Are Writing Books Helping or Hindering Your Writing?
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 your writing goals.
For those of you who still have more pages to go, keep at it. Write what you can when you can. Adjust your goals or schedules if necessary. But don't downplay or diminish the significance of those late-night paragraphs, midday mini scenes, 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 content, knowing that you wrote what you were meant to write for today. And guess what? Even if you didn’t reach your goal, there’s new opportunities for you to pick up where you left off tomorrow 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 writing books in the writing process.
Of course, when I talk about writing or “craft books”, I’m referring to any book written on the subject of writing and the mechanics of “how to write.”
Obviously, there are many types of writing books out there. There are books written about specific disciplines, elements of the craft, and genres.
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 dull, unhelpful, pretentious, and derivative, not to mention expensive. The same can be said of certain writing classes, workshops, and seminars.
Of course, name recognition goes a long way to sell these kinds of services, but just because an accomplished author, celebrity, or influencer has written a book on writing or teaches a class on writing doesn’t mean their services are helpful to every writer.
I tend to agree with Stephen King, who wrote one of my favorite memoirs On Writing, when he said, “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.”
Us writers and connoisseurs of the craft offer perspectives, observations, and conclusions drawn from experience. That’s it. Are there good lessons and takeaways from these commentaries? Absolutely. Are they doctrine? Not at all.
In the end, 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.
If you want to be a great storyteller, you can read about storytelling or you can actually read stories, make your own observations, and try your hand at writing a few of your own.
That is not a condemnation of books about writing. They have their place. Thankfully an idea 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 basic internet, a young writer will have access to a world of resources they can utilize without ever having to break the bank or accrue massive debt. That wasn't the case a hundred years ago.
Sadly, 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 either. I myself was crazy enough about writing to get my masters in writing for children and young adults; and I occasionally get invited to speak at writers’ conferences. Needless to say, I believe in development and learning in its money forms. There’s a wealth of great insights to be gleaned from craft books, writing classes, workshops, conferences, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels; however, there’s just as much overpriced dribble and nonsense we as writers should probably avoid.
But here’s the question I’ve received from several students and writers over the years: how useful, specifically, are writing books to 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.
Naturally, a lot of writing books are written for beginners. And for most beginning writers, though, writing 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 often include plot diagrams, beat sheets, and other structural blueprints to follow and walk us through, step by step, the mechanics of “how to” write.
Of course, continuing with my the LEGO metaphor, if we follow the steps to the letter, we'll inevitably end up with a complete set (or in our case manuscript). However, the finished product 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.
Is this a problem for young writers? Not necessarily. Early on, a lot of writing begins with imitation, and that’s fine.
As author Neil Gaiman argues,"before you can be eccentric, you have to know where the circle is.”
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.
There’s a lot of technical ability, tenacity, and persistence that go into it the craft of writing.
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 also gain confidence from actually finishing something.
We may not have designed the perfect manuscript 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.
And yet, for a writer to set out on their own, they must eventually put down the instruction manual, take modeled techniques they’ve learned in the past, and try their hand at putting unique pieces together in their own way. What they create may look terrible. It may be innovate and incredible. But this is where every writer transitions from building something someone else has handed them to actually crafting something they can call their own. It’s also where writers begin to find their voice.
So ultimately, go ahead and read writing 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.
Follow the instructions early. 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. It’s the kind of work people want to read because it’s unique and wholly you. And who knows? Maybe there’s a masterpiece waiting to be assembled from all your patience, persistence, and tinkering. The only way to find out is to start building. So get to it.
As always, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to read my work. If you enjoyed or were inspired by this post, hit the heart icon below, share this post, or subscribe for news, exclusive content, and more.
Thanks again. Now get back to writing.