The Problem with Books on Writing

1412167013451I have mixed feelings regarding books on writing.

I believe the best way to improve as a writer is to write.  A lot.  And to read.  A lot.

And to give readers a lot of your writing and enter the tortuous editing cycle.  A lot.

And so on.

You’ll notice that books on writing aren’t part of that equation.

The problem is this: good writing is a nebulous concept.  It isn’t something that can be simply described and then learned.  If it were that easy, everyone would leave grade school a great writer.

Worse, everyone’s taste is different.  My favorite book in the world might be your least favorite.  My favorite sentence may be one you find mundane.  You may prefer the flowery prose of Dickens to the tough and terse prose of Hemingway, when both are among the greats.  Or you might hate them both.  So how is a book on writing supposed to teach great writing, when the fundamental concept is uncertain?

What’s more, how to books can promote an armchair approach.  You see people with hundreds of books on writing on their bookshelves, but you discover that they write only a handful of words every few weeks.  It’s easy for the lazier parts of your mind to convince you that reading all of those books is the thing to do.  You’ll learn how to do it right for when you start later, you’ll tell yourself.

There are a few types of writing books, and each has its own place.  One type offers writing theory: plot development and character concepts.  Another form offers practical and simple tips: avoid adverbs, use “said” for dialogue.  A third option might be technical and examine sentence structure and the types of emphasis each would produce.

The question is whether any of those are more useful than joining a writing group and having your work critiqued.


My Stance

I am an aspiring author.  The idea that I don’t have something to learn from the greats is absurd.  I’m at the point in my writing career where I should mop up every drop of wisdom that successful authors have to offer.

I also am aware of the fact that I can’t write all the time.  However, I can still use spare time that I want to spend on writing productively by reading writing books.

I also believe that the key to using these books is how they are approached. It is important to distill the wisdom to what is practical then to work to actively apply it.  I always take notes and ask myself “how can I use this to get better?”  Then I try to apply that knowledge when I sit down to write every day.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing up reviews of some of the books on writing that I have read previously or am in the process of reading.  I’ll note some of the more helpful lessons I took from them.

Stay tuned.


How about you, do you have any favorite books on writing?  Anything worth recommending?  Post about them in the comments!

6 thoughts on “The Problem with Books on Writing

  1. Another side-effect of absorbing lots of writing advice (books or otherwise) is that it can make you read fiction more analytically. You start to notice what is and isn’t working for you, which can help inform how you write. It’s debatable whether that’s a good thing or not though – it can seriously lessen your enjoyment of reading…

    • Raptori,

      That’s a great thought! I’m jealous that I didn’t include that. I’m planning a post soon about how important reading is for writers, and I’ll definitely make a note about that.

      I’m with you on whether or not that’s a good thing, though. I remember reading a Malazan book relatively recently, and I couldn’t turn “writer mode” off. It definitely affected my enjoyment. I loved the Malaz series and Erikson’s work… but as it turns out, I would’ve done many things quite differently. And I never found a way to get my brain to stop telling me about it.

      Good luck out there,

      • Haha, sounds like it’d be more appropriate in that post anyway!

        Yep, definitely sounds exactly the same. For me it’s very hit and miss, and it’s very much down to the book rather than anything I control. I think it’s more likely when a book isn’t brilliant, but it can strike even when you’re reading something that is great, and that’s when it’s at its most bittersweet!

        • I agree. It depends on the book. It’s funny how I loved the Malaz series so much despite the fact that I recognize several deep flaws within it.
          The flip side is that right now I’m reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, and my internal editor crops up very infrequently. When it does, most of the time I’m noting a turn of phrase or description I like, and I remind myself to highlight it.

    • Hi Jen,

      Thank you for your comment!
      Yes, I have read Steven King’s On Writing. I really enjoyed it. It might be my favorite book on writing, although I’m not sure. I’m definitely going to post a review about it here at some point.
      I actually read it many years ago, though, and I want to give it a good reread before I write anything about it.


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