Book Review: Techniques of the Selling Writer

Although Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer is older than I am (which is pretty darn old), it stands the test of time and remains a valuable read for writers, especially beginners and those still striving to perfect their craft. So, you may be asking, why bother reviewing a 49-year old book? Fair question. It's one of the most cited and referenced books on writing I've encountered, and after reading it, I can understand why. If you haven't heard of it, or given it a try, I'll attempt to convince you.

Techniques of the Selling Writer focuses on the premise of understanding your reader’s motivation for reading. With that goal in mind, the book then provides instructions on how to successfully assemble your story to give your readers a powerful emotional experience. Dwight V. Swain's book can be thought of as a builder's manual for crafting a satisfying and rewarding story.

Possibly the most well-known concept Swain presents in this book is the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU). The core building block of storytelling, MRUs are comprised of something that your point-of-view (POV) character experiences (sees, hears, thinks, or even tastes or smells), which motivates him/her to react to. At its basic level, a story consists of a character experiencing life (and its inevitable conflict) and reacting to it, over and over again. Techniques of the Selling Writer explains MRUs in fine detail and provides a plethora of examples. Swain then shows you how to take MRUs and use them to build scenes and sequels using structure and simple patterns, which in turn comprise chapters, and, ultimately, your novel.

Swain's scene pattern consists of Goal-Conflict-Disaster combinations, followed by a corresponding sequel, which is comprised of a Reaction-Dilemma-Decision trio. If this process seems formulaic and too structured for your taste, understand there is nearly an infinite amount of flexibility in how you can apply and interpret these suggestions. They are guidelines to help you build your story without gaps that leave your reader confused.

For me, Techniques of the Selling Writer was not a quick read, as the concepts and multitude of examples required time to digest, and I found myself reading much slower than I do with a fiction novel, for fear of skimming through something important.

And, as nothing is perfect, I found a few issues that could be potentially off-putting. I think the book offers more examples than most people probably need. I felt like I understood Swain's points after reading about half of the provided examples. In addition, as can be expected with a book published in 1965, some portions are outdated, based on today's technology, markets, and culture. I would recommend focusing on the storytelling advice and not worrying about the dated content (it comprises only a small part of the book).

Techniques of the Selling Writer is recommended by Randy Ingermanson - "the Snowflake Guy." Mr. Ingermanson has an excellent page on his website detailing some of Swain's concepts in much more detail than I go into in this post. If you're interested, Mr. Ingermanson's excellent summary can be found here.

Author Update; I received my final editor comments last month and have now prepared Mirrors & Mist for beta reading. If you're interested in getting your hands on a complimentary pre-published edition and providing me some feedback, I'd be happy to have you beta read. Just say the word and I'll get an e-book to you in whatever format you prefer. For any new readers, Mirrors & Mist is the second book of The Oxbow Kingdom Trilogy, the follow-up to the epic fantasy coming-of-age adventure story, Crimson & Cream.