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Sam Leith Shares His Top Writing Tips

By The Bookollective Team, Nov 6 2017 03:40PM

On the release of his new book Write to the Point, author Sam Leith shares his top writing tips with Bookollective

The most important tip I can offer for any writer is: remember who you're writing for. I don't tire of repeating the quote: "When you go fishing you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like." This applies whether you're writing a memoir, a novel, a biography, an academic gloss on Kant's Critique of Judgment or a children's book.

It affects everything from subject matter and structure to how you put together sentences. And as a rule, if you're writing for the widest possible audience (rather than, say, one of specialists) you will want to make things easier on the least able of your readers.

That means preferring right-branching sentences, where the connection between subject, verb and object isn't obscured by a pile-up of subordinate clauses. It means thinking hard about what your reader will – and won't – know; it's easy to take things that you know for granted, and leave a reader flailing. And what will they be most interested in? It may not be what you are most interested in – as many unread blogs about the author's feelings or breakfast choices testify.

Take advice, as egolessly as you can. Another set of eyes on your manuscript – be it those of a spouse, a friend or (ideally) an editor – is a taster of first contact with the enemy. Don't assume everything they say is right; but don't assume it's wrong either. If a passage presents them with difficulty, it will present others with difficulty too. That doesn't mean their suggested solution (if they offer one) is the right one; but it does mean a solution is needed.

Leave your work in a drawer for a bit and come back to it. You'd be surprised how much work the back of your mind does on a manuscript when the front of your mind is doing other things.. You may find it improves on rereading: when you've been working hard at a revision you'll be painfully conscious of the cut-and-paste scars. They heal over the days and weeks. Also, it's worth reading your work aloud. Cadence, the rhythm of prose, is hugely important. You'll be able to hear it better when you read aloud. If it's hard to read, you need to revise.

It's also been suggested I offer the odd tip on how authors should approach literary editors in the hopes of getting review coverage for their books. If you have a publicist – or your publisher does – then the best advice is not to: the lit ed will be hearing from them anyway.

If you're self-publishing, be resigned to an uphill struggle: most books pages won't review self-published books. This is not out of snobbery (we recognise that many self-published books are great) but because with 300 or so trade books coming in a week, and any multiple of that number being self-published, we have to limit the candidates for review space somehow. And the proportion of trade books likely to be good (having been through professional agents, editors and acquisition meetings) is higher than the proportion of self-published books, where the bars to entry are lower.

But nil desperandum. If your work is good it will find an audience even if it does not do so immediately. Just ask Herman Melville or John Kennedy Toole. The general rule is to send a copy as far ahead of publication as possible (the earlier you send, the more likely that you'll get a review – the Spectator, where I work, hopes for books at least a month in advance) and make sure to enclose a press release with the date of publication prominently displayed. Then cross your fingers. Good luck!

Sam Leith is Literary Editor of the Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page (Profile) - tweet Sam via @questingvole


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Favourite book:

To Kill A Mockingbird 

by Harper Lee


Best tip for authors:

Tell me your life story. It's the personal ups and downs and how you've overcome them that sometimes help us pitch you and the book.


Publishing career highlight:

My first byline in The Mirror and ghost writing a newspaper feature for a client that saw her get a phone call from the Defence Secretary saying how impressed he was.


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Favourite book:

Pride and Prejudice 

by Jane Austen


Best tip for authors:

Good design is good business; it builds your brand and conveys professionalism. As an author, your book is your business; don't let your hard work down with poor presentation.


Publishing career highlight:

Getting my first award for cover design! It's always an amazing feeling when you're acknowledged for doing something you love.




Favourite book:

The Tiger Who Came

to Tea by Judith Kerr


Best tip for authors:

You are unique and so is your book, so create a unique publicity campaign that suits you. Most importantly, don’t quit - I always tell my authors that writing their book is actually the ‘easy’ bit, promotion takes patience and determination.


Publishing career highlight:

I was proud to be selected as a finalist in the Publisher’s Publicity Circle Awards for one of my paperback non-fiction campaigns, but my career highlight has to be winning the title of Young Business Person of the Year at the Inspire Business Awards.

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