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?