Writer in Residence

In Praise of … Writing Manuals

By Mark Sampson

Writing cannot be taught. It’s a phrase I hear a lot, and I totally get the sentiment. Writers sometimes want to believe that what they do on the page is pure magic, and some people have the gift and others just don’t. I would be the first to admit that there is something magical happening in the pages of my favourite books, and I also believe that innate talent is the single largest factor behind whether a writer can be successful. But it isn’t the only factor. Working hard to improve one’s skills is hugely important, too. And so is learning in greater and greater detail the techniques and methods that help those skills build something beautiful on the page. 

For me, writing manuals can help you acquire those techniques and methods. Not every author agrees. I know a few who eschew writing manuals entirely, who believe that we should simply read our To the Lighthouse and our Great Expectations, our Anna Karenina and our As I Lay Dying, and, through a deep engagement with those classics, absorb how the authors made the magic happen. Again, I get the sentiment. The thing is: the best writing manuals can be pretty engaging themselves. They can inspire you to write better; they can help you solve nettlesome issues that keep cropping up in your work; and they can remind you about the bigger picture, about what we’re trying to do for our readers and why we do it. I often dip back in or reread some of my favourite manuals before beginning a major new writing project, just to help put me back into the creative zone and get the juices flowing.  

Here are a handful of writing manuals that have served me in good stead over the years:    

A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction, by Jack Hodgins. Hodgins is primarily concerned with an enthusiasm for storytelling. As he puts it: “Good writing should be something that scares the writer a little – the reader too – the way a bolt of lightning can do. It startles, frightens, but it also illuminates for a moment, perhaps even shows us our way in the dark.” While A Passion for Narrative does touch upon the importance of a well-crafted sentence, the unearthing of showing (not telling) detail, and the value of treating revision as a true re-vision of one’s work, the book’s real strength lies in its exploration of the more intangible elements of what makes good writing good.   

Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard. In this book, Dillard is chiefly concerned with what the writer can and cannot do with fiction to impart some greater knowledge upon the reader, a brighter illumination or understanding of the realities that surround us. To be fair, it’s pretty high-concept stuff, and probably geared toward a more advanced writer. In sections with names like “The Fiction of Possibility,” “Can Fiction Interpret the World?” and “About Symbol, and with a Diatribe Against Purity,” she raises complex questions about channeling the world through fiction and using artifice as a means to create meaning. This is a book I go back to when I need reminding about the bigger picture. 

On Writing, by Stephen King. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got mega-selling King and his part-memoir, part-writing manual that offers a hands-on approach to the craft. Here, King offers practical guidance on fundamentals like dialogue tags, characterization, and how to manage multiple drafts of a single story. He gives helpful examples of how to weed out extraneous language to make sentences stronger, and he defines and points out weaknesses of the passive voice. His assault on adverbs is especially engaging. There is nothing in his advice that you won’t find in, say, Strunk and White, but it is delivered with a lot more verve.

A Magical Clockwork: The Art of Writing the Poem, by Susan Ioannou. This is a great little manual about the technical ins and outs of writing poetry. Ioannou discusses concepts such as vision, voice and “the magic” that can come when poets throw themselves into the flow of the world around them. She speaks of universality without apology, and hints at the broader motives of poetry, both for the poet and for the reader. Ioannou’s text, like any good writing guide, teems with examples from established writers that illustrate the various hard and soft skills she wants her readers to employ. 

Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover. Glover’s exploration of complex literary techniques can be a welcome reprieve from other, more basic books’ extrapolations on Strunk and White. Glover wants to give readers the ability to dissect literary fiction from a highly technical level to understand its patterns and methods. The book’s two big take-aways for me are the concept of “copula spiders,” Glover’s term for the thoughtless, repetitive use of the verb “to be” that can really suck the life out of a passage of writing; and his notion of the “but-construction,” a method of incorporating conflict or juxtaposition at the very level of the sentence to generate narrative torque. 

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris.This book is like Eats, Shoots & Leaves on steroids. Norris, a longtime copyeditor at The New Yorker, imparts wise and wistful advice on comma splices, dangling modifiers, the power of the hyphen, the complexities of subject vs object in a sentence, and much more. She’s not the first writer to show how punctuation can make a piece of writing not just grammatically correct but more musical, but very few other authors come to those dots, dashes and squiggles with as much passion for getting them right.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off BookSad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.