Beth Goder
Author and Archivist

Square Brackets

What’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received?

Use square brackets.

Seriously, this has helped me so much. My first drafts (and second and third) have square brackets scattered throughout.

I use square brackets to indicate sections that need work, so that I can write without breaking flow.

Instead of stopping to look up the internal components of a lawn mower, I can write:

I jammed the [weird thingy inside the lawn mower] with a wrench.

Instead of trying to figure out believable dialogue on my first try, I can write:

[“As you know, Bob, the aliens are invading right now,” she said. “And they don’t look happy.”]

Here’s an actual example from a work in progress:

He began the class by reviewing [physics thing], his [some identifying characteristic.]

Who knows if any of that sentence will make it to the final draft? Or any of that scene?

And that’s another good thing about square brackets. I don’t have to waste time getting each scene right in an early draft, since at that point, I’m still playing around with the structure of the story. I can block out the scene, writing down a rough idea of how I think it will go. If I switch stuff up, or even delete the scene entirely, I won’t have wasted time doing unnecessary research or agonizing over a sentence that I didn’t even keep.

Square brackets are searchable, so if I want to do some quick revisions, I can find the places that need work. I also use brackets to block off new sections of writing to review later.

And the brackets are a visual reminder that a draft doesn’t have to be perfect. When I stick something in square brackets, I feel relieved, knowing that I’ll go back over it again and make it better.