Writing Tips from Sex and the City

This is where I call bullshit. CARRIE NEVER READS!

Fresh out of shows to binge, my girlfriend and I are watching Sex and the City all the way through.

It’s my first time watching the whole thing (okay, maybe second) and her chance to brush up on the one or two lines she doesn’t know by heart.

She’s a writer too. So as we watch, we’ve had a running commentary going about the show’s writing (way better in seasons 1–4) and how writing is depicted in the show.

We’ve put together a list of writing Dos and Don’ts based on our observations of Carrie Bradshaw’s process and writing style.

Have a theme and stick to it

Every episode revolves around a central question which Carrie explores in her column.

“Are relationships the religion of the 90s?”

“Twenty-something girls: friends… or foe?”

“Can you be friends with an ex?”

“Are men just women with balls?” (Carrie’s words)

All the action in the episode and, we can assume, Carrie’s column for that week focus on that central theme. It’s the perfect premise for an ensemble show where four characters can depict four different ways of looking at the main theme.

Whether you’re writing a tweet or a novel, you really only get to say one thing.

Nocturnal Animals is about what happens when we throw someone away.

Infinite Jest is about what entertainment is doing to us.

Get Out is about the horrors of everyday, middle-class racism.

The success of these stories and of SATC is in that singular focus.

By giving each episode just one thing to say, the show’s creators were able to cover the broad subject of single life in your 30s and lay the groundwork for shows like Girls and Broad City that had other things to say about it. But they didn’t try to eat the whole elephant in one bite and say everything in each episode.

The Lesson: If you have lots of things to say, write lots of things. You get one theme per piece of writing.

Carrie Bradshaw writing on her laptop in Sex and the City

Image: HBO

Have a niche and know your reader

Carrie writes about dating for single women in their 30s in New York. Her column is for women like her. Her appeal is broader than that — you may remember the cringe-inducing virgin 20-something who wants to be Carrie— but she gains that broad readership by aiming small.

In On Writing, Stephen Kings says to picture your ideal reader,

I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what she will think when she reads this part?”

For whatever reason, this is controversial advice. There’s another school out there that will tell you to write like nobody’s watching. Write for yourself.

But if you’re writing for yourself, you are your ideal reader.

The lesson: Have a niche and be as specific as possible. “Single 30-something women in Manhattan” is a better niche than “New Yorkers” or “singles” or “women.”

Deadlines are magic. Be consistent.

You hear Carrie talk about deadlines a lot. Usually, she’s using them as an excuse to get out of a commitment or to cover for a lie. But as far as I can tell, she seems to make her deadline every time.

A deadline makes your work real and forces you to sit down, spark a Marlboro Light if you must, and get the words on the page.

Deadlines help you think too. Once you have your theme, a due date will force you to have something to say about it by a date certain.

Like Carrie, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you’re writing in your free time, which is usually when your “Ah-ha” moment will strike.

The lesson: A deadline helps you write faster and better.

And then I realized…

The fun of Sex and the City isn’t watching Carrie work diligently and craft effortless, clean prose. It’s watching her lead a life that’s a dumpster-fire and aspirational at the same time.

The show features plenty of lessons for writers in what not to do.

Living beyond your means

Ellen Litman has three pieces of advice for writers,

“Don’t go into debt.
Don’t go into debt.
Don’t go into debt.”

Aspiring Carrie Bradshaws might want to embrace a minimalist wardrobe or write about dating in a more affordable city.

Brunching when you should be reading

This is where I call bullshit. CARRIE NEVER READS!* Neither does Mr. Big or any of the other characters whose real-life versions would have gotten where they are through lots and lots of reading. (Except for Miranda).

Stephen King again,

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

*Except when she’s dating the writer in season 5…and gets called out for being a slow reader.

Living for drama.

There’s a fine line between stirring the pot for material and using dysfunctional relationships as procrastination.

Writing is a solitary pursuit. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how Carrie does it, considering she’s allergic to being alone and is pathologically avoidant of the kind of supportive relationships that nurture creative work.

As Ryan holiday put it, “the perfect spouse is the life hack no one told you about.”

Aidan you broke my heart sex and the city gif

Image: HBO

The Lesson: Leave your crazy at home. Make writing a priority…even if that doesn’t make for good TV.


“We off That.” Don’ts for Writers in 2017

Jay-Z’s “Off That” is a concise guide to what was no longer cool as of 2009: everything from baggy clothes and Timbs (Timberland boots,) to fighting in the club and telling your girl you love her.

We writers could use a similar style audit. With all the wackness being perpetrated in the writing game today, it’s time for a little perspective. Here’s a writer’s list of “don’ts” for 2017.

The Word “Just,” we off That.

Remember Marissa Cooper on The O.C? She had this tick where every time she needed to express herself or work through a dilemma she’d start by saying “It’s just…” in a breathless voice. It was part of the reason some people were happy when she got killed off.

That’s what you sound like when you send an email “Just checking in…,” or “Just following up…,” or “Just wanting to know…”

Just stop it. Get to the point, say what you mean, mean what you say. The word “just” damages your credibility.

Continue Reading at Medium, and follow me if you’re on there too. 

50 Things to Collect when you Read

This post has since been reposted by Thought Catalog

  1. Favorite quotes
  2. Gorgeous prose
  3. Bad prose
  4. Lines that make you laugh
  5. and cry
  6. Lines you wish you had written
  7. Scenes that make you wonder how the hell this book got so popular
  8. Place names
  9. Character names
  10. Obscure words (the word for a collector of words is sesquipedalian)
  11. Words you derive the meaning of from their context
  12. Moments when you know what will happen next
  13. Moments where you thought you knew and were surprised
  14. Moments that made you put the book down
  15. Where you were, who you were with, what was going on around you while you were reading (See Proust, Swan’s Way)
  16. Recommended further reading.
  17. Settings
  18. Drinks mentioned
  19. Drugs mentioned
  20. Number of drinks taken (This has been done by readers of  The Sun Also Rises, and in a British Medical Journal study of the James Bond novels and films.)
  21. Bad sex scenes. (The Literary Review puts out an award every year for bad sex in fiction.)
  22. Language that just wouldn’t fly today (again, see Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
  23. Lines that will make you sound smart.
  24. Feelings you’ve had your whole life you’re only just finding the words for in someone else’s work
  25. Words of comfort
  26. Words that disturb
  27. Words a good friend needs to hear right now
  28. Moments that make you say “I could have thought of that”
  29. References to historical/ current events. (I recently found a scene in Watchmen based on an obscure and brutal prison riot in New Mexico, the details of which I DO NOT recommend Googling.)
  30. References to other works of literature and art
  31. Outright theft of other works of art
  32. The sources of later references
  33. Parallels and cross pollination to other stuff you’re reading
  34. Moments that make you see the limits of verbal storytelling
  35. and moments that make you believe there are no limits
  36. Questions for the author
  37. Questions for a character
  38. Questions for yourself, the reader
  39. Food mentioned
  40. Brand names
  41. Celebrities and historical figures name-dropped
  42. Scenes that were better/ worse in the movie
  43. What you liked
  44. What you hated
  45. Notes on an impossible sequel
  46. Who you’d cast in the movie
  47. Life lessons
  48. Songs mentioned
  49. Books mentioned
  50. Number of times a given word appears (David Foster Wallace does a hilarious take-down of John Updike in which compares the number of words devoted to the description of a golf course to the very few words describing the end of the world for which the course is a metaphor.)


This post started as a brainstorming session with The Imperfectionist.


Showing Up, By the Numbers

If you do three morning pages  every day, you’ll write 273,750 words every year (assuming 250 words/ page.) That’s Crime and Punishment plus Lord of the Flies, all before breakfast.


Writing three hours a day gets you to 10,000 hours of practice in ten years. A decade will go by fast if you’re living the kind of life worth writing about. Graham Greene wrote 25 books in a lifetime of three hour days.


Just three pages a day for a year is over a thousand pages. You could still draft a novel in a year writing just one page a day.


Will Self measures his output in “Conrads.” One Conrad is 800 words.  At a rate of one Conrad per day, you can write a short novel in under 70 days.