10 September 2009

Twenty Years of Teaching People How to Write Books

by Michael Crawley
Over my twenty years of teaching people how to write genre fiction books, I’ve distilled my pontifications on the basics to just over a single page.  This is it.

We’ll start with some vital trivia.  (How’s that for an oxymoron!)   
There are a few things that I tell all my pupils in their first lesson.  If they can learn them, they are 50% of the way towards selling their work. 
1) Please format double-spaced, 1 1/4" margins, ragged right, paragraphs indented three spaces and with no gaps. Use a plain 12-point typeface.

2) To sell, write exactly what one specific editor wants to buy.  Submit it. To do that, you must know what that editor is currently publishing; have a copy of his guidelines, and follow them! Don't write the story or novel that's been mulling around in your head, write the book they want to buy.

From there on, what I teach is simply the details.

2a) It doesn’t matter what you want to write, if you are writing to sell. If you don’t sell your story or novel, it won’t be read.   Write what the editor thinks his readers want to read.  He might be wrong but he has the cheque book.  That does not mean ‘selling out’.  There are over a million English language publishers.  Whatever your pet topic or favorite genre, someone publishes it.  Find that someone.  Get their guidelines.  Adjust to fit them.  Write what you enjoy writing - but in their language, following their rules, to their length if you're serious about publishing.

3) It’s hard work, but write simply.  The more readable your text, the more it will sell.  Ask Messers King, Spillane, Churchill, Melville, etc..  Convoluted, verbose text is easy to write.
We write with ease to show our breedin’ 
But easy writin’s cursed hard readin’~Sheridan.
Your words, sentences and paragraphs should all be, on average short and simple.*  Avoid conjunctions and subclauses.  Write SVO - Subject, Verb, Object.  That’s the natural order in English.  Keep your ‘ing’ words to a minimum and in particular, don’t open sentences with them. 

4) Write dynamically.   If you write fictional books, your opening sentence and paragraph should be a) Action, b) Dialogue, c) Intriguing.  If it is passive or ‘explanation’, your opening paragraph will be both the first and the last that is read.  If you write nonfiction, your opening should either offer a benefit or be intriguing.  Every word should do something. 
If I write anything a reader might skip over, I delete it.  Elmore Leonard.
5) Use structure.  Unless it is very short, fiction should be three acts.  25% dynamic introduction of the elements.  50% development and complications.  25% unraveling towards a cathartic ending.  You should have plot-twists at those 25% and 75% points. 

If you write nonfiction books, you do almost the same.  Open by telling the readers what you are going to tell them.  Tell them.  Tell them that you told them. 

6) In fiction, write a plot.  Plot is: A sympathetic character has a problem.  Her efforts to solve it are thwarted by complications.  In the end, out of her character and the circumstances, there is a cathartic resolution. 

7) Edit and rewrite.

I never write four words but I cross out five.   Dorothy Parker. 
The first draft of anything is ****.  Ernest Hemingway.
8) Finish your text and submit it.  

In this piece, my average word has five letters.  My average sentence has eight words.

I teach people how to write what will sell; not how to sell what they write.


  1. These are amazing and basic tips. I can tell you're an amazing teacher.

  2. I don't think I have ever read a more concise, easy-to-read breakdown of how to write to sell. I've heard many times that if an author writes to sell, they are "a hack", a "sell out", and other derogatory terms. This article has, for some reason I can not define, reassured me that my desire to be published and earn a living from my writing is not a negative. In fact, it is neutral. Thank you for the enlightening piece!

  3. I like that "neutral."

  4. Thanks for the kind comments!



  5. i like it that you put a lot of quotes in this article on how to write to sell.