How to …

Once upon a time I told my dad I was going to be a writer and he bought me one of those Dummy Guides. It had a bright yellow cover and practically guaranteed I’d produce a bestseller, fast. After a few weeks Dad asked how I was getting on? Had I worked my way through the chapters yet?

Reader, I had not.

He shook his head sadly. Dad was an autodidact who’d taught himself to play the piano, speak three languages and produce a passable watercolour. Surely anyone willing to apply themselves, could learn the ‘rules’ of writing? It’s a question I think about quite a lot, especially as a teacher and mentor. Wouldn’t it be great, the theory goes, if there was a map to follow, a class to take, a video to watch, some instructions we could stick to that would get the story written!

Well, no, actually! Isn’t that the fear of AI? Where would the personality, individuality, oddity and beautiful imperfection be in a creative work written by rote? Following the rules can certainly polish a piece of writing, but can they make it sing?

A lot of ‘how to’ books are more sophisticated than Dad’s Dummy Guide, but you still come across the common, mostly sensible ‘rules’ (‘show don’t tell, get in late and out early, introduce your main character in the first paragraph, don’t start with a dream or weather, erase the passive voice). These can tie writers up in knots, worrying about tense, perspective, pace etc. All of it matters but not necessarily in terms of getting it ‘right’. There is no right! But we need to read widely to realise this.

I read for pleasure, of course, and to experience the thrill of living in someone else’s creation and at the same time I read to think about the ‘how to’ in terms of craft. I read outside my comfort zone, in different genres. I read anything labelled ‘difficult’ and I read to find out what other writers are trying. I recommend following Independent Publishers, who often take far more risks. It doesn’t mean you or I will or want to become experimental writers, but it’s exciting to see what can be achieved. It can spark thoughts about how to tackle a scene or present a character or just take you down an interesting tangent.

I suggest (sorry, more advice!) we should keep a Reading Journal. What are you reading at the moment, what’s it about, what do you notice, like, love, dislike? And if you’re interested, think about how that aspect of craft works (or not) on the page. Previously, I suggested Reverse Engineering Vol 1 & 2 (https:/ and I’d like to add Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer. It’s on my ‘How To’ shelf (yes, I have gathered one over the years!) but I think of it more as a conversation, the best kind, with a fellow book enthusiast. Also, George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, a wonderfully instructive close reading of four Russian greats.

When you’ve got a draft of a new story, try writing a page about it as a reader. Precis the plot, describe the characters in a line or two, notice what shines, where your attention is really held, when you start to skim read. Think about what ‘the author’ is trying to do. Write a sentence summarising what it’s about, using the words on the page, the evidence, rather than what you hope it’s about. Do they align? If not, what’s missing? Or what needs cutting away?

Our short story award closes on April 15th for stories up to 2,200. We’re really looking forward to reading your work.

Happy writing,