Guest Post Tips & Tricks

Tellwell editor Simon Ogden’s advice to first-time authors

By Simon Ogden, Tellwell Editor


Welcome to the band, we’re delighted that you’ve decided to join us. We’re a bizarro group and legion; all of us completely, utterly, fantastically, bewilderingly unique, except for one very specific idiosyncrasy—we all have a story screaming and punching and kicking inside of us that we need to yank out and release into the world. There are people out there with the same constipation as us, but they may let it loose through interpretive dance or by singing it out or painting it or by yelling it into the faces of people in line for the bus. But not us. Not we. We’re the scribes, the men and women of letters. We adore specificity and nuance. We love the tranquility of words nestled onto a page, the calm, rational and quiet way they float over to our audience. That alchemic translation of feelings and imagery and diaphanous emotion into the solidity of language. We’re the Hobbits of the storytelling tribe and we don’t give a fig if you haven’t yet been paid for your writing—if you’ve somehow managed to set a word down on a page and followed it like a tentative footstep into the great unknown with another, you’re one of us and are welcome here. Make yourself comfortable and we’ll put the kettle on.

The first thing you should be very clear on as a brand-new author is that all those concerns you have right now about what comes next and exactly how this whole writing puzzle works … samesies! We’re right there with you, in one way or another. This, like all the great and worthy art forms, is a mentorship trade. Like sculpture or carpentry. The longer you do it, the more sense it makes and the more your own lovely, unique, necessary voice rings out clearly and melodically to find its way to those readers who need to read that thing in that way at that exact time, and they will be grateful in ways none of us can hope to fathom. And delightfully, unlike most mentorship trades, our mentors are all around us: our bookshelves groaning under their weight, our end tables apile with them, our bathwater occasionally reshaping them for us


So, the all-time, number one, pin-it-to-the-top-of-your-list chunk of writing advice from anyone worth listening to will always be to get your nose in as many books as possible. Find the authors that talk in the way you want to be talked to and ingest their work.

The second piece of advice towards becoming a better writer is—no surprises here—to write a whole bunch. It’s a close number two but make no mistake—number two it is. It would be hard to build a nice house if you’ve never been inside of a nice house, no matter how many nails you’ve hammered into a board. However, following these two rather obvious pearls of wisdom the sea of writing advice starts to get a little choppy. What is revelatory for some from here on forward may be pure bilge for others. There is a freakish amount of writing advice out there to shovel up if you choose to go digging for it. Give it all your best consideration but understand as you do that there is no specific method that originates from another artist that is also your method. This is the very essence and provenance of art. If some “genius” advice doesn’t resonate with you, it ain’t your soup—chuck it and move on.


Here’s what you should not be stressing about right now, here at the threshold of your shiny new writing life: the housework. The technical blubber. There seems to be an inordinate amount of speedbump-inducing concern amongst fresh writers over spelling and punctuation, and some vaporous anxiety over “structure” and “plot” and whatever, to the point where a huge percentage of would-be writers freeze up, crumple their dreams into an inky ball and speedwalk away, heel-toe, heel-toe, noping off into the sunset. It’s a total con. All that stuff will distill into your own awesome style thousands upon thousands of words down the trail. The housework is what your editor is for.


Publishing a book is—always and forever has been—a partnership and your editor is your book’s greatest champion. Forget the lone gunslinger bit, every author you love has a partner with a red pen, someone they trust and have worked with forever and whose job it is to help them shoot straight. Contrary to a sadly all-too-prevalent belief, editors are not engaged to come rattling in, shove you away from the keyboard and set about vivisecting your story—quite the opposite. Our job is to listen to your music, get in sync with your style and help smooth out your melody. If an editor changes a sentence in a manuscript that they’re working on to the way that they would write it, then they’re a bad editor (we have none of those at Tellwell, no fear).


We very much want you to publish the best book that your book wants to be; we want you to be happy, not some arbitrary literary-standard authority who doesn’t exist. The truth about the rules of grammar and structure is that they’re actually pretty malleable; writing your first draft is not—in any way, shape or form—an English exam to be graded. All that matters right now is your story, and it is vital and necessary and unbelievably generous that you spend all that time extracting it from your system so that it can exist in the world. At this tremulous point in history, more than ever, we need storytellers to connect us all to each other in dazzling, unifying circuitry (if you haven’t done so yet, Netflix yourself Hannah Gadsby’s astonishing stand-up special Nanette for some gorgeous insight on the urgency of proudly telling our own stories).

Your first draft is but the foundation of your project. Once it’s on the page, get a good editor on your team and watch how it rises to become the beautiful thing is was meant to be. Working with an editor is a dialogue with someone who is super nerdy and desperately in love with this thing that you’ve started doing, and in the end you will always have final say over how you want it to live in the world. We’ll figure out where to put the stupid commas in later.

We’ll get into some of the technical details of the craft in later posts and offer some insights into how we editors view the world of words. But for now, we just wanted to say thank you for joining us, and for adding your voice to the chorus. Make yourself at home.

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