Making Book Part 6: The Alt-write

For me, it is easier to launch a book-writing project than begin a big woodworking job. That’s because with a book, I can begin by writing a chapter at any point in the narrative. 

That doesn’t work in woodworking. You shouldn’t build a dresser by first sanding and finishing all the rough lumber.

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I’ve tried to start a book by writing chapter one several times. The swarf in the mutton tallow here is that by the time you write your final chapter, your book has wandered in a different (probably better) direction than your TOC. So you have to throw out the first few chapters and rewrite them.

Here’s how I do it now. I write a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book – one that I have a handle on. If it’s a woodworking book, maybe it’s the chapter on how the hardware is made, or the one that compares several historical workbench forms. It’s something that I know forward and backward and can knock out.

We ask our new authors to do this, too. This is for two reasons: One, it gives the authors confidence that they can write a book. That first chapter is a significant step.

Then we edit this sample chapter and give the author a list of ways to improve the writing. Some authors ignore the advice (which makes more work for me) and some take it to heart. They tape notes to their computers to remind them of their weaknesses.

Here are the most common problems. (If you want to improve your writing, buy a used copy of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. There are millions of extant copies. I sometimes buy a bunch at Half-price Books for $2 each and send them to authors who request help.)

  1. Too wordy. Many people write like they talk. And they talk too much. After you write a paragraph, try to remove as many words as you can and not change the sentence’s meaning. Sometimes you can remove 25 percent.
  2. Use active voice instead of passive. Most sentences should be: subject, verb, predicate. Example: John handplaned the cherry. A passive construction is: The cherry was handplaned by John. Passive voice is weak and wordy. (But sometimes you should throw in a passive sentence to break things up.)
  3. Avoid -ly adverbs and -ing words. Most of them are stupid anyway. Banish the word “very” from your vocabulary.
  4. Avoid semicolons. Most people have no idea how to use them.
  5. Use the dash as little as you would use an exclamation mark. What comes after a dash should be something that you are shouting.
  6. Three short sentences are better than one long-ass briar patch of mouth oatmeal.
  7. Write a chapter, then leave it alone for eight weeks. Then edit it. You will be amazed at how you can improve your writing this way.

I could go on with this list for about nine weeks, like when I taught news writing classes at Ohio State and the University of Kentucky.

Bottom line: Write as if your audience is a bunch of 8th graders. If you can explain complex ideas to 8th graders, you have achieved something few writers do.

I haven’t decided where to begin with “The Stick Chair Book.” Perhaps the chapter on how to make stretchers. It’s shorter than other chapters about the seat, the legs and the arms. That’s because I don’t have as many tricks to make stretchers as I do for the other components.

Or perhaps I need to figure out some new stretcher tricks. 

Let the self-doubt commence.

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.


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