February 1, 2011


The other day, a newsletter from my local writers’ association provided the name of a resource book I thought might be worth looking into. I got it from the library but found much of the advice was pie-in-the sky. Example: a good way to sell my book is to get on the Oprah Winfrey Show (now defunct). Generally, I am skeptical about self-help books for writers. Usually the only one helped by the sale is the person who wrote the book. Like my broker says about stock tips, by the time the information breaks into print, the advice is passé.   

So, I’d like to save beginning writers a little money.  Here are the basics for getting started without having to buy an expensive “How To” book.

Don’t buy How To books!!! Check them out at the library. I include in this list not only books about how to write but also those with lists of where to send your manuscript. Journals and publishers and even agents can have the shelf life of unrefrigerated ice cream. By the time a “How To” book reaches print much of its information or lists are no longer current. USE THE WEB. It’s free and up-to-date – though not always.

You need only one book to learn how to write: Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style.” You might also consider “The Chicago Manuel of Styleput out by University of Chicago Press. I’d add “Modern English Usage” by Fowler if you’re a little shaky on grammar. After that practice, practice, practice. And read, read, read books similar to the one you want to publish. Nobody teaches better than the books of successful authors.

Expect to face rejection and loads of it. If you get a personal comment with that rejection, no matter how devastating, cherish it. It took the editor an extra minute to say something personal and given the hundreds or thousands of submission he or she gets, that minute of comment is a precious. Hold on to it even if it draws blood and learn. One word of caution: if you have a fragile ego don’t be a writer because it is by your critics you will be taught.

Once you finish a work you believe in, have the good sense to pay to have it edited. NOTE: If you send an editor a sow’s ear, it won’t come back as a silk purse. It will come back a sow’s ear but a polished one. An editor can’t make you a successful writer. All an editor can do is clean up your messes. But given the print competition, you want to submit only your best, even if your best proves not to be good enough… yet.

The truth is no one can teach you how to write. You have to do it. You have to be open to your mistakes. You have to be prepared to bleed! Thinking a self-help book can teach you how to succeed at writing is tantamount to an infant lying in a crib and thinking it can learn how to walk by reading a manual. You’ll walk only after you’ve tried and fallen a thousand times and each time bloodied your knees.  Much of what we discover in life comes to us the hard way.