The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write

Sarah Burton and Jem Poster (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 298pp, £12.99
ISBN 978 1009 073 73 8

Reviewed by Alice Horne

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As far as book titles go, The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write isn’t snappy, but it is deserved. It covers everything from character and narrative voice to plot, pace, endings, and beyond to editing and publishing. OK, so you might not need to read this book to write a book, but its plain-speaking wisdom is bound to make the process a little easier, more successful and hopefully more enjoyable.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and suppose that you’re reading this not because you’re a writer – or not primarily or solely a writer – but because you edit other people’s writing. This is the website of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, after all. So just how useful is this book for fiction editors?

Good editors are good readers, and they’re often pretty good writers too. By offering a masterclass in reading and writing, then, this book can’t help but improve your editing.

Like a vivisection of writing, The Book You Need reveals the inner workings of the best books and short stories one topic at a time. Let’s take description, for example. First, we learn how description works: how it can lift a story and help readers connect with it while building character and propelling the narrative. Then, Burton and Poster analyse passages written by those who’ve done it best, from Dickens to Ishiguro, to show us how to put these concepts into practice.

The examples and explanations are geared slightly more towards literary writing, with in-depth analysis of many classic novels and short stories (no doubt copyright law came into play here, since older texts are more cheaply available). But I think the lessons hold for pretty much any fiction narrative you might be tackling.

Not only does this practice make you a more astute reader and a better equipped writer, but it gives editors a useful framework and language for taking a text to the next level. Editing techniques are often instinctual, picked up from years of experience, but I found huge value in having those instincts articulated and demonstrated so clearly. And I learnt quite a few new tricks, too.

For its comprehensive content, The Book You Need is a deceptively quick and accessible read. Each chapter is broken down into short sections; some are just a page or two, but all offer valuable lessons that can be applied straight away. This makes it easy to dip into and return to, and there are two chapters I’ll be referring to more than any others. The first is on dialogue, which deals not just with practical matters but more thorny ones, too, such as how to approach historical speech or bend contemporary English into a believable future dialect. The other is ‘Drawing it all together’, which considers how to bring all the lessons learnt into a first draft – often where we editors step in.

But The Book You Need doesn’t just offer guidance for how editors can approach a text when it comes to assessing structure, handling dialogue or advising on pace, for instance. I’d like to think that one of the most valuable services we can offer writers is to help them improve their craft over the longer term, and this book offers many a gem for coaching our clients, from useful examples to encouraging words. Because writing is hard – and thank goodness. If it wasn’t, we’d probably find ourselves out of work.

Burton and Poster never shy away from this fact, yet they manage to make every obstacle feel surmountable. Indeed, my favourite thing about The Book You Need is that it is bookended with positivity. The opening chapter on ‘Getting started’ sets an energetic tone, encouraging writers to set their literary heroes aside and enjoy experimentation. At the other end of the journey, ‘Publication and the writing life’ devotes a lot of its pages to dealing with rejection – in terms of both how to learn from it and resolving to keep going regardless.

The book’s final message embraces this paradox of writing’s joys and its difficulties: ‘The pleasures of writing are often discovered through a protracted personal struggle with words and ideas … indeed, they may be all the keener for having been arrived at through hard work.’ Certainly, as editors, we can ease the struggle of writing – and, I hope, discover some of its pleasures too.

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