i’m writing a book on writing a book

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


I’m in the middle of writing a book. According to Scrivener, I’ve got 27,000 words out of a projected 36,000 on draft numero uno. Tentatively entitled The Gist, it’s a manual for writing better books and making your point like a pro.

With my professional editorial practice humming along, this seemed like a good time to make a separate and permanent home for my own books as well as for the Maven Game newsletter. Hence, this site: School of Book.

(It’s a work in progress.)

I will continue to send the Maven Game on a weekly basis, and each newsletter will appear in modified form on this blog. But there will also be other stuff. Stay subscribed here and I’ll keep you posted on developments.

So why the book?

I started out as an editorial assistant at Penguin with grand dreams. No, not of the Hamptons house which came standard at senior editor (ah, 2003!) or the chummy relationships with celebrity authors—thick as thieves out there in the Hamptons—but of eventually mastering the craft of making books. I loved learning from great books so naturally I wanted to learn to make great books.

Pokemon master for books

Ah, youth.

I’d already worked full-time as a writer, but I felt that the fastest road to professional mastery was through mentorship and training from the best bookitects in the business. Working my way up the editorial ladder at a Big Six (ah, 2003!) publisher seemed like the road to getting there.

In 2003, I was entering a publishing industry in transition. (I didn’t yet know that the publishing industry is always in transition.) Regardless, I soon learned that the ladder looming above me wasn’t quite the same ladder that had been climbed by those up top.

For one thing, my ladder was rickety and rusty and junior editors were falling off of it left and right, screaming, all the way down to law school.

For another, there was very little mentorship.

Did I mention no Hamptons house?

In my first full-time editorial role, I worked for an editor of the first order, a true craftsman (not craftsperson because he was a man, not a person).

I would review the many excellent and insightful edits he made to each page of every manuscript. I wanted to figure out less why he was making one particular correction or suggestion and more how he decided when and what to mark, that decision-making process.

Any sentence can be improved and any idea clarified. Part of the editorial art is in deciding where and why to edit.

I’m not sure how much I learned just by looking—he didn’t let me edit anything myself—but I walked away from the experience comfortable in the assumption that his level of diligence, editorial skill, and breadth of general knowledge was typical of professional editors.

As I progressed through the ranks, though, I realized that my experience at that first job was an anomaly. Most editors barely had time to edit—really edit—let alone teach anyone else the craft.

When editors did have time to edit, it wasn’t always clear they knew what to do with that time. Often when reviewing others’ edits I’d see a comment every page or two along the lines of “great—more of this!” or, at best, “this may be unclear.”

Do authors really benefit from this kind of feedback? I wondered. Does it help them improve the work, or are we just trying to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings?

When I worked with experienced authors, they were usually pretty surprised at the rigor and depth of my edits. Not always pleased—I’m not big on “great—more of this!”—but surprised.

I began to realize that the industry as a whole simply didn’t invest in professional training and mentorship for young editors, and that most senior editors were too busy with all their other duties to edit very much at all, even if they knew how.

To publishing companies, an editor is there to woo agents, acquire lots of books, rally sales/marketing/publicity around those books…and then win the bestseller lottery.

In return, you get promoted. Then you get a generous contract at another publishing house. Then you bounce around from house to house until your luck peters out mid-career and you switch to agenting to help pay off that no-longer-existent Hamptons house.

Honestly, I didn’t care for it. I just wanted to get better at making books. But how?

Most of the best writers on writing and editing, like Roy Peter Clark, learned as journalists. Working a beat at a newspaper seems to be the last place in America where you can receive a rigorous professional writing education—including regular feedback on your work from a seasoned pro (although of course I may once again be judging an industry by its outliers).

Clearly, I’m not going to go work for a newspaper. I’ve worked in theater and book publishing—no need to hit the dying medium trifecta. Frankly, I had to learn how to do what I do on my own, from the books of Clark and others, and through a great deal of hard-won experience.

I’d like to smooth the road for others: authors, editors, agents, anyone who works on making books. Good books, like movies, are very much a collaborative process and all of us need to work on making better ones.

Meanwhile, new writers with the largest audiences are online and often self-publishing their books. If they see the value in editing, they hire it out to people with copywriting backgrounds. The results are mixed.

I’m not one for moaning about how things used to be. The fact is, I paid my dues and still never got to enjoy the perks of old-world publishing. What I’m interested in is helping today’s professional writers and editors develop their craft. We can do better, people.

So that’s why I’m writing this book and also planning other teaching projects. The world needs School of Book.