The first thing I always want to know when I'm reading a book that purportedly teaches you how to improve your writing, especially if the intent is to be published, is "Okay, how many books have you
However, this isn't necessarily a fair question. My own publication history is pretty thin -- basically, I have written a lot of roleplaying game supplements for a major RPG company. (See my author page
for details.) My writing was generally well-regarded, but that's a rather odd niche and not at all like getting a book published. I have also written several highly regarded fan fiction novels, which I am never, ever going to link to from Goodreads. But as far as getting a real book published, well, I actually have most of the first draft of a novel completed, which is as much progress as I have made in years. So take that for what it's worth.
That said, I do a lot of critiquing on writers' forums, and I do believe that, just as one can recognize good art and bad art even if you can't draw or paint yourself, and you can tell the difference between a good singer and a great one even if your own singing ability is non-existent, it's possible for someone who isn't necessarily a great writer to meaningfully critique others' writing. I mean, if it weren't, then what's the point of writing book reviews on Goodreads?
So, I think I'm a pretty good "critter," in the parlance of writing circles, and I also fancy that I am at least a competent writer even if I have no published novels to prove it. Thus when I read "How to write books" I tend to be a bit jaded as I already know most of the standard advice. You see people new to the whole writing thing who need to be taught not to write about their characters gazing into a mirror at their own deep cerulean blue eyes which are like translucent limpid pools set in pale heart-shaped oval faces framed by fiery tresses of red hair like gold spun from Helios's forge, yadda yadda yadda, and less cringingly, you see people who need to be told not to use "saidisms" (e.g., "'Zounds!' he ejaculated excitedly"), how to maintain a consistent POV and not head-hop, and often on a more basic level, that yes, you really do need to master spelling, grammar, and punctuation, you can't just let your inner muse scatter commas wheresoever your fancy places them and leave it to your editor to clean them up.
I am, I think, past needing that kind of basic writing advice. (Which is not to say I never make mistakes or perhaps use an unnecessary adjective or three.) There are tons of good books that cover the rudiments of competent writing, but I'm past the "Needs to learn how to string together sentences that don't make readers cringe" stage and into the "Needs to write sentences that are actually so much better than everything else on the slush pile that someone will want to publish me" stage.
I found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
to be a concise package of a lot of this intermediate/journeyman-level writing advice. A lot of it was familiar to me, but there were enough insightful observations that I could apply to my own writing that it was by no means a waste of time.
Rennie Browne and Dave King are professional editors. They do a lot of editing for clients (aspiring writers) and they spend lots of time at writers' workshops, from which many of the examples in the book are taken.
They talk about showing vs. telling, characterization, POV, and narrative voice, dialog mechanics, exposition, and all the other things that go into composing readable prose. Their focus is what the title indicates: the skills you need to have to read your own work with a critical eye and see what works and what doesn't and how to fix it. Nothing can replace a good beta-reader or writing circle or workshop, but having seen manuscripts submitted to hapless online critique groups forced to read someone's retooled fan fic or novelized AD&D campaign, I believe this book could do a lot of good improving those drafts before anyone else's eyes see them.
And let Browne and King not be accused of being timid in their critiques: some of the exercises with which they end each chapter include editing the work of such notables as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lewis Carroll. Part of this is the emphasis on publishability in the modern day: they do point out that a lot of guidelines for what makes writing "good" is dependent on time and place. In the 19th century, you could use head-hopping omniscient third-person narrators, characters could ejaculate excitedly (you do know that didn't mean then what it means now, right?), and Melville and Hugo could interrupt their stories to spend a few chapters talking about whale anatomy or Parisian architecture. Nowadays, all that will get you a form rejection letter even if you write like Melville or Hugo. (Especially if you write like Melville or Hugo.) So there is certainly a commercial angle to this book, hence some of the negative reviews which smack of special snowflake writers who are sure that their work is so creative and brilliant that professional writing standards don't apply to them and what is this "professional" stuff anyway, isn't writing art
Does this book encourage a certain homogeneity in writing styles? Well, the authors admitted that they did see signs of that as a result of their first edition, when they saw lots of writers showing up at workshops having bled their manuscripts of too much of their distinctive voice and style in an effort to conform to Brown and King's advice. So they try to address that here, but they are certainly aiming for the writer who wants to write a polished final draft that will get past the slushpile reader or the agent's "Reject" button, not for the writer who wants to Hone His Craft and create Art
Along those same lines, most of the emphasis in this book is on word, sentence, and paragraph-level composition. The advice here is very good -- it's intended to produce readable prose. Broader topics like pacing, plotting, foreshadowing, tension, world building, character development, etc., are barely touched on. You need to read more books to go into those topics in sufficient depth. Those are the sorts of things you really need a critique partner or workshop to address, since no one can effectively "self-edit" their own work on a meta-level.
So, I highly recommend this book for anyone aspiring to write commercial fiction. Even if you are an experienced writer, and arrogant enough to believe you don't need any newbie writing tips, there is still a lot of good stuff here. I'm giving it only 4 stars instead of 5 mainly because I haven't read that many other books in this field and to me, 5 stars would mean it's absolutely a "must-read" and one of the best on its subject, and I can't say that for certain. However, I'd rank it up there with Strunk & White (which I think is a great and valuable book, though I agree with Geoffrey Pullum
about many of its defects) as something that should be on your shelf, if not religiously adhered to.
One other reason for dinging Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
a little from 5 stars is that it seems to be aimed exclusively at "literary" fiction writers. That's not to say that King and Browne's attitude towards genre fiction is hostile, and obviously to go into depth about the particulars of writing science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, psychological thrillers, etc., would require entirely different books, but it would have been nice to see more examples taken from some genre classics (or genre fiction workshop submissions) to illustrate that all of their writing advice still applies even if the characters are elves or aliens.
Anyway, notwithstanding my small criticisms, I'd say if you are a writer or would-be writer of fiction, you should read this book.ETA
: Funny how similar my observations in the above review, written close to a year ago, are to what I said about Thanks, But This Isn't for Us
. Possibly if I'd read the latter first, I would have given it the higher rating, but I think in retrospect this is still slightly the better of the two, though they cover pretty similar ground. The main difference is that Jessica Morrell's book is more geared toward genre fiction, while Browne and King are aiming more for literary writers. (Their advice is equally applicable to genre writers, though.)