book review: about writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany is the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Bar none. If you care about the art of writing and not just “how to get published” this is the book I would recommend without reservation.

The key pieces of advice from the book are fairly pedestrian when laid out: “Don’t overwrite; don’t let your writing become thin or superficial; don’t indulge clichés,” but there’s much more. He talks about what writers should read, and about how story is just false memory, and how the best stories are economic (stories that don’t acknowledge how the protagonists are paying their rent tend to be less satisfying because how we afford things is integral to our experience of life).

Delany discusses about the formation of a literary canon, and about how science fiction, pornography and experimental writing exist as para-literature, but also gets into punctuation and the use of tenses to convey different moods and feelings. He discusses dramatic structure in a way that is incredibly simple, so simple it’s not formulaic. He talks about the poetry of language and what talent is and how it’s different from being able to use the tools of writing. He talks about how to construct a scene by observation, that that’s the writer’s real job, to observe better than everyone else and remember and write it down (which prompted this tweet from my research methods class yesterday).

There’s a lot to this book. I’ve used it already to improve a piece of fiction I’m working on and I will continue to use it since this is about as close as I’ll get to learning from the man himself.

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