Lessons Learned: Authors Share What Writing a Book Taught Them

by Dianne Van Dien

When I emailed surveys to the cross-section of the press’s authors, I had no idea how detailed their answers might be. But when the responses came in, I was pleasantly surprised that so many took time to offer thoughtful reflections about their book-writing experiences. In this email—the penultimate post for this series—we’ll look at what some of the authors shared about what the book-writing process taught them about writing in general and about themselves as writers. Although writing is an individualized endeavor that can differ with book type, the varied responses to this question provide insights that any writer can learn from.

Click on the book cover to learn more about a book or author.

Cover image for A Modest Homestead. People standing in front of an adobe house.

Laurie J. Bryant, A Modest Homestead

“I learned that deciding on the scope of the book is critical. Beginning the book as a catalog of adobe buildings, I soon realized that without some human interest, no one would read the thing. And I didn’t enjoy writing it, either. I really wanted to understand where the owners and builders had come from, why they came to Utah, what there lives were like, and how these buildings contributed to their futures.”

Cover image for Stories FInd You, Places Know. Aerial view of flat, green landscape with some lakes.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, Stories Find You, Places Know

“Through the process of writing Stories Find You, Places Know, I learned SO much about what it takes to become a good writer. For me this was about exploring new ways to write in academia. I learned to see my writing as a life-long process where I continue to perfect my craft.”

Book cover with black background with portrait image of Sir Francis Drake

Melissa Darby, Thunder Go North

“I never thought I would write a book, and it was daunting. Breaking it down to bits made it less overwhelming. As it progressed, I began to feel it would be real, and I thought of myself more and more as someone with something to contribute to my profession. I also learned how to write a narrative rather than the technical report writing that I have done for years. In technical writing you have no real voice..”

“Over the years, like Zelia Nuttall, I have been frustrated with some of the white male historians who have dismissed my findings with a wave of their hand and a raised eyebrow when I tried to make my case that Drake was not actually in California. I began to understand how hard it was for Zelia Nuttall. One of the favorite lines I wrote was after discussing that Zelia’s article on baskets was accepted but not her monograph on Drake: “Women, it seems, were allowed to write about baskets but not about explorers.” This was not only a commentary on Zelia’s situation, but my own, and it made me feel I was a little triumphant.”

Book cover image for the book New Children of Israel. Couple from Africa marry in Jewish ceremony.

Nathan P. Devir, New Children of Israel

“I think the main thing, speaking only for myself, is that I need to take in a lot of information and process it before I feel comfortable distilling or crafting any ideas on my own. That takes a lot of time, and so now I try not to set unrealistic timelines for myself. I understand better now that (again, speaking only for myself) writing will never come easily. It’s a constant struggle, which I know will bear fruit eventually, but only after much time and effort have passed..”

Book cover is a close up of tan or blonde fur

Donald K. Grayson, Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats

“I am fascinated by the stuff I write about, or I wouldn’t be researching or writing about it, and I love bringing it to a broader audience. Same reason I love teaching. Motivation just never flags. I most enjoy the writing process itself. The research part is hard, hard work. The writing, where you get to retreat into your head and have fun with the intricacies of language, is, for me, a real pleasure.”

Book cover of the Spiral Jetty

Hikmet Sidney Loe, The Spiral Jetty Encyclo

“I learned so much while writing the first book, even though I had been writing for some time. I learned to be more consistent in presentation, also consistent in time spent writing and editing. I kept a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style by me and referenced it constantly. I learned that while my life may have been quite busy and full, writing was my anchor. It was always there (in a good way) and could always be a bit better, which was a great challenge for me and kept me engaged.”

Book cover with watercolor image of fox in grass and an outline of an island coast in the background

Corrine Laverty, North America’s Galapagos

“Yes, I learned much. I figured out how to organize my research, how to create characters using a system of notes and chronological files, how to use the blank spaces to my advantage (that is, using the unknown to ponder and posit questions and get into the characters’ minds).”

Book cover with a close up photo of a Prairie Dog standing upright in a grassy background

Theodore Manno, The Utah Prairie Dog

“I learned that good writing is hard work, and it’s not easy. Writing books is something that you do because you almost can’t not do it. Writing is also a process in which you must be fully engaged. With regard to self-development as a writer, I learned that I can explain fairly complex concepts to the general public with concision, but struggle with writing for a specialized audience. I approached my next book (Swamp Rat) with this in mind, and with very few exceptions, I have not written text intended exclusively for other scientists since my dissertation research ended. Later on, after several failed attempts, I further realized that writing fiction is a different process altogether, one for which I am probably not wired.”

Book cover of stormy waters with foggy weather and low visibility

Jerry Spangler, Last Chance Byway

“My memoir began as a chronological narrative. Later, I revised it into individual essays. Later, I linked long essays together. Only at the end, when I really understood what I was doing thematically—that I was writing about what I call ordinary trauma—did I see that I needed to write the memoir as linked flash nonfiction so that the ordinary moments could pile up for the reader, threaten to overwhelm them in the same way they overwhelmed me as a child. To write a memoir, means to find a theme in your life and follow it. You cannot begin at the beginning of your life and march forward to the end—first, because you have not ended and second because no reader wants to read the blow by blow. You have to shape your story—and to shape your story you have to understand that very narrow sliver through which you wish to gaze. Once you understand the theme—your deeper subject—you understand, at some level, what enters in and what remains outside—but even that may not determine your form right away.”

This article is part of a series called “What Does It Take to Make a Book?”

See previous posts:

Enjoying the Book-Writing Process

Writing the Edited Volume

Revising a Book Manuscript

On Writing Schedules, Routines, and Daily Goals

How Do Writers Make Time to Write?

Books Take Time

What Does it Take to Make a Book?

Dianne Van Dien began working for the University of Utah Press (UUP) in 2010 as a graduate fellow while earning a MS in Environmental Humanities. Later she shifted to her current role as UUP’s freelance marketing associate. She lives in rural Missouri, from where she also writes and edits for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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