Books On How To Write Are BUNK

We were all there, once. You know you want to be a writer, but you’re still young, not sure how to go about it. As you’re thinking, you wonder “Hey, maybe [my favorite author] has a book on how to write! Surely that will teach me everything I need to know!”

So you find that book – assuming [favorite author] has written one. Or you find some advice online from that author on what worked for them. You find it totally uninspiring, but instead of giving up, you persevere. “Someone out there MUST be able to teach me everything I need to know!”

You go through book after book. Some of them have points that make sense, but the rest seems like gibberish. Others make you wish you’d never read them, or make you wonder how the author ever gets anything done at all. By the time you’ve gone through five or six books and websites, you’re more confused than you were when you started.

There are two major types of these books, but the focus of this post is on one of them specifically.

Type I: Famous author spills all. There are probably dozens of books that fall into this category. Stephen King’s On Writing is probably the best-known one, and the one most talked about. This book did nothing for me, personally, but I know lots of people who have gleaned some wisdom from it. Other authors who have contributed to this type include Orson Scott Card, Ursula LeGuin, and many more. Usually there may be a gem or two in these books, but for the most part, it’s just a spelling out of the author’s personal process. I’ll get into why this is bunk shortly.

Type II: The self-published instruction manual on How To Write and Get Published written by John (or Jane) Q. Nobody, who seems to have no other work published in their name. If I have to explain why this is a problem, well…

The one we’ll focus on here is Type I. Books of Type I are confusing, because a person reading one of these books tends to think that by reading it, they will somehow gain all of the knowledge and skill of the famous author who wrote it. The problem is that everyone’s creative process is so intrinsic to their personality, so intensely personal, that many of the tips on How To Write either won’t resonate or might just fall completely flat.

One author’s personal process may have similarities with another, but much like our fingerprints and DNA patterns, no two are exactlyalike. (Even identical twins carry some unique mutations.) Thinking that you can write like Stephen King because you’ve read On Writingis kind of like thinking you can swim a world-record time by watching Olympic swimming competitions. (Ha, clever and current!)

Now, there are books out there which examine the structure and composition of storytelling, and I’m exempting those. Structure and analysis of the elements of stories is something which can be learned, unlike methods. Writing methods are unique, which is why you don’t feel like a better writer after you’ve read On Writing (well, after the initial rush wears off, anyway). Even so, sometimes those books examining the mechanics of storytelling still tend toward talking about methodology… for example, Holly Lisle’s courses (which I’ve gotten a LOT out of and so have many others) state unequivocally at one point that outlining too thoroughly will cause your muse to commit suicide; a black-and-white pronouncement of something which I personally know is not unequivocally true.

If you feel lost after examining writing advice on methodologies, you’re not alone. No one can tell you what your writing methods are, what your creative process looks like. You may find hints that speak to you, diamonds hidden in the rough that show you something about yourself by virtue of observation, but you will not find someone who thinks exactly the way you do.

Your writing methods can only be discovered through your own writing. Try different things. Take advice from many places, experiment until you find something that works for you.

In the meantime, find some of those books on story structure and the analysis of the elements of storytelling, and study them thoroughly. Those are books you can really get something out of.

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