Two Lessons to Make You A Better Writer

From Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

Robert M. Vunabandi
11 min readFeb 21, 2023

Writing is probably one of the most difficult things one can do. In all forms of communication, it is probably one of the oldest ways—behind oral speaking—that people use to convey information to each other, and yet, doing it right is tough and only a few managed to do so and be universally recognized for it.

Though I don’t think I’m a good writer, I strive to be better in every piece of text I write, and that is why I decided to read the book Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield. After the fact, I believe that this book has made me a better writer and will continue to make me a better writer if I continuously apply its lessons.

All in all, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t has taught me two important lessons about writing:

  1. Understand the elements that make up a story
  2. Write everything as if it was a story

By applying these two lessons to anything that one writes—whether it is a blog, a book, a novel, a short story, an Ad, or anything else communicative, I believe that it will improve the overall piece.

So, let’s dive deep into both, one at a time.

Understand the Elements That Make Up A Story

It is paramount to first understand what makes up a story. The book teaches the following key concepts about what makes up a story:

  1. A story generally has a 3-Acts structure: Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, each of which plays an important and specific role in the story.
  2. A story has a hero and a villain.
  3. A story has to be about something. A story must have a theme.

These are the core elements that make up a story, which helps in ensuring that everything you write fits within the context of a story and which ultimately will make your writing better.

The 3-Act Structure

The book states, “every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.” Within that, each Act plays an important role:

  • Act 1: “Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.”
  • Act 2: “Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.”
  • Act 3: The climax

In addition, Pressfield stresses that there’s a certain amount of time that is spent on each Act. For movie scripts for instance, each act has roughly a certain number of pages: Act 1 is about page 1–25, Act 2 is page 25 to about 75–85, and Act 3 is from that to about about page 105–120. This comes down to about ~20%, ~50%, and ~30% of the story. Note, however, that this is NOT a rule. It’s probably not even a guideline. It’s more of a rule of thumb.


Act 1 is made up of two things: The Setup and the Inciting Incident. Pressfield explained these concepts in terms of a movie, but they can (and should) be applied to any form of writing.

Firstly, the Setup is simply introducing all the different aspects of the story. Introducing the main characters—in particular the hero and the villain, developing context around the story, and perhaps making the audience acquainted with each characters’ motives. However, the movie hasn’t started yet until we reach the Inciting Incident.

The Inciting Incident is the thing that starts the movie. It’s when we, the audience, finally get a hint at what the movie is about (i.e., the theme). Pressfield asserts that you can tell when you’ve got a good Inciting “when the movie’s climax is embedded within it”, and then he proceeds with the example of the movie Silver Linings Playbook which Pressfield claims starts about 10 minutes in when Pat Solitano meets Veronica’s sister Tiffany at the dinner his buddy Ronnie invited him to. Pressfield writes, “anticipation of experiencing the climax is what pulls us, the audience, through the movie. … If your Climax is not embedded in your Inciting Incident, you don’t have an Inciting Incident.”


Soon after the Inciting Incident, we get into Act 2, for which Pressfield states that it needs to have an escalation of complications and stakes, and more importantly, he claims that “the second Act belongs to the villain”. The way I process this is that Act 2 must hint back at the villain of the story multiple times and make it seem like the hero of the story is facing something insurmountable. In particular, Pressfield highlights that Act 2 ends with the “All is Lost Moment” in which the movie makes it seems like the hero has completely lost to the villain.


Finally, there’s Act 3. Act 3 is the end, and it is the climax of the story. More specifically, Act 3 ends with the climax. How do we get there though? Pressfield explains that quickly after the “All is Lost Moment”, we get an “Epiphanal Moment” in which the hero gets a breakthrough insights, “an ‘Aha!’ moment”. This is what spurs the hero into victory against the villain. Pressfield writes, “a great epiphanal moment not only defines the stakes and the jeopardy for the protagonist and for the audience, but it restates the theme and answers the question, ‘What is this story about?’”

Understanding this general framework and structure can help with both guiding the writing process, making it less strenuous already. With that said, the other elements are still as important in order to really improve a piece of writing.

The Hero and the Villain

A story should have a hero and a villain, but one thing I should say right off the bat is that neither the hero nor the villain must be a human person. The hero or the villain or both could be non-human living beings or even abstract concepts. They also don’t have to be constrained to fictional character as the hero of most good self-help books is indeed the person reading the book. Similarly, the villain can be, for instance, a bad habit (as such is part of the villain for the book Atomic Habit for example).


Though Pressfield didn’t explicitly define what a “hero” is exactly, I see the hero as the person—or thing—the audience and, ultimately, the author is rooting for. The hero eventually triumphs in every story, and the greater the hero’s journey, the greater the story. Pressfield highlights the following 5 points for what makes up a good story’s hero:

  1. “[Their] issues drive the story. Theirs and nobody else’s.”
  2. “[Their] desire/issue/objective is monumental.”
  3. “[Their] passion for this desire/issue/objective is unquenchable.”
  4. “At the critical points in the story, [their] actions or needs (and nobody else’s) dictate the way the story turns.”
  5. “The story ends when [their] issues are resolved.”


In addition, Pressfield gave a few pointers for the villain as well: two in particular. Firstly, Pressfield says to “Give Your Villain a Brilliant Speech”. In particular, this speech (1) “must allow the antagonist to state his or her point of view as clearly and powerfully as possible” and (2) “must be so rationally stated and so compelling in its logic that we in the audience find ourselves thinking, ‘Hmm, this villain is evil as hell—but we have to admit, [they] got a good point.’” Lastly, in the chapter titled “Keep The Villain Human”, Pressfield reminds that the villain carries the counter-theme, and it must therefore be plausible why the villain seeks what they seek as with almost everything in life, there’s always two sides of the story.

All in all, the idea of the hero and the villain grounds a story. When it’s not clear who the hero is and/or who the villain is, it is difficult for a writer to keep things focused, so not knowing these two can be the source of the difficulty that someone experiences when they’re writing.

A Story Must Have a Theme

Finally, the theme. The theme is what the story is about. The way a theme helps in writing a story is in knowing what to leave out and what to keep it. A theme brings focus to the writing process. In the same way that everything in the story is driven by the hero’s issue, everything in the story must be related to the theme. In this way, the hero’s issue and the theme must be very closely related.

A story without a theme usually is boring. It’s similar to when someone is telling a story that’s not really going anywhere. That’s because they fail to give us the Inciting Incident (the thing that pulls the audience in and gives them a hint about the theme—what the story is about) and they fail to keep everything about the theme—making the audience bored and wanting them to get to the freaking point of it all. After reading this, it is clear tome that not defining your theme will automatically make the writing process difficult and will make the end result something of lower quality.

Again, writing is extremely difficult, and I do think it is difficult for a reason. When you are communicating something, part of the reason why it is difficult is because it might not be clear in your own head in the first place. Things have to make sense first of all in your own head, and all of us have stuff negative patterns of thoughts to work on. Yet, it’s just like Albert Einstein allegedly said, “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself”.

Nevertheless, Pressfield has done all of us a great service. We are now armed with all the elements that make up a story, which should make it much easier for anyone to write, and to that end, Pressfield suggests to write everything as if it was story.

Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

Write Everything As If It Was A Story

To write everything as if it was a story, I believe that one must apply these knowledge specifically before and after writing something—and do so repeatedly by going back and forth in the (before → during → after) writing process. That’s because I find the lessons most useful in those two stages.

Towards the end of the book Steven Pressfield stresses the following 8 points (all taken directly and word-for-word from the book):

  1. “Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.” Note: I didn’t explain what a “concept” is but it’s similar to what the quote says: putting a unique and original spin, twist, or framing device upon a particular idea or problem.
  2. “Every story must be about something something. It must have a theme.”
  3. “Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.”
  4. “Every story must have a hero.”
  5. “Every story must have a villain.”
  6. “Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.”
  7. “Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.”
  8. “Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.”

These, you could say, summarizes everything stated in the first part of this blog. To now apply these lessons to a piece of writing, here’s how I’ve decided to break down these principles before and after the writing process.

Before Writing a Blog

One should answer the following questions before every blog (using blog here, but for other people it could be a speech, an Ad, a story, a book, etc):

  1. What is this blog about? What is the theme of this blog?
  2. Who is the hero? Who is the villain?

These questions directly map to principles #1, #2, #4, and #5 respectively. Let’s dive into each of these.

What is this blog about? What is the theme of this blog?

When I write, I need to remind myself constantly of what the theme is. All in all, everything in the blog needs to be about the theme, and anything that is not about it should be left out. Pressfield emphasizes that when an author gets stuck, it’s especially important to have a theme because then you decide to make the next part (or sentence) cohere with the theme. This makes writing easier and smoother, and it makes the writing more focused which is ultimately better for the audience that is going to read it.

Who is the hero? Who is the villain?

What I emphasized earlier about the hero and the villain—that they don’t need to be people and that they can be abstract concepts, made me feel a lot less constrained about these principles. I actually felt liberated. Indeed, the point is to know who the hero and villain is so that you ensure that your story is fully focused on them. In my blog titled “Why I write”, I’ve actually came up with a universal hero for my blogs—which is the person that didn’t know about the concept I’m writing about—and the villain—their skepticism in believing these concepts. My goal then, would be to convince them to buy into these ideas. Though these make up solid universal heros and villains for my blogs, each blog would indeed have their own more specific heros and villains.

Again, having a clear hero and villain will make the writing even more specific (on top of the effects of the theme) which will make writing easier and result in higher quality material.

After Writing

After writing, here’s how I would review the blog:

  1. Ensure that every paragraph is on-theme.
  2. Following the 3-act structure, ensure everything about each act is met

These map to principles #2 and principles #3, #6, #7, and #8 respectively. Let’s dive into each.


When writing, it’s extremely easy to veer off course and write about something that is only tangentially related, and that’s why the review process—which happens after writing—is extremely important to make sure everything fits the theme.

To that end, Pressfield advises to ruthlessly (1) keep everything that is on-theme (i.e., fitting with the theme and helping with the theme) and (2) removing everything that is not on-theme.

The way I process this is to break down my essay into outlines after writing it, and then dive into each point on the outline and recursively repeat the process down to each sentence and words (time permitting). If Theme = Topic 1 + Topic 2 + Topic 3, then Topic 1 MUST be related to the theme. Once that’s confirmed, then everything inside Topic 1 must help build up what Topic 1 is—but only after we’ve confirmed that Topic 1 is indeed related to the theme. Then, repeat this process with each Topic (say Topic 1 = Sub-topic 1 + Sub-topic 2 + Sub-topic 3, do the same). On top of that, it would be important to also check that each sub-topic (or sub-sub-topic) are also related directly to the theme somehow. That way, there is more coherence in the overall story.

Again, this guides the writing process, making it much easier to do and resulting in higher quality.


For Act 1, I should be able to spot out and flesh out the Inciting Incident. That way, I know that my blogs have a solid start.

For Act 2, I need to (1) hint back at the villain multiple times and (2) demonstrate why this villain is so difficult to overcome (though without overdoing it.

Finally, for Act 3, it’s important that I restate the theme explicitly through the epiphanal moment, and it’s important that I go through my blogs and ensure that immediately following Act 2, it starts with a good epiphanal moment.

In Conclusion

There’s a lot I had to leave out from the book in writing this blog—this blog should definitely not be a substitute for the book: it’s at best a synopsis of the book.

Needless to say, I highly recommend reading Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t especially if you are a writer, and chances are, you are a writer. Do you email people? Do you communicate at your workplace? Are you a content creator? Do you have school writing assignment? Do you… talk to people? I honestly can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from the lessons in this book—which are really all about communicating more effectively. For writing blogs specifically, I’ve written this blog so that I can go back to it as a tool for my writing process (in future blogs). Yet, I fully believe that looking at every pieces of communication through these lenses will indeed make anyone a better writer and communicator.



Robert M. Vunabandi

Learning through life experiences and books, I share my ever-evolving understanding of the world and the niche-sphere of life that I live in.