Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

This is the oldest how-to book in my collection. It was published in 1965, and it shows. The dense sentences and paragraphs lack the grabby snap of modern prose. The examples Swain uses are uncomfortably old fashioned. He assumes all families are nuclear, all mothers stay at home, and all men smoke. There are references to typewriter ribbons and self-addressed, stamped envelopes.

Why would I want to read–much less review–a book that’s older than I am? Despite the heavy prose and outdated examples, this is one of the most useful books I own. I’m not the only one who thinks so. All these years later, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER is still in print.

Don’t let the title fool you. This book has nothing to do with the selling of a novel and everything to do with the writing of one. But if you follow Swain’s advice, you will be more likely to sell what you write.

The first two chapters are supposed to get you into the mindset of a professional writer and teach you a little about grammar along the way. I didn’t find them all that interesting. Things got really good in chapter three, when Swain tells you the most important thing about fiction. Readers read fiction to have an emotional experience, and everything a writer does needs to feed that. In fact, the rest of the book shows you, step by step, how to give that emotional experience to the reader. He teaches techniques to build better characters, better plots and better beginnings. He discusses what makes a satisfying story arc. But it isn’t all big-picture stuff. Swain deconstructs scenes, and drills right down to the individual paragraphs and sentences to make sure that you are delivering at every level.

Swain did not teach me how to write perfect stories. I still had to bring my own level of creativity to what he’s teaching. However, he shortened my learning curve. By giving me a clear explanation of the fundamentals of storytelling, he gave me a solid foundation upon which to build my own stories. Swain makes no claim to teaching high literature. He’d much rather make a reader feel than make them think, and is extremely comfortable writing genre fiction. Me too.

This is not a book to be read quickly or skimmed. I have read it cover-to-cover twice, and am getting ready to read it a third time. I will overlook the dated examples and take to heart Swain’s universal, unchanging truths about writing good fiction.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

4 thoughts on “Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

  1. Interesting site, Margaret, reviewing”the old works” of writing. :-] I liked your comment about not finding writing exercises all that useful…that you prefer to apply what you learned in your own writing. I’m the same way. When I took a Writer’s Digest friction writing course YEARS ago, I did some, and while at times fun and interesting, I found I got more out of them when applying them to my own work, which was always substantial in quantity. I.e., I was never at a loss for material upon which “to employ,” in other words. Great post!

  2. I would dearly like to read and use a set of exercises based on “Techniques of the selling writer”. Otherwise how am I to automatically build into my writing the tips given in Dwight V. Swain’s book. Carrying out exercises has to be more effective than just reading.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog, Chris!

      Swain’s idea is that you’d take what you learned from him and apply it to your own work-in-progress. That’s what I’ve done and it’s served me well.

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