts are attached to emotions that somehow have to be reattached with alphabet. If you were speaking your thoughts, you could use tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions to add this emotional depth to your words. As a writer, you have to find a way to fill that image out, restricting yourself to little smudges of contrast — letters and punctuation — the only tools you have to communicate in writing.

Thinking is a complex activity that is intermingled with the data we receive through our ears, eyes, skin, and so on. A great deal of thought is verbally expressed in the head: talking to yourself, thinking things through, planning, learning, reading. But this verbal self-talk is accompanied by emotional input that conditions everything the mind says to itself.

Without the ability to use our human voice and nonverbal communication to refine the meaning of our words, we must find a way to replace their nuance with vocabulary when we write. Writing is an extraction of the verbal component of thought. So is talking. But talking is accompanied by phrasing, eye movement, posture, and other nonverbal cues. A study of the meaning of spoken words conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian showed that 7 percent of the meaning came from the words themselves, 38 percent from tone of voice, and 55 percent from facial expression and physical movement. For our purposes, it's enough to say that talking and thinking are different, and both of them are different from writing.

Things don't sound the same when they come out in writing. You quickly find that you need to slow down and dig deep to come up with enough words to properly get across your meaning. This is why detail and clarity are praised so much in writing. In conversation, you must leave room to maneuver — to engage your partners in dialogue, to move the central focus along, to backtrack if necessary and take another run at a concept. Good conversation is organic and grows out of the mutual interests of those involved. In writing, it's you and the page, and the page contributes very little to the flow of thought. You can have a dialogue with yourself (see the section on Opposite Writing, page 91, for more on jump-starting your writing) or write for an imaginary reader, but you're still using your vocabulary and your ideas.

The mirror of writing is reading. Here we also have a verbal flow of ideas in the head, but the reader is mostly a passive recipient on the pathway of discovery. One writing instructor told me that out of speech, writing, and reading, speech required the least amount of vocabulary and reading the most. After all, you can't write words you've never heard, but you encounter them in reading all the time - and thrown together in ways that you might not be entirely comfortable with. The reader is always a little off balance, curiosity driving her forward to see where this will go next.

Research bears out these differences between speaking, writing, reading, and hearing. The average high school-educated English speaker has a spoken vocabulary of ten thousand words, can use forty thousand words when writing, and can recognize fifty thousand words when reading. These numbers are based on a massive sample size of two million test takers at When you use the exercises in this book to stimulate your written vocabulary, you supercharge your writing and make your writing time more productive.

Once you shift from thinking to writing, you can feel it at the keyboard. Your vocabulary puffs up like a peacock putting on a show. You find a rhythm as your staccato hunt-and-peck becomes a sewing machine stitching words and phrases together in sustained bursts, shaving seconds off the time it takes to write by sustaining the flow — and thereby saving hours and days off the time it takes to write a book.

About Steve O'Keefe

Set the Page on FireSteve O'Keefe is the author of Set the Page on Fire. He is also an editor and book industry professional who has helped hundreds of writers go from brainstorm to bestseller. Steve has worked with prison writers, Pulitzer Prize winners, college students, adult writing programs, and hundreds of successful authors in both fiction and nonfiction, including such celebrated writers as Dr. Seuss, Alan Dershowitz, Isabel Allende, Philip Pullman, Marianne Williamson, Russell Banks, and Robert Munsch. Find out more about his work at

Set the Page on Fire

Excerpted from the book Set the Page on Fire. Copyright ©2019 by Steve O'Keefe. Printed with permission from New World Library —