How many ‘How to Write’ books is too many?

Over the years, I’ve read some great books on writing. Particular standouts are not just the ones everyone mentions, namely On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott; Chuck Wendig has taught me a lot of practical and humorous things in the Kick-Ass Writer, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is basically a workshop in writing everything from characters to whole worlds. As a companion to her amazing podcast (as mentioned in a previous post), there’s also Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, with plenty of exercises to try.


These are all great books, and there are plenty of others. It’s good to try a few, because every writer’s style and work method is different – you need to take some time to figure out which writer, or combination of writers, most closely resembles your own writing style and practice (note that this can change over time or per book). Then there are the fiction books you need to read in order to learn – read widely, most advice-givers will tell you, and know your own genre well enough not to insult your likely readers.

But there’s only so far reading can take you. In the end, it all comes down to writing, and more writing, and figuring out how to improve (or simply abandon) your writing. Finishing your own stories is more important than finishing that great (writing) book.

Which is, of course, exactly what I haven’t been doing lately. While I’ve done a bit of writing (not to mention my daily professional work), I’ve substituted practice with reading and considered it work. This is a dangerous pattern to fall into. If you’re reading about writing, reading books for research, doing nothing but plotting, or just even staring at the screen, then you’re not writing. I’m not writing.

A lot of this can be explained by imposter syndrome, and the idea that as long as I’m not writing I’m not actually failing at writing. It’s also to do with feeling burned out after a long day of writing mostly boring work stuff. However, I’m trying to change this, and hopefully writing this blog post will be the start. Time to implement those lessons other writers have been trying to teach me, and get some more words down on (digital) paper!


The first word’s still the hardest


I remember when Google started – now it’s telling me what to write

Who knew that three letters could have such an impact? I’m not talking about YES, I mean SEO. Search Engine Optimisation. Such a nebulous term, yet for writers having to deal with the internet, it seems like it’s everything nowadays.

Way back when I was a teenager, I got my first very own computer. With the internet! Of course I couldn’t go online if anyone wanted to use the house phone, but once that dial tone had done its thing, the world wide web was mine for the taking.

Even back then, I used Google. There was Yahoo too, but it looked bad and worked worse, so there was only one thing to it – Google things. It felt so weird to use the word Google as a verb for the first time, like a joke. I guess it’s the same thing with the iPad, or the Wii. Strange words that we’ve all just learned to accept.

Likewise, most people have accepted that Google is the way to search for things on the internet. An ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. And that means websites have to make themselves look nice for Google. That’s where SEO comes in.


“Use the Googles!”

These days, everyone’s trying to be on page one of Google, and there are more than enough websites out there to make this a challenge. One way to do it is by paying to sit at the top. Another way is to make some poor writer (like me) write content geared specifically towards the search engine.

You see, people only use Google as long as the results remain relevant and desirable. So they keep trying to automate their search engine so that it puts the best results at the top. And people keep trying to find out how the code works so they can get their website the best place in the queue.

I’m not one of those people, the SEO specialists. I’m the other person in the team, the one that gets given a bunch of keywords and things to include and then told to “write the thing”. Because most sites also want to give people a reason to stay on the page, and just writing a bunch of keywords in a random order really won’t do the trick.

So, in a lot of ways, I’m writing mainly for Google, while still trying to be informative for human readers as well. A lot of it is common sense, of course. If you want to attract readers looking for bicycle helmets, use the words bicycle, helmet and bike (but not too much!). Then there’s the dark voodoo of meta information and such, which is where the Google-whisperers really shine. All of this combined should result in better rankings, more clicks, more readers, and ultimately more money for the company.

It’s not very inspiring as a writer, however, to be working to appease a mega-corp, without getting paid by said mega-corp (and also knowing how bad monopolies are for the world at large). Especially not when you remember how innocently it all started, with just a white page and a box to type in.


1. SEO, 2. ??, 3. Profit!

Now how does this relate to fiction writing, if at all? First of all, please don’t write a book with Google in mind, or in any way optimised for the internet. No matter what you’re writing, you’re writing foremost for your own pleasure and that of the readers, not for our AI overlords.

That said, your book’s description and query could probably do with some SEO-think. Are you mentioning what genre(s) it is, clearly and completely? Are you describing what other works the book’s like? Are you making it easy to see what the main topic is, i.e. what your bicycle helmet is?

These are all things an agent is likely to ask for, and if you’re self-publishing, it’s how you can help get your novel noticed among the countless others. Really all I’m trying to say is: please don’t write for Google, but do have some common sense.