How I fell in love with how-to-write manuals (only twenty years and three books too late)

19th June 2021
Blog
5 min read
Edited
28th June 2021
The notebook I keep for writing tips and techniques.

I’d worked in publishing for twenty years before I realised that I didn’t know that much about writing.

When I studied English my university tutors always told me that I had a good style – good enough, in fact, that I got a first, and some of my undergraduate work was published. My postgrad tutor told me the same thing. And although I never edited a book in twenty years at indie and corporate publishers – mainly, I sold rights – I wrote scores of blurbs and pieces of sales copy, because I enjoyed it, and my colleagues liked my style. I’d even written a book, about bicycles, which hadn’t troubled the best-seller charts, but had earned out its modest advance.

So when I was made redundant and became a full-time author, I didn't worry about the state of my prose. Instead I worried about paying the rent, and finding an agent, and getting research access – but as to the actual writing, my style was surely fine, right?

Wrong.

I landed a couple of small deals quickly enough, for lifestyle titles that didn’t require long-form prose, and found them easy to write. On the side I worked on chapters of my ‘big book’ – the passion project that I’d dreamed of writing for years – and just as Covid hit, I started approaching agents with them. One bit.

She clearly got the book, and gave enthusiastic feedback, but she didn’t submit it immediately. She didn’t submit it after I’d given it a thorough revision, and she didn’t submit it after I wrote an additional chapter. She put hours into detailed line-by-line edits, and still, to my growing frustration, she didn’t submit it. Instead, in passing, she asked me if I had ever read Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence?

I had not.

But I trusted her judgement, so I picked it up. To my disappointment and frustration, I thought the first chapter pointless waffle, and I nearly didn’t carry on. Thankfully, I did, discovering that Moran quickly kicks into gear and stuffs all the other chapters to bursting point with practical, actionable advice. What sort of thing does he advise? ‘Writing infected with too much to be is... soggy and flat,’ he says, for instance, so we should switch out to be, is, wasare, and were in favour of dynamic, transitive verbs.

Back I went to my chapters, finding that this worked – as did a host of his other simple ideas. I tweaked my paragraphs, so they all ended on stressed syllables,  I shifted out of the passive sense and into the active, I used verbs instead of nouns, I followed a long sentence with a short one. And so on.

Curious as to what else was out there, I then picked up Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style and realised that I could structure my arguments a lot better. I moved on to William Zinsser's On Writing Well and discovered a bunch of tricks to make my paragraphs punchier. John Yorke's Into the Woods showed me why my narratives had failed to captivateRoy Peter Clark and George Saunders revealed aspects of the craft of literature that I'd never thought about in three years of study. I fell in love with them all, and others like them, and filled hundreds of pages of a brown notebook with the best and most useful bits of their work.

I also applied their ideas and techniques to the raw material of my chapters; cutting, editing, switching, replacing. It was easily the most fun I’ve ever had at a keyboard. And with that revision – and no doubt, a sigh of relief – my agent placed my ‘big book’ – not for huge money, but with a brilliant house, and exactly the right editor.

So, my advice to any writer who feels like they need a helping hand, which in my experience is most of us, would be: swallow your pride, forget all of the times people told you that you ‘write really well’, and pick up Joe Moran, or Roy Peter Clark, or Will Storr, or John Yorke, or Bobette Buster, or William Zinsser. Study, learn, profit – grow.


Roly Allen is the author of a bread baking handbook, three books about bicycles, and a gift book for marijuana smokers. He is currently working on his first trade non-fiction title, which will be published by Profile in 2023.

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