Every time Christmas or another birthday rolls around, my family is faced with the question: what to buy for someone who is funneling most of her time and resources into trying to become a travel writer, and shows almost no interest in anything else? The answer, as it turns out, is found in the Self-Help section of our local bookstore.
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No, I didn’t find myself unwrapping How To Give Up The Dream And Get A Real Job on Christmas morning. Instead, my parents choose to support my dream-chasing efforts — with writing manuals. Lots and lots of writing manuals.
As I write this I can see no less than seventeen writing-related reference books on the shelf above my desk. They’re a mixture of style guides, first-person writing memoirs by famous authors, and straight how-to books, on both writing and the business of writing — How To Make Real Money As A Freelance Writer, say, or How To Write Magazine Articles. Each one offers me something different in the way of writing advice, and each one has its limitations, too. Here are a few things I’ve learned about the pros and cons of writing manuals, that might come in handy if you (or your parents) are starting a collection of your own:
These don’t generally make great recreational reading, but a good style guide is an essential element in any aspiring writer’s arsenal. I can’t count the number of editors (and professors, and employers …) I’ve heard ranting about the lack of basic grammatical understanding displayed by our generation. So pick up a style guide and finally learn the difference between “it’s” and “its”, “which” and “that”, or whatever your personal grammar bogeyman happens to be. Even if you feel pretty confident in your grammar and style, it never hurts to have a refresher.
An amazing range of famous authors have written memoirs about their careers, and almost all of these contain invaluable nuggets of wisdom and advice about the writing life. Sometimes these are delivered to the reader explicitly, as in Stephen King’s On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft. Other times, the writing advice is woven seamlessly into the writer’s memories, waiting to be picked up on by the careful reader.
One of the best examples of this is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir about his years as a struggling young writer in Paris, and one of my favorite books of all time. Hemingway spends a good deal of time describing his writing process: afternoons spent nursing a drink in a Latin Quarter café, trying to perfect his short stories. At one point he writes:
It was a very simple story called ‘Out of Season’ and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
Hemingway doesn’t say: “Exercise #3 — Write a story where a crucial detail is omitted, yet present in the story nonetheless.” But ever since I read those lines, which really go a long way to explaining the power of his short fiction, I have been trying to consciously re-capture that technique in a short story of my own.
So do a library catalogue search of your favorite writers, and see how many have written any sort of non-fiction or autobiography. Then go through their memoir with an eye out for any discussion of technique, method or inspiration. You’ll be surprised by how much you might learn.
There are a number of travel-specific writing manuals on the market, and many more broad writing how-to books. These usually include an introductory discussion of the nature of the freelance writing life, a few chapters on the writing process (generating ideas, outlining, interviewing and research, drafting, and editing), and a section on the business of freelance writing — office supplies, professionalism, contracts, fees, copyright, pitching and submitting, and so on.
As a general rule, I find these books more useful for learning about the business side of things than the nuts and bolts of the writing itself. This is because, for me anyway, the best way to improve my writing is to read, read, read, write, write, write, and then go back some time later and look over what I’ve written with as critical an eye as I can manage. Reading a few classic novels or several issues of the New Yorker, and then re-reading my own writing while keeping in mind what those successful publications have done right, is far more useful for my process than a twenty-page chapter on how to write scintillating paragraph transitions.
Having said that, though, the other way to improve my writing is to push my boundaries and try new things, and some of the exercises and examples outlined in these books have helped me do that. Besides, nothing you read in a how-to book is likely to make your writing worse — even if you only pick up on one small piece of advice that’s new to you, then the book has paid for itself.
Nothing in National Geographic Traveler or Outside is going to help you figure out how those authors got their stories into those magazines, and that’s where the how-to book steps in.
As far as the business side goes, these books can be invaluable. Nothing in National Geographic Traveler or Outside is going to help you figure out how those authors got their stories into those magazines, and that’s where the how-to book steps in. Chapters on pitching etiquette, sample query letters, explanations of the various freelance contracts and copyright arrangements out there — all these are tough to find anyplace else. Of course, you don’t want to get hung up on the business end before you’ve actually written anything worth selling. The writing always has to come first.
There are all kinds of writing manuals out there, and I firmly believe that reading ten books of varying quality could be better than reading just one, even if it’s a good one. Each book offers a different angle and slightly different content, and if you have several perspectives to draw on it’s much easier to form your own method. That being said, here are a few of my favorites:
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser: This is the essential guide to nonfiction writing. Zinsser ignores the business side and focuses instead on the writing process, beginning with the basics of structure and style and moving on to chapters about specific nonfiction forms, including the travel article. The book is informative, inspiring, and unlike many how-to books is actually enjoyable to read. I re-read this one at least once a year.
- Travel Writing, by Don George: Lonely Planet’s guide to travel writing is one of the best out there, filled with Don George’s trademark enthusiasm and good cheer. It covers the travel writing lifestyle, the writing itself, a good specific section on getting published in newspapers and magazines, and a brief chapter on the business end of things. The book also includes interviews with travel editors and writers, and a separate chapter on guidebook writing. The resources section at the back of the book is excellent.
- Get a Freelance Life: Insider Guide to Freelance Writing, by Margit Feury Ragland. Put out by the good people at Mediabistro.com, a freelance writing community network and support site, Get a Freelance Life is one of the best guides I’ve encountered for figuring out the pitching and selling side of the writing life. It includes detailed chapters on finding ideas, targeting the right publications, fitting your idea to the right article format, pitching, following-up and reacting to replies, contracts, networking, and establishing enduring relationships with editors. It also includes sections on writing and finances.