There are certain ‘how to’ books that make a lot of sense: cookbooks, gardening books, DIY manuals. These provide steps that, if followed, result in an expected outcome, like a beef stroganoff or a set of shelves. They teach something that needs to be replicable, something that should (in theory) have the same result every time it’s done. This is the very opposite of what we want writing to be, yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘how to write’ books out there. The question is, are they worthwhile?
There’s No Magic Formula
While these books can be helpful, they will only take you so far. A book can give you advice and tips, even offer inspiration and motivation, but when it starts giving step-by-step instructions for writing a novel, it stops being a useful resource. A sentiment shared by William Faulkner, who said:
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.”
Stephen King, despite having written a ‘how to write’ book himself, also seems dubious about the ability of writers to teach their craft. He thinks 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”. Which hits on one of the main reasons a writer needs more than a ‘how to’ book to create engaging content – most of the time, it’s impossible to predict what readers are going to connect with, particularly since all readers are different. There is no magic formula for writing a successful book – if there was, we’d all be doing it, as W. Somerset Maugham once said:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
There’s Hope Yet
Don’t throw away your writing books just yet, because there are definitely elements of writing that can be learned from a set of instructions: grammar and sentence structure, the use of active and passive voice, maybe even more specific skills like writing dialogue and staging scenes. And while these skills should not be ignored, they are also not the only things involved in writing. Ann Patchett says in her writing memoir, The Getaway Car, “Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft”. However, being able to master the skills alone is not enough. The extra bits, the so-called art, these are things you can’t learn from a book; the ideas, the mastery of language, the ability to weave a beautiful story around a reader’s emotions – these are innate.
Aside from the mechanics of writing, one of the primary ways in which these ‘how to’ books can be helpful is in the advice and encouragement they provide. This is why, if you are looking at investing in one of these books, I would recommend choosing a writing memoir, such as Stephen King’s On Writing, Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Reading about how these people wrote their books, the lessons they learned along the way and the encouragement they have can be extremely rewarding and affirming. Sometimes all you really need from a ‘how to’ book is the motivation to start actually doing.
With that in mind, here are some quotes from these books to help get your words onto the page:
I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
The more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page” – Ann Patchett, The Getaway Car
Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position” – Stephen King, On Writing.
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It’s also important to remember that all the time you are reading about writing is time you are not actually doing any writing, and there is one piece of advice that all good writing books agree on – if you want to write, you have to practice writing. Write all the time. Write lots. Just write.