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What Valuable Advice Can You Gift to Other Writers?

Distill your wisdom and use it as a book inscription

Table with food and book titled, "Damn Good Advice."

“Why didn’t I think of that?” 

It’s my frequent response to great ideas I find through reading, and as I applaud the person who captured it and put it on paper, I’m also a little sad I didn’t think of it first. 

My brain whirred after I read an article in the New York Times by Amitava Kumar. The author made one phenomenal suggestion. It was simple, elegant, and useful. It was one of those obvious ideas that I wished I would have thought of and put into practice years ago. 

The suggestion

Whenever you attend a conference, a writing workshop, or a book signing, purchase a book and then ask other writers to inscribe their books with one condensed piece of writing wisdom. The author of the article says, 

“I started asking writers I knew or met at literary festivals to sign their books with a piece of valuable advice, I began to see it not as self-help but, instead, as a glimpse into that particular writer’s mind.”

If all the books I’d bought at literary events had been inscribed with ADVICE instead of just my name and the author’s scrawl, I would be wiser and wealthier. My library would be the envy of all my friends, each book an investment in the career of a writer and a possible collector’s item in case of future fame. Every volume pulled off my shelves would offer valuable advice in one pithy sentence on the title page. 

The advice

The advice lopes across pages, around titles, above the names of publishers. Suggestions are scrawled sideways, written in a continuing dialog on two pages. Photographs of the title pages with the scrawled handwriting of the authors make their advice come to life.

Handwriting, printing, dashes, slashes, underlining, and ellipsis differentiate each author's style. The concept appeals to marginalia lovers (like me,) but also to the ever-questing, ever-curious writers who want to know how to succeed.

What advice did the author, Amitava Kumar, collect? 

  • “Read the masters and, at least occasionally, read them closely! — Lydia Davis

  • “There is always more than one story. Your job is to find that story you did not start to tell.” — Yiyun Li

  • “Read out loud! Send work to readers you’re scared to send to. Have robots read your work to you.” — Tommy Orange

  • “Don’t confuse honours with achievement.” — Zadie A. Smith

  • Colum McCann signed with a quote from Wallace Stevens: “I don’t know what to prefer the beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendos. The blackbird whistling or just after…”

  • “Learn what advice to refuse.” — Mark Doty

  • “Show, Tell, is of no use — only writing.” — Jamaica Kincaid

My favorite piece of advice came from Jenny Offill. It must have been the author’s favorite, too, because she put it in the last position for maximum impact: 

  • “If you want to write, don’t have a backup plan. Also, always put a dog in your book.” 

The question

How will I inscribe my book if I ever get that opportunity to share advice with other writers? What one piece of advice could be gleaned from a lifetime of word-working? 

So far, everything I come up sounds way too much like an advertising campaign: 

  • Love your words like your children. Discipline them the same.

  • You don’t give up on your kids. Never give up on yourself. 

  • Persist with passion.

  • Write as if your life depends on it…because it does. Words are the lifeblood of writers. 

  • Remember that writing is a passion, not a profession. It’s wonder, not work.

Okay. So it’s not perfect yet. I have time to perfect my distilled wisdom to a condensed nugget of advice since I haven’t sold my book. But being wise is harder than it sounds. 

What will your valuable advice be? What is that one clear, concise, distilled drop of wisdom that will make writers glad they asked?

Plan your response now, so you’ll be ready when people start asking for autographs. 


Get other great insights into writing and publishing in A Writer's Life.

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