Should You Read Books About Writing?

You’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting opinions about writing books. Some people say they’re useless. Others say they’re kind of handy, or will at least recommend one or two favorites. Still others say they’re worse than useless — that they can actively keep you from becoming a good writer.

Why is this?

The arguments against

Although people generalize and say that writing books are bad for you, I think it isn’t so much the books that are a problem, but rather how people approach them. There are two things budding writers tend to do with writing books that cause them problems:

#1. Reading without writing

Too many people read writing books instead of writing. They keep saying, “I’m not done learning yet.” It’s an excuse. They’re procrastinating. They’re using books as a way to avoid sitting down to do the work of writing. As long as they’re reading books they don’t have to ask themselves whether their writing is any good. They don’t have to ask anyone else to point out the flaws in their work. They don’t have to worry about word counts or deadlines or rejection letters. They can do little exercises endlessly, without ever completing a story or finishing a novel.

This doesn’t help you become a better writer. You can read all the theory in the world, and if you don’t find out how to put it into practice, then it won’t improve your writing. And with writing, the only way to find out how to put it into practice is to write.

So take a long hard look at your writing book habits. Do you honestly read them to learn? Or do you read them to procrastinate? Make sure that in and around the books you read, you do plenty of “real” writing. Write stories. Write articles. Work on that novel. Don’t let yourself become a professional reader of writing books.

#2. Accepting at face value

The other problem is that too many budding writers read about other authors’ experiences and take them at face value. They assume that some great truth has been imparted to them, and that all writers write best in longhand, or must write without using adverbs and adjectives, or whatever.

The truth is that every writer’s experience is different. No other author can tell you “how it’s done.” Other writers can only tell you how they do things, which is something else entirely. The only way to find out which things work for you is to try them out and see.

In this way, it can actually help to read more than one writing book. Seek out writing books with conflicting advice and suggestions. Once you see a couple of authors you respect insist that their ways are right (when those ways are mutually exclusive), it becomes a lot easier to see that no other author can tell you how you must write. Only you can decide that for yourself, after plenty of trial and error.

Lack of feedback

In addition, a book can’t look at your latest story and tell you where your problems lie. It can’t show you how the latest theory you’re studying applies specifically to your memoirs. Only a teacher, editor, workshop, or writing coach can do these things.

Why read writing books?

Despite the traps it’s easy to fall into, there are some good reasons for reading writing books.

Cost

Writing books are a heck of a lot cheaper than classes or the services of a professional editor or writing coach. You do lose important things by just using writing books–like the personalized evaluation of your writing — but if you simply don’t have the budget for those things, then books can be a godsend.

A variety of viewpoints

As I mentioned earlier, getting a variety of viewpoints on writing can help to show you that no one writer has all the answers, and that you need to pick and choose the methods and ideas that work best for you. It’s easier to read a lot of books by various authors than to take a lot of classes from various writers (unless you’re in a writing program at a university).

Not all teachers are created equal

If you have the bad luck to get a questionable writing teacher in your classes, then books by professionals can help to balance that out. Mind you, just because a teacher isn’t a best-selling writer doesn’t mean she isn’t the best teacher for the job. You need someone who can teach well more than you need someone who can write well, and there are a lot of great writers who can’t teach worth a damn. But if you do get stuck with a lousy teacher, turning to books might help you out.

Writing books can fulfill specific purposes

You can pick a writing book to fill specific needs that you have at the time, whereas classes are usually more generalized. If you know that your dialogue is stilted, then pick up a book on dialogue. If you’re feeling uninspired, then pick up a book on creativity and inspiration. If you have no idea how to create a suspenseful atmosphere, then pick up a book on conflict and suspense. Use books to brush up on methods, expand your tool box of techniques, and continue to learn and improve throughout your writing career. Mind you, a writing coach can also serve these purposes, provided the coach is knowledgeable in the areas you need help with. A writers’ workshop may also be able to fill this need.

Availability

A book is available at any time of any day. If you feel inspired at 1 am, you can grab a book from your shelf and go. You can take a book with you on vacation or to the pool. You can read it on the hour-long subway ride to work. You can skip around, read chapter 30 first or chapter 2 last, read only the parts that interest you, and so on.

Emotional safety

If you have self-esteem problems, then a book may be a “safe” place to start out with your writing. You can get a start and learn a few things before you have to worry about taking criticism on your writing from others. Also, if you only want to write for yourself and just don’t care about getting feedback or trying for publication, then a book can help you to write in private. Just remember that, due to the lack of feedback, your writing probably won’t be great if and when you finally do put it in front of others. So don’t expect too much. It’s a foothold, not a substitute for finding a teacher.

As you can see, writing books have a place. They can have value. You just have to make sure that you aren’t reading them instead of writing. And you have to make sure that you don’t accept their advice as gospel truth. Think critically. Try out their advice, play with it, and find out what works for you.

If you want to read a book or two but you aren’t sure where to start, you can check out our reviews, which include a number of reviews of writing books.

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