Thursday, September 20, 2012

Learning the Craft of Writing

I’m not a big proponent of books on writing. I know, I know, lots of folks swear by them.  From the old Strunk & White to Julie Cameron’s inspirational works and everything in between, writers plow through countless tomes to help them pen that next bestseller. And I’m not saying some study therein isn’t helpful. It surely can be, and there are a couple I recommend, but only in very specific instances.  More to the point, however, is that you can’t learn to write well just by studying the process. Writing is a doing endeavor.

Countless writers query me, wanting to employ my services, who haven’t written much. Perhaps a few chapters, with an idea of where the rest of the book is going. Perhaps even a first draft. Often this is their initial stab at fiction, and, before they’ve even contacted me, they have already signed with an Indy house, have the cover and pub date. Possibly even a publicist. Oy! 

That somewhat boggles my mind. In fact, I won’t work with the latter at all. Serious writers are those willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to learn this very exacting craft. And that doesn’t mean publishing a first effort in its infancy. In the days of yore, those initial efforts routinely ended up in a drawer somewhere, and almost always deservedly so. I’m always fond of quoting the Hemingway story where he lost his first three manuscripts, leaving them on a train. Devastating at the time, but later he said that was the best thing that ever happened to his craft.  

I can and do work with writers at very early stages, but not often. I counsel them to do their own legwork first, and that means, as the mantra goes, to write and write and write some more. Then, study others’ works, which means, of course, read and read and read some more. Oft times, new writers do read, although only in the genre they’re pursuing. But the point is to read widely, including the classics, both pre-twentieth century and the more modern ones. I do laugh at how often my writers tell me later that I’ve ruined reading for them, as they’re constantly picking through substantive mistakes in others’ work. But I assure them that’s temporary—that while they’ll always find ways to make books better, they’ll eventually truly and so-gratefully appreciate great works. And they do. 

When a writer has done the above, working with a gifted editor proves so much more effective. That sounds quite obvious, but the reason has more to do with just skill level. The writer himself is then in a place much more conducive to learning, with a broader foundation upon which to build his craft and his book. Getting there just takes time and effort. It takes rolling up your sleeves, doing the hard work, mastering some patience, and also allowing your skin to thicken a bit in order to absorb criticism and learn from it rather than bristling and blaming the messenger. 

And it speaks to something deeper and more numinous as well. For it’s those who stick it out through all of the above who, indeed, have a wondrous love of this craft we call writing. And it’s from those writers that brilliance comes, and we all remember why we do this in the first place, which in the end is the love of the word and the reverence for great writing. The ability to take the reader’s breath away in a few lines, and leave her longing for more. 

Which is, of course, not a taught thing in the end. Yep, the pieces can be learned in many ways, but the putting together of magic emerges from that quiet, well-lighted room . . .    

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

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  1. I so agree. Writing a good manuscript takes time, and then some more time. It takes a lot of changing and a lot of input from critique partners and developing a thick skin. But, some day it will be worth it all.

  2. "Writing is a doing endeavor." Absolutely, Susan, an active rather than a passive verb.

    "Write and write and write some more." Practice may not make perfect, but it gets us a lot closer.

    "Read and read and read some more." It's amazing what we learn from other writers, and it has nothing to do with being a copy cat. We learn what works, what touches us, and what compels us to turn the page. We also learn inspires us to close the book and put it back on the shelf (or return it to the library).

    "For it’s those who stick it out through all of the above who, indeed, have a wondrous love of this craft we call writing . . . it’s from those writers that brilliance comes . . . which is, of course, not a taught thing in the end." It is from this, as you say, the "magic emerges."

    This is a fantastic post, Susan. More than a simple reminder of the need to master our craft, it separates true writers from those who simply go through the process for reasons of their own, not because they have a burning desire to tell a story as no one else can tell it -- and to do it so well that it forever leaves its mark on the hearts of its readers.

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  4. I am the complete opposite - I'm an editor, but I also LOVE how-to books. Which is why the rest of the month we'll be reviewing new ones here. ;) I'm totally enthralled with The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall - what a fabulous book about WHY we write. You'll see my review next week! And a few more from other team members.

  5. Dani, I also enjoy HOW-TO books, but I have known some writers who get so caught up in those, they never get around to the write, write, write, which is so important. I look back on early works of mine and cringe at how poorly written they are. I have picked up tips on craft elements from classes and books, but what brought me to the point where I am getting such nice reviews from the big four is the writing, writing, writing. And I agree with Susan and Linda that it is imperative to read, read, read, and not just in the genre in which you plan to write.

  6. Linda's comment about mastering our craft: "it separates true writers from those who simply go through the process for reasons of their own," echoed by Janet and Maryann, encapsulates the hear of this post! It's those who truly love to write who actually write, which is the key to the kingdom. All is else can be helpful, but the writing's the thing :)

  7. And all writing counts - including blogging. A lot of writers poo-poo that, but if you put your best writing into a blog, it improves your skills. I even believe journal writing polishes the writing. On that note, I'm off to write a couple of blog posts... for pay. ;)

  8. Well-said! My favorite quote from Hemingway is "There are no great writers, only great re-writers."


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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