Are Craft Books Actually Helping or Hindering You as a Writer?
Welcome back, writers, storytellers, and craftsmen. I hope it has been a productive week and you’re on track to meeting your deadlines, hitting your page counts, and reaching all of your writing goals.
For those of you who still have mountains to climb and pages to go, keep at it. Write what you can when you can. Adjust your schedules to try and make writing a regular part of your day. Adjust your goals if necessary. But don't downplay or diminish the significance of those late-night paragraphs, midday mini scenes, observations jotted down, and morning pages you are able to complete. They matter, and over time they too add up.
My hope is that at the end of the night you are able to rest and be content, knowing that you wrote what you were meant to write for today. And guess what? Even if you don’t reach every goal, there’s a new tomorrow and new opportunities for you to pick up where you left off and maybe even start over or start fresh.
Anyway, that is my encouragement as we hit the midway point of the week. Keep at it. Keep writing. Now let’s get on with it.
This week I wanted to expand a little bit on a topic I touched on in my last post that some of you have asked about, and that is the role of craft books in the writing process.
Of course, when I talk about “craft books”, I’m referring to any book written on the subject of writing and the basics of “how to write.”
Obviously, there are as many genres of craft books as there are disciplines of writing (screenwriting, comic books, children’s literature, etc.). There are even books written about specific elements of the craft (grammar, dialogue, structure, etc.) or genres (thrillers, romance, fantasy, etc.)
Some of these books are notably better than others.
Popularity isn’t always indicative of quality either. Some of the most popular books on writing can be boring, unhelpful, pretentious, and derivative yet also very expensive. The same can be said of certain writing classes, workshops, and seminars. Name recognition goes a long way to sell product, but just because an accomplished author, celebrity, or influencer with ten thousands followers has written a book on writing or teaches a class doesn’t mean their services are actually good or helpful.
I tend to agree with Stephen King (who's written one of my favorite memoirs On Writing) when he argues that “fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.”
Are there good lessons and takeaways from craft books? Absolutely.
Some contain templates, workflows, and ideas that are helpful to some writers and not very useful to others. I tend to gain the learn from memoirs on the craft and writers talking about their unique process, not necessarily how I should write my own story. Find what you like and what works for you.
But again, no craft book, no matter how good it is, will be as valuable to the writer as the discoveries they will gain from actually writing.
Keep that in mind.
If you want to be a great storyteller, you can read about storytelling or you can actually read stories and try your hand at eventually writing them.
That is not a condemnation of books about writing. I believe there's a place for both. It’s simply an observation on where our priorities should reside as writers.
It takes time and dedication to develop any craft, but thankfully a pen and paper is all we really need to get started. And with a local library card and a basic computer with some form of word processing software and internet access, a young writer will have access to a world of incredible resources that they can utilize without ever having to break the bank or accrue unnecessary debt.
That being said, I’ve met plenty of writers who’ve ended spending a small fortune on writing books, classes, conferences, and coaching services.
I am not downplaying the value of any of these services. I am a huge advocate for learning and development. If you can afford a good writing coach or attend a really great writing class or program, it can be wonderful.
However, I’ve also met a lot of writers who’ve spent way too much on writing “essentials” that never really paid off the way they hoped they would.
There’s a wealth of great insights to be gleaned from craft books, writing classes, workshops, conferences, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels; and there’s just as much overpriced dribble and nonsense we as writers should probably avoid.
Again, I am not discrediting writing classes or coaching services. I just hate seeing a writer spend thousands of dollars on development and still be no further along in their goals than a writer with a passion for writing, a library card, and the patience to keep reading, keep writing, keep revising, and keep submitting their work.
But here’s the question I’ve received from several students and writers over the years: how useful are craft books really in the writing process? Should writers read as many books on writing as possible or simply focus on their actual writing? Do craft books actually help or hinder you as a writer?
These are all good questions.
Something to remember as a writer, though, is that most craft books are written as “how to” guides, blueprints for success, and training manuals.
There is nothing wrong with this.
In order to become an architect, you have to know the ins and outs of really good blueprints and schematics. You will study the great buildings from the ground up and learn the rules of the trade you will eventually apply yourself to.
Like architects, most writers, artists, and craftsmen must learn to observe and imitate before they create.
Naturally, a lot of craft books are written for beginners, but that doesn’t mean that seasoned writers can’t also learn from their insights.
I’ve been driving the same car for fifteen years. I know it pretty well by now. However, ever so often, even I need to reference the owner’s manual or consult with a car expert to learn how to fix something I’ve never dealt with or perhaps forgotten how to fix.
Experienced writers are no different. They learn from others, consult with fellow writers, seek feedback, study the greats, apply new writing tricks and techniques, and accept that they will always have more to learn.
Craft books can be a trusted reference guide and owner’s manual that help with this.
For most beginning writers, though, craft books can be like an instruction manual for a LEGO set. It might be a small fifty piece set or large five thousand piece monster. In any case, the writer is given the pieces and a manual that tells them how to put them all together.
These kinds of manuals are formulaic and prescriptive by design. They provide templates for writers to use to craft their story. They may include plot diagrams, beat sheets, and other structural blueprints to follow. They walk us through, step by step, the mechanics of “how to” write an effective story.
If we follow the steps, patiently placing one brick on top of another, we'll inevitably end up with a complete LEGO set (or manuscript). However, when we follow the step-by-step guide, the set we are left with is also a structural, aesthetic copy of the set we see on the box. It's the same set others have built using the same instructions.
Cool? Absolutely. Original? Hardly.
Now is this a problem for young writers? Not necessarily.
There should always be a balance between creative inspiration and the mechanics of good writing. Most early writers have some creativity, inspiration, and ideas. They simply lack the skills to actually turn their ideas into a functional story.
Writing is only part creativity. There’s a lot of technical ability, tenacity, and hard work that go into it is as well.
We may not write anything remarkably original or unique starting out. We don’t necessarily have to. Early on, a lot of writing begins with imitation, and that’s fine.
If we learn how the pieces of a good story fit together, study how other writers have done it, and practice the mechanics of good writing over and over again, inevitably we begin to develop the mindset and muscles of a skilled craftsman.
We gain confidence from actually finishing something.
We may not have designed the master LEGO set ourselves. The steps may have been laid out for us, but when we see something in front of us, we realize that we can actually see a story through to completion. It may be a basic, beginner level story, but that’s where confidence begins. Small victories.
Of course, a writer who sticks too closely to the rules of craft books may end up with a lot of finished material that looks and sounds oddly like someone else’s work/voice. If that’s how they want to spend their career, that’s fine. Plenty of writers have been made a career out of fan fiction, ghostwriting, and other forms of writing that require them to mimic the style and voice of another author.
However, for a writer to eventually set out on their own, they must inevitably put down the instruction manual, take modeled techniques they’ve learned and practiced in the past, and try their hand at putting unique story pieces together in their own way. What they create may look terrible. It may be innovate and incredible. But this is where writers transition from building something someone else has handed them to actually crafting something original that they can call their own. It’s also where writers begin to find their own voice and way of telling their own stories.
It’s all part of the writing process.
So ultimately, go ahead and read craft books and have a few favorites on your shelf for reference, but don’t break the bank assembling your library. And don’t let reading books about writing hinder you from actually writing.
Build as many LEGO sets and write as many stories as you can. Follow the instructions early and often. Master the basics, learn the rules, and get to know your craft inside and out. Once you do, don’t be afraid to occasionally take things apart, incorporate new pieces, break the rules, and try new things. I
t’s the kind of work people want to read because it’s unique and wholly you. And who knows if there’s a masterpiece waiting to be assembled from all your patience, persistence, and tinkering? Get to it.
That being said, thank you so much for taking a few minutes out of your day to read this post. As always, if you enjoyed or inspired by these perspectives, hit the heart icon below, share this post, or subscribe for news, exclusive content, and more.