Writing True Stories


Patti Miller has created the complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

Great cover design!

People who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops have recommended this book to me to me more than once. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. But I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. And this shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Take the masterclass

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part. It deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.


A reading list and a page of useful contacts rounds out Writing True Stories. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Can you understand maths in minutes?


I don’t think I’m unique among writers and editors in being pretty average when it comes to numbers and all things mathematical. But I can understand this chunky little book by Paul Glendinning. He has written about Monstrous Moonshine (surely a terrible drink from the prohibition era?) and the barber paradox (which exposes the flaws in elementary set theory). Also because for the first time I have an inkling what trigonometry is.

Use it to check your maths terms

This is a handy reference for brushing up on the basics. I use it to check that mathematical terms in my editing are correct. The book is arranged starting from the basics (numbers, sets, geometry). Then it moves on to the more mind-blowing (matrices, topology). So working through it systematically might even allow you to nod knowingly at a mathematicians’ convention morning tea.

The author pours cold water on my sense of enlightenment. ‘Only a lunatic would pretend that all mathematics could be presented in 200 bite-sized chunks’, he says. Be that as it may, Maths in Minutes is enough for most of us.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

An A to Z of unbearable jargon

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Mark Tredinnick’s Little Red Writing Book

There are many books, courses and workshops that teach writing. I’ve found many of them inspiring, motivating and full of great tips. For my money, this book is the best.

I’d advise anybody who wants to write better to sign up for a face-to-face course in the first instance. In Sydney, Writing NSW and the Australian Writers’ Centre both offer excellent courses on a range of genres, both creative and for business purposes. Varuna in the Blue Mountains has wonderful literary programs. In any face-to-face course, you’ll benefit from the interaction with other writers as well as from the course content.

Great add-on to a face-to-face course

The Little Red Writing Book is a great add-on to any writing course. And if you can’t do a course in person, it’s an extremely good substitute. It’s approach is that good sentences are the basis of all good writing. Any writing, from business reports to scripts for your podcast, starts with sentence construction. Clarity is vital, style is everything.

Tredinnick writes both clearly and poetically, so working through The Little Red Writing Book is a joy. It has plenty of writing exercises (do them!) and examples, and processes to help you get your writing project out of your head and into shareable form.

There are six chapters. Try setting yourself the goal of working through one chapter a month. By September you will be a much better writer, guaranteed.

The Little Red Writing Book has a sibling: The Little Green Grammar Book. Catch up on everything they should have taught you in school.

Why you should always have an atlas to hand


Which is larger, Corsica or Sardinia? Which is the least densely populated country in the world? Where exactly is Yemen?

I bought this atlas to answer questions like these. After a couple of school trivia nights, I realised my geographical knowledge was scant and outdated. I find I can browse its maps for hours and it has readily accessible information about all things geographic. Basic map symbols are explained and things like time zones and national flags are included. There are interesting facts to be found, such as that in 1950 there were 82 countries and by 2011 there were 196, South Sudan being the newest. The smallest is Vatican City, at only half a square kilometre.

Use a concise atlas for quick fact checks

A concise atlas like this one is useful for an editor in checking facts: latitude and longitude, capital cities, rivers, lakes and other landforms that it’s easy to get wrong. What’s the correct way to write Russian or Korean names in English? The Collins World Atlas has used the name forms approved by the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Use. These are the accepted way to display non-Roman alphabet names in English. The atlas’s comprehensive index makes it easy to check spellings and pinpoint exact locations. Be sure that there will always be a reader willing to alert you – and the world – to your errors if facts like these are not correct.

Another good use of the atlas is for leisurely browsing, placing characters from novels I’ve read in their landscapes, following the course of a river I hadn’t heard of before, wondering about the seemingly arbitrary nature of borders and marvelling at the intricacy of our little blue planet.