Friday, April 16, 2010

Books on Writing: Who Needs 'Em?

Like many writers, I have a shelf or two of “how to write” books in my vast library. I just ordered another one today: 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers by Peter Selgin.

I have a writer-friend who has no use for “how to write” books. She feels that reading good writing is the best way to learn the craft. I can’t really argue with her. She has a literary agent, and her first novel will be published by a major publishing house in the near future. So her approach seems to have worked very well for her.

Although I do believe reading good writing is essential to becoming a good writer, I also find “how to write” books to be not only interesting reading but helpful to me. The topics mentioned in such books often cause me to look at aspects of my own writing that I might not have considered without being prompted.

Below are the titles of three books on writing that I have found particularly enlightening, encouraging, and engaging:

Write Away by Elizabeth George
On Writing by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

How do you feel about “how to write” books? If you read such books, which one(s) have you found to be well worth the time and money you invested? Why?

Do you feel that there is a certain "stage" of a writer's career where such books are helpful, and that good writers eventually "outgrow" that stage?


  1. Some writing books are AMAZING. Like ... oh, I don't know ... Tarot for Writers, for example.

  2. I enjoy reading them because I feel like I find something new every time. I use them more as inspiration for craft rather than instruction for craft. Does that make sense?

    Right now I'm rereading Bird by Bird and I had a lightbulb moment on my current work-in-progress.

  3. LOL - Corrine, you're absolutely right about that one! I have it and love it!

    Michelle, I agree with you on the inspiration vs instruction angle. I need to read Bird by Bird. A lot of people recommend it.

  4. It's a while since I've read a book on writing. I'd put them in three categories, which all overlap somewhat. Those that deal with the life of the working writer, and teach the discipline of self-motivation - such as Dorothea Brande's classic Becoming a Writer. Those that deal with technique and approach, such as King's On Writing or Bickham's The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes; and those that are - for want of a better word - "inspirational" writing books: my favourite of those is Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones.

    The first type is very useful when you're starting out. The second type will always have something to teach - I tend to turn to them when I'm stuck because of technical mistakes, or for my own "continuing education".

    The third type is the one I turn to most often. Writing Down the Bones and its successor, Wild Mind, are made up of short essays informed by the Zen philosophy of the author and filled with engaging snippets. Whenever I read one, I can't help but sitting down to write - she has the writing virus and it's catching! Her view of life is original and fresh - and that is infectious too - I find myself looking at my surroundings with entirely new eyes. Of course, that's a virtue in all good books - but in writing books, paradoxically, it's rare.

  5. Sophie, I agree, and I like your descriptions of the three types of books!

  6. I have my favorites which I still reread from time to time: Take Joy, by Jane Yolen, Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers, and Stephen King's book. I don't think I'll ever 'outgrow' reading certain writing books, not only because these people are among my favorite authors, but because I always take away something I haven't picked up on before. There are also several books on my 'to-read' list. I think once you think you know it all, you're done growing as a writer.

  7. Those are really good points, Dawn. I have Jane Yolen's book on my shelf too. I think there's a difference between "how to" books by established writers (especially ones that I think are exceptionally good) and "how to" books that are sort of generic and cover the same "textbook topics" covered in every other book.

  8. There are many helpful books on the market, but I'm one of those who believe that a huge part of writing talent is innate. Often you'll see evidence of it in young school children who, of course, have had no writing training whatsoever other than routine assignments. But raw talent must be cultivated, and these writing books (by a PUBLISHED author) can offer many short cuts and helpful tips. Personally, I've found several of them invaluable.

  9. Lee, thanks for commenting and for bringing up the "innate talent" factor. I think what you say is also true for music, art, etc. Even people with a huge amount of innate talent (in any field) still seem to benefit from being taught, coached, and guided by someone qualified to do that. To me, a book is simply one form that teaching, coaching, or guiding can take.

  10. I actually don't have any, I do read lots of books though and take note of how they have been constructed. The one thing I do have/do to help me learn the craft/skill of writing is that I subscribe to various writing tips on the internet. I find these to be informative and helpful.

  11. Ooooh, yes, Helen! There are wonderful internet sites, blogs, and newsletters that offer a wealth of information and instruction. Thank you for bringing that up!

  12. OOh I forgot Scotti as you know I do have Corrine's book Tarot for Writers too, and I love it! How could I have forgot that! :(


So, what do you say?