Thursday, April 29, 2010

On writing manuals

by Jessica

At long last I have seized the opportunity to read the Atlantic fiction issue, which has sat neglected on my coffee table, patiently awaiting my attention, for far too many days. Much as I hate the fact that the Atlantic no longer serves up a short story a month, their dedicated fiction issue almost makes up for it . This year’s line-up does not disappoint: there’s a refreshingly cranky piece by Paul Theroux on e-books and the future of reading, a creepy T.C. Boyle story and a piece by Joyce Carol Oates (one blogger waggishly wondered if including stories by Boyle and Oates is some kind of lit-mag requirement), and Richard Bausch’s essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals.”  In it, Bausch argues that despite the success and proliferation of books that promise to teach you how to write a [fill-in-genre-here] novel in 15 easy steps or offer to share the “secrets” of successful novelists, writing is not a skill that can be taught in the manner of model airplane construction or home repair. The whole essay is well worth a read, but I’ll cut to the chase:
“My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.”
I don’t disagree with Bausch’s recommendation that aspiring writers should be broad and assiduous readers, and I nearly stood and cheered at his last line; good writing does undermine cultural stereotypes. But on further reflection, the whole polemic, well-crafted and funny as it was, rang a bit hollow. I somehow doubt that books that peddle “shortcuts” to being a good writer are exerting an especially malign influence on the world of letters. It’s unlikely that novels written solely according to the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers get published, much less endure (though there are, I realize, exceptions to every rule). Most aspiring writers are readers (right?) and most writers figure out that the path they’ve chosen is not only devoid of the kind of shortcuts Bausch deplores, it’s uphill over brutal terrain. If books on writing are useful triggers to imagination/discipline, are they deserving of scorn?
Since the vast majority of the folks who read this blog are writers, I’m interested to know what you think: are there writing guides that you swear by? Manuals you recommend? Do you agree with Bausch that that how-to books foster cookie cutter writing? Do you think, more broadly, that good writing can be taught at all?


  1. I bought a manual, and all the supplies the author insisted were crucial to the novel writing process, and I optimistically began following the easy, step by step instructions. I didn't even get past step 3... Now that I've managed to finish a novel (without any how-to help) I go back to the manual to look for ways to improve my manuscript and that HAS been beneficial. If you ask me, though, people who love to write will write and if you write, you will get better at it. There will be plenty of time, when you're done, to edit and that's when you need to concern yourself with good/bad, not before hand. Besides, I know tons of brilliant writers who could never be authors and that, after all, is the goal...

  2. This is great post--and coincidental. I blogged about that Bausch article the day after I did a post linking to a list of "How To" books on Jody Hedlund's blog and adding a number of my favorites.

    Although I completely agree with Bausch about the value of reading, I do think there is a place for "craft" books. The ones I personally like best are mostly about revision and plot structure, but my absolute favorite is Eleanor Cameron's Green and Burning Tree.

    Reading books on craft when I'm plotting helps me think about the big picture before I fall in love with my ideas. I also like to go over revision techniques to get perspective when I'm editing. I don't like to read manuals when I'm writing though, because that's when I want to turn the editor off and let the characters speak for themselves.

    I'm eager to read what others have to say. I love that everyone has a different process for writing.

  3. A couple of thoughts:

    Guides have guided since at least Aristotle. They seem to help some, harm others. The biggest problem I see is that collecting writing manuals starts to replace actual writing and broader reading. (I’ve known people with more guides on their shelves than pages in their manuscript.)

    I also like TITKM’s point that guides can be more helpful in the revision stage.

  4. I don't read "how to write" manuals as much as I may read "how to get what you've written out of the slush pile" books. Those I tend to find infinitely more helpful. I write because I love to, it's a part of me, and to get my characters to quiet down.

  5. Stephen King'a On Writing. Not only does he capture the heart of the writing process, but he also has nut-and-bolts suggestions. My favorite, which I always use to get my ms to an acceptable word count, is his editing formula: 2nd Draft = (1st Draft – 10%). Seems too simple, but it somehow works for me.

  6. I think different writers are just wired in different ways. I can write a novel, but I don't think I could ever write a screenplay, no matter how many manuals about it I read. I just don't think that way. I can't write short stories, either.

  7. I read the article in full. While I don't think the manuals are so deserving as scorn (some can be helpful,) what I think is deserving of scorn is would-be writers who don't read. It's amazing how many "writers" I've met who read very little, (except maybe a manual,) and it shows.

    Stephen King's On Writing is the only book on the craft I think every writer should read...and that's because it points away from itself to the things that will teach you how to write. Read voraciously, write what's inside.

    So while I don't think handbooks are completely useless, I'm certain that great writing cannot be learned from a reading handbook any more than ballet dancing can be learned by someone telling you what position to put your arms and legs in and how high to jump. Watch what the masters do. Practice yourself and find your own voice.

  8. Manuals you recommend?

    Yeah—I linked to my post on advice for the very, very beginning writer and discussed the literary manual issue generally here.

  9. I've never used how-to-write manuals for all the wrong reasons: in the beginning, I was smugly certain that I knew how to write and thus needed no help. Rejection, the wisdom and patience of other writers, and the works of my favorite authors (and a few not-so-good ones to balance them out) have been my muses.

    I almost stood up and cheered at that line about cultural stereotypes too. And I really DO agree with what Bausch says. Writing manuals strike me as a lot like beginning language guides: they may steer you in the right direction and give you a few useful tools when you're a complete beginner, but that's about all they'll do. In the end, there's just too much about writing to fit into any manual or series of manuals. All the hard work is up to you.

  10. I am compelled to bring up the subject of THE HERO'S JOURNEY. So many writers use it as a skeleton on which they hang the flesh of their stories.

    I, however, use it as a painter uses his thumb; when my story is done, I hold up the 12 steps of THE HERO'S JOURNEY to prove my proportions are believable.

    I rarily change things, however, so I don't know why I still do it. But when a story seems to have all the right body parts in the correct order, I say to myself, "See? Natural genius. Time for bubbles."

  11. Here in Germany, the prevalent belief is that writing can't be taught: you're either born with a muse like Goethe and Schiller, or you're not. I used to believe that myself.

    But then a few years ago, an editor who had requested one of my manuscripts and was very excited at first rejected in the end, but send me a 3-page evaluation of what worked and what didn't work. One of his complaints was that he saw structural problems that would be difficult (time-consuming/costly) to edit, so the very first writing guide I bought was "Scene and Structure" by Jack Bickham. It taught me a lot and is still one of my favorite guides today (of a very short list).

    Incidentally, it's also a guide that many reviewers on Amazon claim teaches "formulaic writing." I disagree. How can a sound scene structure be formulaic? Sometimes I wonder if they read the same book, or read it in the same way. Possibly, when they hear the repeated demand that every scene must contain conflict, they think fights and explosions, whereas I interpret it as any conflict of interest and think of the six-part BBC series of "Pride and Prejudice" (conflict in every scene, seriously!) And why should writing be formulaic just because your scenes have a scene goal, development that actually focuses on achieving that goal, and conclusion? Of course, there's always a good and a clumsy way to incorporate such "rules." Good scene structure is something a reader notices only when it's absent. For me, figuring out the scene goal helped me realize what a scene was really about and it made my writing much tighter, the scene so much more focused. Understanding scene structure left me free to focus on the story.

    My other favorite writing guides are "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King, which helped me improve my dialogue, and "Description" by Monica Wood. (One of my most trustworthy beta-readers commented that she sometimes found my description overdone/boring/too much.)

    Then several male readers called my female MC's male sidekick a wimp, among other things, so I searched two guides on characters for ideas on how to fix that problem: "Characters & Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card (my favorite when it comes to tips on how to make a character more likeable) and "Heroes and Heroines: sixteen Master Archetypes" by Cowden/LaFever/Viders (for screen writers). I don't use archetypes but the book helped me realize that my male sidekick was so ill-defined I couldn't even say which of 3 of the 8 presented male archetypes he was closest to -- no wonder my beta-readers couldn't relate to him or figure out what sort of person he was.

    By now I have 33 writing manuals, only ten of which I find helpful -- and those I bought AFTER realizing that my writing lacked in that area. When trying to fix a particular problem, writing manuals are much more helpful than reading literature. (Only four of the 33 I found to be utter rubbish, though.)

    So I changed my opinion about writing manuals 180°, but I had a finished manuscript before consulting them and already knew what parts of writing came natural to me and where I still struggled. Nowadays, I can't understand why anyone would reject the idea of asking advice from the experts.

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  16. The article is typical of a holier than thou attitude of writing that is pervasive among many authors. That writing is mystical and requires some kind of divine secret, that if you pay attention to any guidelines then you're not a TRUE writer etc etc. It's a load of bull. I come from a theatre background and no one taught me "vision" as a director but I was able to pick up a lot of tips on how to implement my ideas well. It's the same with drawing or acting and it's the same with writing.

  17. I think the responders have already touched on everything I was going to say. I did, however, want to recommend Robert McKee's STORY. I've read it several times, and it rocks my world every time.

  18. GhostFolk, would you pass me over some of whatever it is your smoking.

  19. I'm going to put in another vote for On Writing.

    There are some writing skills that can be taught, such as the rules of grammar. There are others that must be learned by trial and error, such as recognizing when it is more effective to break a rule than to follow it.

    I also wonder how much of these manuals are about instruction, and how much are about sharing and encouragement.

  20. How interesting that no one suggests a painter, for example, need not study art or learn from teachers.

    Of course writing can be taught. Most of us are taught the basics of writing in school. Why should that learning (by any means) stop at the point at which someone thinks they'd like to write a novel?

    It's what the student decides to do with the information that matters most.

  21. Note to self: I must read On Writing.

    There are so many books on novel writing it's overwhelming.

    If I spent all the available time and limited use of my eyesight I have reading all these books I would never actually write anymore.

    Books with formulas may work for some and I say more power to ya. The way my brain works must just be different.

    For me it's like taking dictation when the writing is going well. My characters tell me the story and I just take it down for them. Now if there's a how to book on how to control them when they hijack a story maybe I should get that one. Then again that is the true joy in writing for me- being surprised by the characters.

    I'm sure that there are those who feel their writing gets better from the exercises and such in these books (and there are tons of websites too) but not so for me- I've found the only way to really improve my writing is to write as much as I can and read writers that inspire me. Writing with other people has been a great way too to push the writing I do on my own.

    I believe technical skills can be taught but there's something more to the art that can't be.

    Look at it this way-not everyone can get up on stage and sing a perfect, heartbreaking aria. Some people can, others have different talents.

    No amount of book reading or singing lessons will turn you into Josh Groban if you can't carry a tune (as American Idol has shown us all).

    All people have talent- just not the same talents and some things cannot be taught. Honed with teaching, yes. However that something more seems to just be there in the writers I love to's magic.

    Thank goodness for variety in talent. If everyone was a writer no one would act out the story when the film rights are sold and it's turned to a screenplay.

    I wish I could ask the late Douglas Adams what he would think of all these how-to books...

  22. bitter and twisted3/5/10 5:41 PM

    yep, you can teach painting, but you can't teach somebody to be an artist.
    you can teach somebody to move paint from a pot to a canvass, even how to spread the paint about until it forms a picture and from there it's just a short step of about a million miles to being an artist.
    Same as you can teach somebody to write, but, like an artist you cant teach the writer to have the imagination to produce a good story.
    However for anyone who has no imagination whatsoever and writes strictly to manual formula, don't worry, good writing has nothing at all to do with getting published. Just look at stuff like Stigg Larsson's "Dragon Tattoo." Over laboured characters, dull seine setting and a hole in the plot you could drive a train through.
    Look at all those celebrity novelists, o-kay the odd one like Ben Elton can do the job but most of them just plain suck.
    Truth is good writing and getting published are pretty distant relations. So if your writing from deep inside, or writing the way the manual says it doesn't really matter, the way to get published is to dress-up like a clown and get a job reporting the weather on a tee-vee breakfast show, or give a publisher the best head he's ever had.

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