On writing manuals

In a recent post on his blog, Mark Charan Newton linked to an essay on writing manuals by Richard Bausch published in the Atlantic, “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons“.

Bausch deplores them, and justifiably so given his experience with an unnamed how-to publisher and would-be student writers who fail to read. And this is the main thrust of his argument: many people seem to use these guides as ends in themselves rather than studying actual works of literature. It’s a fair point.

That said, I read Stephen King’s On Writing over the weekend, and I rather enjoyed it (even the parts where I groaned, however clichéd,  in horror and disgust).1 It’s a great read, though my favourite in the literary memoir genre is Pierre Berton’s The Joy of Writing. Prior to reading this I didn’t realize how funny he could be.2  Joy is also immensely informative. I pulled it off the shelf again while writing this and have now become sucked into re-reading it, for sheer pleasure.

Both of these books offer insight into how they got started – not just in writing, but in life. Both are filled with lots of practical advice, with examples. And both encourage aspiring writers to read. A lot.3

But the other stuff? The Natalie Goldbergs, Anne Lamotts and Twyla Tharps4 and so forth? They were light and hopeful and  entertaining, but I didn’t learn anything from them. I don’t mean this to be insulting, I had fun reading them and doing the exercises, but I don’t need the secret of unlocking my inner creative genius (whatever that means). What I really needed was to understand how to self-edit during revision, how to avoid clichés and strip adverbs and to clearly define for me why writing in a passive voice just isn’t cool. More importantly, once I had a story or poem that I thought was pretty good, I needed guidance on where to go from there.

As Bausch notes in the article linked to above, in actuality, I got (and continue to get) much more from reading widely, especially reading authors whom I admire, and seeking out new sources of inspiration.

Of course, that’s not why I read. I read because I enjoy it. I find it a little astonishing that anyone would want to become a writer without an ingrained love of the written word. It seems to rather miss the point.

There can be value in the writing guides, in that they’re fun and can challenge you to write something outside your usual writing comfort zone, if that’s your thing. But they can’t ever act as a substitute for reading the real stuff. Not just studying it or Northrop Fryeing it, but reading for pleasure while also maintaining an awareness of what’s out there. And there’s a lot out there.

I see another post in this. One about books which are actually useful to teach one to write well. Things like the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and The Canadian Press Stylebook.

  1. Should I be surprised at how graphically King can render such images? Probably not, but I haven’t read King since I was a teenager. Reading this makes me want to read him again. []
  2. Then I saw him smoke a joint on Rick Mercer. []
  3. I was pleased to see I read more than Stephen King, who only manages 50-70 books a year. I totally beat that. []
  4. I admit, I bought and read these. The first two on the basis of recommendations from people who only aspired to writing as a hobby, and the last on the recommendation of a blogger. Friends don’t always have good taste. Remember, some people like Wuthering Heights. []