Should we read books on writing? Is it worth the time? Here’s a few quotes on the subject:
“Writer’s write so reader’s can read.” – Finding Forrester
“I think books on writing are just a writer’s way to avoid writing while still feeling like they are improving their craft.” – Comment on an Amazon book review
To a degree, this is true. I’m certainly guilty. I’d even go so far as saying my first year trying to become an author was spent reading books on writing and not actually finishing anything. Experts agree, and every book I’ve read makes a big point of it. If you want to improve at writing, you should WRITE.
It seems obvious when put that way. If I were planning on becoming an Olympic swimmer… I need to spend some time in the pool. Yet, with writing we theorize and chatter about whether or not to use adverbs, or how to properly show instead of tell. Stephen King even said that he considered all books on writing to be “shit” except Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Over and over again, it gets reinforced that if you want to be a better writer… You should write.
Does this mean that reading is a waste of time?
Certainly not! Reading is a core component of writing. I can’t imagine a successful writer who isn’t also constantly reading… devouring every piece of written text she can find in pursuit of discovering more. If you want to be a fiction writer, you need to read fiction. If you want to be a cooking blogger, read cooking blogs. Look at what works and doesn’t work. See the styles used by others in your craft, and take from that what you like, leave what you don’t.
Do we draw the line there, or is there some value in reading books specifically targeting the subject of writing? I will diverge a bit from Mr. King on this one. (That said, he’s winning the unspoken war between us on who has more books out, so his word probably carries a bit more weight than mine). I find books (or blogs) on writing useful for a few reasons:
1) Gives you tools
You need to write. Books won’t replace that. But they can give you techniques to try, exercises you wouldn’t think to do on your own that might help you improve. They take you out of your comfort zone so you don’t rehash the same thing over and over.
2) Gives you insight
It lets you see how the author thinks. When you read a book on writing, check out what the author has also written. This tells you what their style lends itself towards. If your market overlaps, maybe there’s something to take away.
I especially like books on “the writing life” for this reason. On Writing, Bird By Bird, The Writing Life… All great books that tell you the struggles and lives of successful authors. It lets you know they didn’t magic their way into success. And a lot of their successes came from a LOT of writing.
3) Misery loves Company
I love writing blogs for this reason. Different blogs are in different stages of “making it” from me (a few short story rejections) to widely successful authors. However, through all of this, you see their journey of how they got to where they are… And it’s somebody to relate to, learn from, and co-miserate with.
Here’s a few of my favorite books on writing (and why).
Stephen King – On Writing: The crown jewel of the bunch. I’ve read this multiple times, and take something away every time. I feel inspired after each time I read this to go on to great writing endeavors.
Strunk and White – Elements of Style: No nonsense, right to the point. Short. This is a key piece of work if you want nuts and bolts of writing.
Anne Lammott – Bird by Bird: This book is a lot like On Writing. It does basically the same thing, but it’s a different perspective. No less valuable in the lessons it teaches.
John Truby – The Anatomy of Story:
Blake Snyder – Save the Cat: I group these together because they have a lot in common. They discuss the things that make up the pieces of the stories we read and watch. Both of these are written focused on film, but I think the lessons conveyed are still outstanding even for fiction writers. Truby has a lot more detail, Snyder is more “quick and dirty” but both are exceptional.
What do you think about books on writing? Worth it? Waste of time? What are your favorites?