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The Joy of Writing: A Guide for Writers, Disguised as a Literary Memoir

by Pierre Berton

Having Canadian author and journalistic icon Pierre Berton explain the secret to making a living as a writer – and, to no writer’s surprise, the secret is military-like self-discipline, exhaustive research, grim determination, and hard work – is a little like having Wayne Gretzky explain the finer points of hockey at your kitchen table over tea.

With 49 books under his belt, the 82-year-old Berton, like Gretzky, has a deep well of material from which to draw for The Joy of Writing. Canada’s professor emeritus of history lays out 30 rules for aspiring writers, ranging from the indispensable Rule No. 1: Know and understand your audience to the pragmatism of Rule No. 26: Suck up to your editor.

Berton’s touch is light and his voice self-confident, born of the many triumphs and comeuppances of a rich writing life. Sprinkled throughout are reproductions of old Berton chapter outlines, drafts, manuscript snippets, character sketches, and other raw materials that form the infrastructure of a book. It is comforting to know that a writer – a term the author says he hates, much preferring “newspaperman” – as prolific as Berton still has doubts about his ability to complete a project when he takes it on.

Berton also takes on his critics. He reviews some of the reviewers and they are found wanting, but it’s not sour grapes. The reviewers, in accusing Berton of being sloppy when he had the facts right, had, in fact, broken Rule No. 24: Stay on top of your own research. Working hacks will have a belly laugh as Berton skewers celebrity authors who have books ghostwritten for them and then convince themselves there was no ghost writer.

Wordsmiths of every stripe will be nodding their heads in knowing agreement with Berton’s anecdotes and advice even as they inadvertently soak up Canadian history.