Day 20: Writing True Stories

The complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

By Patti Miller

Great cover design!

This book was recommended to me more than once by people who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. 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. This shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part, and 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.

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

Day 18: New Oxford Style Manual


I bought this book to add to my collection of style manuals that now take up an entire shelf in my office. I edited a manuscript for submission to a UK publisher and so it had to follow UK style. And it worked! John Hockney’s memoir is to be published later this year by Legend Press in the UK, who are also publishing Mark Brandi‘s new novel, and have just released Into the River (Wimmera in Australia.)

Why would an editor want more than one style manual? Surely good style is just that? Not really. There are so many variations that are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather are choices. Your publisher and your reader want to see consistency. When it comes to word endings, for example, -ise and -ize are both correct, and both are used in UK English (although generally not in Australia). The Australian Style Manual will direct you use -ise;  Oxford stipulates -ize.

Two guides in one

You get two guides in this lovely chunky book: a style guide and a dictionary. The Oxford Style Manual is based on Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, first published in 1893. New Hart’s Rules makes up the first half of the book, and is aimed at writers, editors, self-publishers, digital publishers and anybody who has to present professional-looking papers, reports, essays and the like. Want to know how to handle footnotes and endnotes? There’s an entire chapter to guide you to getting it absolutely right. Wondering how the US and UK spellings differ and which you should use? Your answer is in the first section of this easy-to use reference.

Part II

Part II of the book is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. It’s specifically designed for those who work with words and generally guides you on anything tricky. ‘Driftwood’ is one word, but ‘drift ice’ and ‘drift net’ are preferred. Per cent or percent, or just %: which to use? I can check this in the dictionary in seconds.

The Appendices are a useful bonus, covering the Greek alphabet, mathematical symbols, diacritics and accents and chemical elements, as well as Presidents of the USA and Prime Ministers of Great Britain and of the UK.

Find it online

There’s even an online version of New Hart’s Rules that you can access for free, along with a thesaurus and bilingual dictionaries, writing help, grammar tips and a whole lot more.

Day 16: Maths in Minutes

200 Key concepts explained in an instant

By Paul Glendinning


I don’t think I’m unique among writers and editors in being pretty average when it comes to numbers and all things mathematical. I like this chunky little book because it has entries on 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.

This is a handy reference for brushing up on the basics and checking that mathematical terms in anything I’m editing are correct. It’s arranged starting from the basics (numbers, sets, geometry) and moves on to the more mind-blowing (matrices, topology). So a systematic working through would 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.

Day 11: Collins World Atlas


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.

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.