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Should You Read About Writing?

photo by decor plans [1]
photo by decor plans

A writer friend of mine recently moved offices, and in doing so, had to downsize his book collection. He purged several dozen books about writing. Offering them to a group of us fellow writers, he wryly noted, “Take what you want, but remember, if reading books about writing was enough to make someone a successful writer, I would have been published long ago.”

Whether or not writing can be taught at all is an ongoing debate; whether or not one can learn it from books is too. I know many writers who absolutely swear by books on the topic that they feel helped them make a major leap forward in their writing, and just as many who’ve never read a single writing book and do amazing, wonderful work.

As to whether you should read about writing… well, that’s your own choice. There are certainly writing-focused books out there with great content, and I hope people will share their favorites in the comments. But there are plenty of coal-knobs out there with the diamonds, for sure.

So when you’re looking at how-to books on the writing craft, just keep two things in mind:

Most books about writing are written to sell books about writing. One of the books I picked up in my writer-friend’s book purge absolutely insisted that editors at publishing houses no longer edit, nor do agents really have much time to do so either, and only books that are pretty much 100% ready to publish will be successfully picked up for representation and sold. This certainly isn’t my experience; I have yet to hear from a fellow novelist whose publisher, large or small, didn’t give at least some creative input to the manuscript, and I do hear plenty of stories from those whose novels underwent major rewrites after they were bought by the publisher, with positive results.

And who were the writers of this book, whose premise was that editors at publishing houses no longer edit? Why, funny you should ask. They were freelance editors who had once worked for publishing houses, but now sold their editing services and led editing workshops for aspiring writers. Hmmmm. Mighty coincidence, that.

Now of course this principle has exceptions. I highly doubt Stephen King said to himself, I really need to write a book about writing because I want to sell a million copies of something for a change. And there are plenty of great books about writing out there, as I said before. It’s just that a healthy skepticism about motives isn’t out of place.

Think inspiration, not prescription. So many of these books are about formula: if only you follow the framework, they say, you’ll have a book that’s not only universally loved by critics, but also embraced by readers everywhere. One word: HA. Frameworks are all well and good, but creative work can never be paint-by-numbers.

Should your book begin with an inciting incident? Probably. Are there terrible books that begin with inciting incidents? Absolutely. Are there great books that don’t? Ditto.

A reversal two-thirds of the way through your book will not make your book great. Character worksheets on your protagonist and antagonist will not make your book great. The template of the hero’s journey will not make your book great.

You will make your book great.

And if you want some inspiration on possible ways to reach that goal, by all means, read for that. On the internet or between the covers of a book. And synthesize what you learn. But don’t follow someone else’s formula. All that will give you is a perfect example of what one other person thinks you should write.

Q: Have you been inspired by a particular book about writing? Share it in the comments!


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.