Writing Tips

Guest Blogger: Oliver Gray


What do you write, and what, specifically, are you working on now?

I write predominantly nonfiction. Lots of memoir-ish essays, food and drink culture pieces, and beer reviews. My blog is one, big, never-ending project, so I’m always got something planned for that. Right now, I’m working on a series of posts called, “So You Want to be a Beer Writer?” that are how-to guides for writing, describing, and presenting beer-related content. This year I plan to write more travel and science related content, too. I’m working on a book length project, but it’s too nascent to really talk about in detail.

I occasionally write fiction, but usually only after a beer or two 🙂

What do your first drafts typically look like?

I tend to “write” a lot of my content in my head before ever sitting down at the computer. As a result, my first drafts tend to be pretty clean. If I try to sit down and write before the ideas are fully cooked in my brain-oven, it comes out very illogical, and I more often than not abandon the draft. If the bones aren’t strong and they break during early drafts, I tend to never put them back together. I’m a terrible editor in that regard.

What is your revision process?

My general routine is: write it, edit once, read it aloud, then decide its future. I’ve had a lot of success with pieces that barely changed after that first edit, and looked suspiciously like they did as a first draft. It’s probably just blind luck, but I also like to think my internal pre-writing negates some of the need for hours of revisions.

Of course, that’s if I pitch or post without outside input. I’ll often ask my writer friends for feedback, which can (but doesn’t always) substantially impact how much revision I do. How much I revise really depends on the piece itself, and how long it’s been bouncing around in my skull.

Where do you like to write? What tools do you use?

I need a clean desk and a good, full-sized keyboard. I’m all for new technology, but I’ve tried, and cannot write anything of substance on my phone or a tablet. I use them for jotting down notes, but that’s about it.

The tactile click-clack of those keys helps settle my mind, I think, like some sort of monastic chant. The clean desk thing is more about avoiding distractions, because that’s probably my number one writing-killer. Thanks a lot, Twitter.

In terms of actual writing tools, I’m pretty traditional. I use MS Word, GoogleDocs, and sometimes just the WordPress rich text editor. I like writing on something that already has words on it – even if it’s just section headers or a table of contents – because then it doesn’t feel like I’m starting from scratch. Sometimes I’ll go as far as to include a picture of something in my draft, just to spark my imagination.

Who is your favorite author and/or what is your favorite book, and why?

That’s like asking me to name my favorite beer. I jump all over the place between novels and nonfiction, depending on time of year, mood, research goals, etc. If I had to name a book and author who had inspired me the most, I’d probably go with Michael Pollan and his gastronomical opus, Omnivore’s Dilemma.

What was the first piece you ever wrote, and what made you decide to start it?

Believe it or not, I started writing by crafting love letters to my “girlfriends” in middle school. I thought they’d think it was cute, and then it turned out I was actually half-decent at it. My friends would jokingly ask me to write their school papers for them. That evolved into writing really bad hormone fueled poetry, then sarcastic rants about stuff I didn’t like in high school, and ultimately, writing about the beer I was drinking in college. I didn’t start writing essays with any real gravitas until about 2008, when I graduated from undergrad and fell into the ennui of a corporate job. I need an artistic outlet beyond what I was doing at an IT guy, and writing was there to cuddle me to sleep at night.

Where can we read more of your work?

Of course! I’m very proud of the essay I just had featured in Tin House, but it’s pretty painfully sad. For more lighthearted stuff, check out my blog Literature and Libation. I post at least twice a week about beer, writing, and the bubbly literature therein.


Oliver Gray was raised in the suburbs of Maryland, and earned his M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University. His essays and stories have been published by Tin House, the Good Men Project, The TJ Eckleberg Review, 20 Something Magazine, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. His beer and writing blog, Literature and Libation, won the North American Guild of Beer Writers’ “Blog of the Year” award in 2013. He currently lives just outside of Washington DC and is working on a beer and brewing themed book.

Fiction Novels

The Big Revision

Though Dreamweaver Road, my young adult novel, was a short summer project that came out fully formed in just a few weeks, Cairo in White was what I call a breach baby (other authors more delicately call this a “labor of love”). The novel began as a short story during one of my undergraduate creative writing courses, just the first chapter of what would become Cairo in White, but when I tried to move on from Zahra’s story, I couldn’t. I was intrigued by her struggles and her culture, but more than that, I felt like I knew her. So I embarked on the novel-length journey, discovering Zahra’s daughter, Aisha, along the way, and wrote the first draft while completing my BA in Women’s Studies and working at a mixture of part time jobs. Amazing, I thought as I wrote up my first query and emailed it to agents during a Chemistry lecture I should have been listening to, the tough part is over!

Not quite. Though many agents responded to my query and asked for partials or the whole manuscript (this was before the big online book boom that has made it so difficult to find an agent or even get a response from one), it was evident that Cairo would need a solid revision. I was lucky enough to have one agent generously respond with a page of notes on how to do so, and I dove back into grammar changes, new scenes, and character traits in the eight months between undergraduate work and graduate work. Then, after resubmitting the manuscript to that agent and getting another page of generous notes and tips, I did the whole thing again.

As you can imagine, when this latest set of line edits and small changes didn’t make the cut, I decided to take a year off and write something else. And by something else, I mean a novel, a novella, a book’s worth of short stories, and many other poems and nonfiction pieces that made their way into literary magazines. Not only did I learn my craft by practicing with these stories and poems, but the boost of confidence I got when accepted helped me fill the hole left from the time spent on the giant novel wasting away on my computer.

During my last year at Johns Hopkins, a friend of mine who had read Cairo at the beginning of the program encouraged me to use it as my thesis. Am I ready to look at Cairo with fresh eyes? I asked myself. Am I really willing to spend a sixth year on this novel? Then I printed the entire manuscript, opened a blank Word document, and started from the beginning.

Right away, I knew the Cairo I was writing was not the same Cairo I had spent so many years revising. Since I had not even looked at the document for a year, I didn’t feel attached to my poorly constructed sentences or feel the need to keep the extra characters that had performed the same function in the story but had seemed so important in the last draft. I cut scenes, one point of view character, entire side plots… I was giving my novel a complete makeover, and it felt great!

Within weeks after typing my last word, I had a contract in my inbox from a wonderful publisher who loved my writing and believed in what I was doing with it. I finally understood (thanks to a wonderful class called Sentence Power) how to construct my sentences, and I could see my characters and their actions as either essential or nonessential parts of the whole. Even if I hadn’t gotten a contract, those six years would still have been worth it because I finally wrote a version of the book that I was proud to call my own. That, after all, is why I began writing in the first place.