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Writing about writing

Around the same time, two books about writing arrived at the Horn Book office. Always keen to brush up on my writing skills, I was curious to find out what advice these books would offer.

As screamed from a large toothy mouth gracing the cover, This Is Not A Writing Manual is not a writing manual. There isn’t even a single writing exercise hidden or in sight. Author Kerri Majors describes her book as “therapy for writers.” Upon closer inspection, it’s also a selective memoir of her life.

Majors draws from a wealth of personal experiences to encourage, cajole, console, and advise budding young writers. Some of the information is useful right away: eavesdrop as much as possible, watch guilty pleasure soap operas because they are fodder for engrossing drama, create opportunities to write, and find a writing buddy. Some advice is for tucking away until later, such as how to cobble together a living as a writer or deal with feelings of competition and envy when your friend — who’s also a writer — gets a book deal and you don’t, or vice versa. Those who are gung-ho about a career in creative writing will probably get the most out of this not-a-manual, but future journalists, editors, and those who write for fun won’t feel completely left out, either, thanks to a handy list of writing resources in the back of the book.

While it was tedious at times to read yet another story about Majors’s high school extracurricular achievements and how they shaped her journey as a writer, I applaud her candor in sharing both the highs and lows of her writing career so far. Of course, Major’s views offer one perspective and are unique to her life, but what might be most helpful about her book is her inclusion of topics aspiring young writers might not otherwise consider.

Once, Twice, Thrice Told Tales by Catherine Lewis is also not a writing manual, and contrary to its title, Lewis tells the story of the three blind mice far more than three times. Aimed at a younger audience, each retelling of the familiar nursery rhyme teaches readers about a literary term which is then defined in a brief “snip of the tale.”

Creative as the concept is, Lewis seems more focused on her reiterations of the three blind mice story — how they became blind and who they are individually — than on presenting literary terms in a clear, useful manner. Instead of categorizing terms alphabetically or by type (genre, parts of a story, literary device, etc), they are introduced haphazardly: “names” is followed by “leitmotif” and “avant-garde.”

The definitions are not always sufficiently clear, either. For example, the “snip of the tale” for “irony” reads:

Saying the opposite of what one means is perhaps the most obvious form of irony, but there are subtler forms at work in fiction, such as when a character doesn’t get precisely what she hoped for, but something less clear-cut. There can be irony in ignorance, too, when readers know something the character doesn’t.

“Saying the opposite of what one means” doesn’t automatically make a someone or something ironic. Is it ironic, then, to lie or be in denial? True, Lewis states that irony is usually more subtle than that, but she doesn’t give any nuanced examples. What is “less clear-cut?” If irony is “not getting precisely what you hoped for,” are serendipitous windfalls as ironic as disappointments? And the all-important question of when to use irony is left unspoken and unanswered.

What’s most ironic about this book “full of writing advice” is it doesn’t encourage its readers to go ahead and write. There aren’t any writing exercises or suggestions for how to choose which literary device to use. Instead, the young writer is presented with the tools for literary analysis, but not how to use them.

About Jennifer Lu

Jennifer Lu is an editorial intern at The Horn Book.



  1. One (or two or three) doesn’t like the Lewis title because it gives perfect definitions, writing exercises, or a complete dictionary of literary terms. One (or 2 or 3) like me adore this book because it is witty and it provides a small snippet of meaning to refresh memories or direct attention to bigger ideas. I appreciate this book for NOT making readers practice. Love the gradual evolution of the three mice characters. Teachers needing a fresh way to approach writing with students will find much to admire in this short text, complete with alphabetized appendix.

  2. I’m glad Thrice Told Tales works for you in the context of a teaching supplement. I was reviewing it from the perspective of a child reading it on his or her own with the intent of wanting to become a better writer. In that scenario, writing prompts would be helpful, not because they make or force kids to do anything, but because good prompts inspire kids to write more. And writing requires a lot of practice. The best book I’ve come across about “teaching” children to write is Patricia MacLachlan’s Word After Word After Word, which does all that with complete sincerity and lack of pretense.

  3. I think we see different audiences for this book as well. I plan to share this with high school students, juniors and seniors.

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