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Books on Writing: Do You Read Them?

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 27, 2012 at 8:55 AM

     I have a bookshelf full of books on writing. And I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone, because writers, by their nature, are readers. Reading about writing seems a logical step.



Truthfully though, I only use two of those books on writing with any kind of regularity. If I’m in a fast-draft piece of work then I refer to Stephen King’s On Writing – for inspiration and just to remind myself to get stuff down. There’s also the “Shitty First Draft” chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Both King’s book and Lamott’s chapter give permission to fuck up, which is very freeing for me. When it’s going slower and I’m revising/rewriting then I go to Susan Bell’s The Art of Self Editing because she tells me how to get distance and reminds me what I need to look for.



So I think that books on writing can definitely be helpful. Writing can sometimes be difficult. You hit snags. And there are times you think you’re the only one who has had these problems. Writing books tell you otherwise.




They’re also good for learning the basics: grammar, dialogue, character and world building, etc.




I think where I start to worry about writing books is when I start to see graphs, worksheets, a plan to get the book done in twenty-four hours. Any kind of prescription-for-writing I’m just not down with. Good writing has its rules, but following strict guidelines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to a T right off the bat. Generally it doesn’t happen and you’re left with fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.




And I’ve also fallen into the trap that reading writing books = writing. This just ain’t so.




Writing books should only be used, in my opinion, in conjunction with writing. Always, always, always be working on a piece when you read these books. It’s what they’re designed to do, and it’s the only way they’ll actually help.




What writing books have you read that you found useful? Have you come across any you thought were counterproductive?


Categories: Advice, Books, Writing Process

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1 Comment

Reply Oliver
7:54 PM on August 27, 2012 
I read books about writing. I choose them by length. The shorter ones have the best advice, on average. It is peculiar.

I like Orson Scott Card's book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, is a good one. It's slim, 140 pages. Ben Bova wrote a book called How to Write Science Fiction that Sells. Slightly longer, 218 pages, but it includes four short stories exemplifying concepts he discusses. Bova writes a lot of anecdote and practical advice--like write daily, try till you succeed, prepare to fail a lot. Probably my favorite book on writing is Alan Moor's How to Write Comics, which is forty-three pages long. It has a lot of good advice on the general topic of storytelling, as well as the suggestion that writing is a bad idea as a career path and ought to be avoided.

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