The Magic Bracket, or It’s About Story

I have a new friend. It looks like this:


Or, if you look at it with from the other side, more like this:


Full on, it’s a bit more complex and robust:


Brackets. Or, if you want to call them by their official writing name, that would be: placeholder. (In the editing life, it’s more often referred to as Important Question or Explanation for Writer to READ!!!!!)

I’ve always liked brackets. They work well for those days when my brain is functioning poorly, when I can’t bring up a word I know I want, or can’t remember whether the handle on the ceiling at The Mystery Spot is inside the first or second doorway. (My son swears they did not move it.)

I’m using them more in this WIP than I ever thought possible. With all the history, I have read, you’d think there would be fewer gaps in the details I can supply about Chicago in 1913. Well, okay, you’d only think that if you were me, hoping against hope! I have names for, wait for it…yes: Four characters. Not counting the parents, who must have first names (and last) in there somewhere. I refer to the young, male possibilities characters as [LI1] and [LI2]. LI=Love Interest.

Don’t even get me started on that.

To another person (i.e., the person I was during the first few days of writing), all these holes might be irritating. Nerve-wracking. Terrifying like having to kayak back to the dock when your glasses are at  the bottom of the ocean. (No, you can’t hear that story today.)

The last couple of days, though, I’m starting to remember the grace of these two little pieces of punctuation. They give me speed. And freedom. They give me permission notto concentrate on the words, which will change, anyway. (And change…and change.)

Instead, I’m thinking about the story. About what needs to happen next, about what each of the characters is thinking about in any given scene, about their reactions to events and to each other. I’m not getting that story down, not yet, but it’s gelling as I write.

And the uses of those brackets are growing. They’re not just for gaps anymore.

They’re for ideas.

They’re for letting me see that this seed of a book will, with work, grow into something strong. Strong enough to be read.

Do you use brackets? Italics? Bright pink font? What do you leave placeholders for, and how do they affect your writing? Chime in!


  1. Erin says:

    Hmmm. Is it okay if I try to date brackets too, or are you guys going steady?


    • beckylevine says:

      Erin, these guys are SO easily cloned, there are enough for everybody! Grab some and try them out. 🙂


  2. Sometimes I throw in a blank. Often I actually come up with a word or a description that I know will change later. I might highlight that.

    I footnote anything that is based on facts so typically the lack of a footnote will alert me that this is not yet the real deal.


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I’m doing this, too, a bit. I like the footnote idea. I’m not putting in enough real, known facts yet, but that might be a really good thing for me to do 2nd or 3rd draft!


  3. P. J. Hoover says:

    New friends are always nice!
    I don’t use brackets but insert comments in Word. I try to keep them positive (minimizing the “this sucks”) by using things like “add more here”.


    • beckylevine says:

      Duh! to me! I started using brackets WAY before there were comments. Maybe before there was Word?! I used comments all through revisions on the critique book; you’d think I’d have thought of it for this.

      Hmmm…may still be too much garbage in this draft, but I think it’s going to be a good way to track problems/research needs in the next one. Thanks for the reminder!


  4. Shawna says:

    LOL I love your posts, Becky. I was using the underline key, but I like your bracket idea better… it seems more like a pregnant pause or a mystery as opposed to that sound you used to get when the station would go off the air (now I’m dating myself)

    My last (or current as I haven’t queried it yet) novel had a completed beginning and end and very, very little middle in the fist draft. No names, just bg (bad guy) she (fmc) and he(mmc) you get the idea. : )

    Then, as inspiration hit, I filled the blanks because I knew what would happen, but not exactly how. When I thought I could hopscotch on the plot points,(I call that a working rough draft) I went back to the beginning and filled in the blanks, named the characters etc.


    • beckylevine says:

      You’re not dating yourself–I was just never able to stay up that late!

      I like that you’re going in and filling things in. I think my next draft will be set up like that.


  5. Terri Thayer says:

    I was first introduced to the brackets in You Can Write A Mystery by Gillian Roberts. She likes them because they’re lower case and don’t get used in a manuscript. Easily searchable.

    The brackets mean any number of things to me. Sometimes I know I need to add more emotion, or that this is a good place to drop a clue. It could be I don’t know the exact name of the street or building I’m referencing. Or maybe I’m reminding myself I changed the name of the character.

    Like you, the brackets free me up to keep writing.


  6. K.M. Weiland says:

    I learned firsthand the value of placeholders. When I finally got wireless Internet about a year and a half ago, having all that research information right had my fingertips was way too much of a temptation. Whenever I needed the least little bit of info, I’d stop writing and start googling. And googling. And googling. Before I knew it, I was using all my writing time surfing the Internet. Not good.

    Nowadays, I unplug the wireless card, fill in my missing information to the best of the ability, and wait until the next morning to do the googling. Works much better that way!


    • beckylevine says:

      I know that feeling–we only got high-speed this last year, too. The brackets do remind me I can do that research later!


  7. Maria Hooley says:

    I put in lengthy blanks when there’s something I need to get information on and then I go back because if I stop right then and try to figure it out, the momentum is gone. And it reminds me too much of my real life which is what I’m enjoying a reprieve from in the first place!


    • beckylevine says:

      I love that–yes, I don’t want to be pulled too far out of the story OR back into reality! 🙂


  8. Andra M. says:


    Okay, you had to see that coming!

    I usually add bold text inside either brackets or parentheses. However, I discovered bookmarks in Word and Wordperfect. Much easier to find when I have 300+ pages to sift through.

    I also keep a notebook, just in case I forget why I added the brackets in the first place.


    • beckylevine says:

      All right, now I need to look for Word bookmarks!

      I’m going to start keeping a notebook for research details as I start on draft 2. Right now I don’t even really know what I need to know!


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