Rarely have I ever had a book speak to me as a writer. And I mean, speak to me—so loudly, clearly, and simply that I wonder if Dwight V. Swain is some sage from a thousand years ago and has seen my past writing experiences and current struggles. While I know that’s not the case, as the late author passed some two years before I was born, it is clear in his writing that he has taught many students and has come across every likely pitfall of a writer, only to show them what to avoid and how to shine.
Swain isn’t primarily concerned with “literary” fiction that tends to emphasize language rather than content. Rather, Techniques of the Selling Writer discusses fiction at its basic, universal core for all readers: Readers read to feel. Yes, they read to escape and to explore, but what is it that they are searching for midst this escape from reality?
Feeling. Human emotion. Anything that reaffirms their existence.
Above all, they want to feel—to feel every grain of sand pinch the skin beneath a slave’s foot as he trudges to meet more traders, every tear a grieving widow sheds on her husband’s grave, and every thought racing through a pilot’s mind as the aliens come closer within Sector Q of the Andromeda Galaxy. It is the writer’s job to make the reader feel as they read and to make themselves feel these experiences as they write.
And in his book, Swain discusses how to make it so. From choosing the right words on a sentence level to crafting characters with clear emotions for richer scenes rife with conflict, Swain guides the aspiring writer on a clear journey to long-term success. This, however, is not to say that one will get better instantly after reading this book and have no need to return to it. With everything in writing, mastering a skill takes conscious effort, and because Swain focuses primarily on larger concepts of fiction such as character, conflict, emotion, and plot, they will take a bit longer master than finding a stray adverb in a sentence and getting rid of it for more power. The writer must actively practice and be aware of how these techniques function until they become “automatic and instinctive” (Swain 82).
In other words, this is a book anyone who wants to be a writer should pick up, read, and read again, like one would eat a delicious slice of cake and wonder how in the world the chef made it. The first bite, or rather “read,” you should read all the way through and gather a basic understanding of how a novel is constructed, according to Swain. Admittedly, his explanations and examples can be a little dense, which brings in the second read. The second read should pay attention more to the sections, or “layers,” combing through in careful detail on them for longer periods to solidify them in the mind.
For the struggling or beginning writer, or those who wish to write more vividly and see where this vividness comes from, Techniques of the Selling Writer is well worth the time to read.