NZ Booklovers recently had a chance to catch up with Howard Gelman, author of Everyone Can Write. The Sydney-based author has enjoyed a full and interesting career in the publishing and broadcasting industries, and is an associate lecturer in writing at Macquarie University.
Hello Howard, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for our readers – and writers – at NZ Booklovers.
What inspired you to write Everyone Can Write?
I started teaching writing to Uni students and to business personnel, that is, essays and reports. It was the kind of writing that required an organised and formal method. I had been using a book I project edited for the Cliffnotes series titled Writing: Grammar, Usage and Style. I needed a new book to accommodate what I had learned. Exisle’s publisher challenged me to write a book that would appeal to the broadest range of potential writers. That meant taking my method to another level. The publisher was involved in the process all the way, offering ideas on organisation and cover art. I think I met their goal and I have a book that expresses what I know works in raising one’s skill level in non-fiction writing.
What do you think makes Everyone Can Write different from other books on writing?
It is short and can either be read in one sitting or allow the potential writer to focus on the details they need. Writing books seem to run from 200 to 700 pages. That’s too much to digest for most people. I have condensed my approach into a neat 150 pages of uncomplicated items.
It is practical and easy to put into use. I’ve tried to give potential writers a simple set of rules and approach that almost anyone can follow.
You have taught writing for over 25 years. In that time, what is the most common writing mistake you have come across?
Oddly student writers often make a simple mistake: misuse of its and it’s. The answer is can you replace it’s with it is or it has and if not use its, the possessive pronoun
What have you learned most about writing in your years of teaching it?
English can be a forceful and direct language in its simple form, that is, subject, verb, object. Short sentences using plain words in readable paragraphs can convey complex ideas in English. Sometimes, watching a foreign film with English subtitles, I note that it usually takes a lot of dialogue to convey the short English translation. I think this is one of the reasons English is the international language, at least for today.
I’ve encountered many Australian and New Zealand teens that feel they would do much better at high school if they only knew how to write, who feel that they don’t get taught this at school. What advice would you give to parents who wish to help their children improve their writing?
Not to be immodest, but students would benefit from reading Everyone Can Write. The section on the academic essay is adaptable to most classroom situations. Reading essays and newspaper articles is also a way to develop interest in writing. I’m an advocate of the printed newspaper (which probably shows my age). Students who read both digital and print copy will benefit in gaining a sense of style and approach. It’s ok to copy good writing.
What is your top tip for someone about to embark on a writing project?
Start with two questions: Who is your reader? What do they need to know? After that, you can follow the rules and approach in Everyone Can Write.
Everyone Can Write is likely to become a go-to writing reference book for many people. What is your go-to writing reference book?
I relied for many years on the classic Strunk and White book Elements of Style. It’s been around for 50 years and sold 50 million copies. Not bad but I now think it’s probably out of date (other critics have been more harsh). They criticise it for being too literary and dated and in some cases wrong. Recently, I’ve been using Mark Tredinnick’s Little Green Grammar Book. It’s a comprehensive but lively book and probably only for the fully committed grammarian. I like to think I can sneak into that group.
Do you have any particular writing quirks?
My wife says I write like an American and particularly from New York. You will note that the first word in the book is ‘So’. That’s a deliberate New Yorkism.
What book genre/s do you most enjoy reading? What are you reading right now?
I read both fiction and non-fiction and also am addicted to that great essay website Arts & Letters Daily founded in New Zealand by Dennis Dutton. At the moment I am reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land a personal view of the Mideast and Alan Furst’s spy thriller set during WWII, Mission to Paris.
What’s next for Howard Gelman?
The publisher might be interested in more Everyone Can Write books. That depends on how this one goes over. I am addicted to the classroom and enjoy sparring with young and enthusiastic students. My workshops give me a privileged inside look at the business world and I try to be an international exponent of my approach. So, more writing and more travelling and more workshops.
To find out more about Howard Gelman’s Everyone Can Write, see the NZ Booklovers review.