Recently I read an article by Richard Bausch in The Atlantic about writing manuals; “how-to” books which seemingly claim that their book will teach you how to write a great book. The article was definitely not in favor of these books. Here’s an excerpt that sums it up if you don’t want to read the entire article:

My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.

I felt a little sheepish, because I have read those books. Writing books like STORY by Robert McKee, STEIN ON WRITING, and Stephen King’s ON WRITING have been a source of inspiration for me and have given me some very good tips that I do think have helped.

But I also agree with him. There is no shortcut or handbook that will take place of reading great books and writing your own stories, over and over. No one can tell you how to do it, you just do it.

So admittedly, I like the books I’ve read about writing. They have given me some helpful advice, but I think it’s important to recognize that they’re not going to give you the key to success. There is no formula, checklist, or handbook for great writing. It’s like saying you can teach someone to be a beautiful ballerina by telling them how to position their arms and legs and how high to jump. They may do everything you say and still it’s no more beautiful than my feet after a pedicure. (My feet are incurably ugly.)

Read the masters, both of the past and present. Read the kinds of stories you want to write. Let those powerful words and ideas become a part of you, then set sail and write your own.

What do you think? Can writers benefit from reading books about writing, or are they just distractions from the real learning ground?


2 comments

  1. The best thing a writer can do, obviously, is write. Second best thing? Read books, a lot of books, in his or her genre – and then everything else. Third best thing? I’d say read books on writing.

    Here’s why: Because so much of what makes good writing good is that it’s purposeful. Good writers make choices, a lot of choices, about the things they write, and it’s a lot harder to make choices if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be making choices about. Books on writing are really good at outlining all the decisions you should be making as a writer.

    There’s no substitute, of course, for practice, practice, practice, because in the end, it’s all about your execution. But I’ve found books on writing to be helpful because they get me thinking about all those choices I have to make, and thinking about them in a different way than I did before.

  2. I read this article, too. I think it’s important to read about craft but more important to read widely and often.

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