So You Want to Write! (Sample Essays)

So You Want to Write! by Maeve Maddox

Here’s what a veteran editor has to say about So You Want to Write!

I recommend this book for people who want to write but aren’t sure how to get started. Filled with wise and practical advice for aspiring authors, this collection of essays describes the strategies that good writers use and provides the expert advice that authors often need.

Not only does this book answer critical questions about the writing process but also it provides techniques for transforming the desire to write into a polished manuscript that sells. The essays, grouped logically in 10 chapters, are written simply and clearly. They will help an author think through major writing decisions: What will I write? How do I write? What will make my writing better? What do I do with my writing?

So You Want to Write! fulfills the role of a personal writing coach. Aspiring authors will do well to learn from Maeve Maddox’s experience and knowledge.” –David Bowman

Editor and writing coach with 20+ years of editing experience, David Bowman is Chief Editor of Precise Edit and the author of five books on writing.

The 50 essays in So You Want to Write! are arranged under the following headings:

So You Want to Write!1. Writer
2. Genre
3. Process
4. Style
5. Technique
6. Mechanics
7. References for Writers
8. Marketing
9. Vocabulary
10. Grammar

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Here are two sample essays.

16. Three Reasons to Ditch Your Prologue

The prologue is a legitimate story-telling device, but many readers admit that when they see the word “Prologue,” they skip at once to the page that begins with the words “Chapter One.”

Sometimes a prologue is the ideal way to present information essential to the reader’s understanding of the story.
Mystery writers, for example, often begin with a prologue written from the killer’s point of view, or perhaps that of the killer’s first victim. On the other hand, such a scene can be written as “Chapter One” as Martha Grimes does in The Dirty Duck.

Writers of historical fiction may wish to provide background information to orient the reader in an unfamiliar period.
Writers of fantasy or sci-fi may write a prologue to equip the reader with unfamiliar assumptions held by the inhabitants of the strange world they’re about to enter.

Too often, however, what some writers call a “prologue” is undigested backstory, mere scene-setting, or what should be Chapter One. Ditch your prologue if…

…it seems boring even to you and you can hardly wait to get to Chapter One.
…it’s a lengthy narrative of backstory that could more effectively be doled out in small bits as the story progresses.
…all it does is create atmosphere without having much to do with the story.

18. One Size Does Not Fit All

Creating a piece of writing can be compared to building a house. Both activities involve practical and aesthetic considerations.

A builder needs to know what is to be built and who will be using it. A writer must have a clear purpose and an intended audience.

A builder who specializes in building houses would probably not have the tools or experience necessary to build a cathedral and might even consider some of the tools or materials required to build such an edifice unnecessary, time-wasting or elitist.

A writer must first consider what is to be written. Is it an advertising flyer or a paper for a scientific journal? Is it a reference book for astronomers, or a popular guide to the stars? Is it Wind in the Willows, or Gone With the Wind?

Whatever the writer’s purpose, the basic tool kit is the same: a reasonable grasp of English grammar, vocabulary, orthography, and idiomatic expression.

Writers acquire this basic writing kit from their elementary and secondary education and from general reading. As adults they refresh their memories by consulting dictionaries and style guides like Elements of Style and Zinsser’s On Writing Well. This basic tool kit serves well for most kinds of “no frills” writing.

Non-fiction writers add to the basic equipment by reading widely in their areas of specialization. They may study the style of scientists who write well, such as Peter Farb (Face of North America: The Natural History of A Continent) and Stephen A. Marshall (Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity).

Fiction writers increase the furnishings of their minds and find their own voices by reading fiction and nonfiction in many genres and from various historical periods.

All writers operate from the basic tool kit and, like builders, have the option of using the tools that suit the project in hand. They may not need every gadget in the box, and they may use some of the tools in unorthodox ways. Screwdrivers and putty knives can be used for tasks other than the ones they’re designed for. And while older tools like magnetic stud finders may be superseded by electronic ones, they can still do the job.

The writer, like any other craftsman, will think carefully about which tool is needed for a particular job.

Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by every one who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child.

We could edit this first sentence of Grimm’s tale of Little Red-Cap according to what we learn from White and Zinsser:

Everybody loved a little girl, especially her grandmother.

The result is shorter and gets to the point faster. Perhaps a modern story teller would begin that way, but the revision destroys the fairy-tale magic.

While crisp, no-nonsense prose may be exactly what we want most of the time, sometimes we may wish to slow our writing for effect. “Once upon a time there was…” is a way of saying to the reader “Don’t worry about going anywhere. Settle back and give yourself up to this fictional world for a while.


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