The beloved classic To Kill A Mockingbird has a sequel. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee was released on July 14th. In its first week of publication, Go Set a Watchman sold 1.1 million copies, the most ever sold in a week by Harper Collins.

3 Writing Lessons from GO SET A WATCHMAN

How Go Set a Watchman Was Written

The novel was actually completed in 1957 and was written prior to the famous To Kill A Mockingbird.

At first, publishers rejected it. In fact, Harper Lee’s publisher asked her to revisit the plot and create a more focused story-line. Out of Go Set A Watchman, To Kill A Mockingbird was birthed.

Naturally, when the book came out I rushed to get it. A sequel to a classic deserves to be read. To read the first chapter of the book, check it out here.

“The spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” said Tay Hohoff, her editor, after reading the manuscript in 1957. Despite the controversy behind the book’s release, we can still see those sparks throughout Watchman, and take away an important lesson from a great writer.

3 Writing Lessons from Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee’s biggest success in Go Set a Watchman is how skillfully she crafts an unmistakable Southern tone.

I’m naturally a fast reader, sometimes even a skimmer, but as I read Go Set a Watchman, I found myself slowing, pausing, and feeling sucked into the slow Southern culture illustrated in the novel.

Here are three things we can learn about how to craft our own tone in our writing:

1. Culturally Specific Vocabulary and Jargon

Lee stays consistent in her vocabulary in order to facilitate a 1950’s Southern atmosphere in her writing. Each word is tailored to the setting and character speaking. Lee uses words common at the time but which wouldn’t be acceptable today (“negro,” for example).

Another technique is using relevant jargon. Jargon is the special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group. While you should generally avoid jargon, especially when writing non-fiction, because it creates distance between you and the reader, Lee’s use of Southern jargon helps saturate the reader in the scenes and culture of her setting.

For example, here’s a quote that includes a few words most of us would find unusual unless we grew up in the South in the 1950s:

He was a short, square built, cotton-headed individual with the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat.

What vocabulary or jargon does your story call for? Business? Religious? Cultural?

2. Deliberate Punctuation

Go Set a Watchman has very deliberate punctuation. It is a great example of how punctuation can cause your reader to pause, slow, or read quickly.

Here’s an example of how Lee uses punctuation to control the reader’s pace from Chapter 4 of Go Set a Watchman:

Instead, Maycomb grew and sprawled out from its hub, Sinkfield’s Tavern, because Sinkfield made the surveyors drunk one evening, induced them to bring forward their maps and charts, lop off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the center of the county to meet his requirements. He sent them packing the next day armed with their charts and five quarts of shinny in their saddlebags—two apiece and one for the Governor.

Lee’s sentence structure varies with each sentence. In one paragraph there’s a sentence with seven commas. The next sentence has none, but uses a dash instead to slow the pace.

A tone is easily developed when you use deliberate punctuation. This goal is not achieved simply because you used correct punctuation, but intentional.

What intentional punctuation do you like to use? Ellipses? Dashes? Short sentences?

3. Imagery

In my opinion, the first chapter of this book is actually the best because of it’s stunning imagery.

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.

This imagery fits almost perfectly to the feeling and setting Harper Lee is trying to attain. The imagery is slight, but also changes the reader’s pace. As pictured, there is no rush within the characters dialogue or thoughts, allowing the reader to relax into the narrative.

How can you use imagery to sway your reader in a particular way?

The Controversy Behind Go Set a Watchman

There are three main points of controversy surrounding this novel and it’s publication:

  1. The Novel’s Quality. Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and was rejected for being “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” Its publication now has been questioned for being profiteering on the part of Harper Collins at the expense of the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
  2. Whether Harper Lee actually wanted the novel to be published. Harper Lee is now 88 years old, blind, a stroke survivor. For years, she resisted publishing Go Set a Watchman, or any other book. It’s strange that now, shortly after her sister, who acted as her attorney, passed away, she agreed to publish her novel. Was she able to consciously make the decision in good faith?
  3. Atticus Finch’s Segregationist Politics. Atticus Finch is one of the great heroes of twentieth century literature, but in Go Set a Watchman, Jean “Scout” Louise struggles against her idealized image of her father and his segregationist politics. Apparently, Atticus, who is modeled after Harper Lee’s father, was also a lawyer who believed segregation was better for both blacks and whites. He later changed his views and became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement. But will Atticus’ legacy be tainted by Go Set a Watchman’s depiction of him?

While I’m not an expert and don’t feel able to make a decision on whether this controversy is true or not, I did read the book and research quite a bit. Here are four articles from respected resources that shed light on the controversy:

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think of the novel? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


Choose one of the three techniques Harper Lee uses and practice free-writing for fifteen minutes. Keep your tip in mind and use it as often as you can in your piece.

When your time is up, post your piece in the comments below and we’ll guess your theme or tone!

Happy writing!

Kellie McGann
Kellie McGann
Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.