Getting the Most out of Books on Writing

I recently splurged on books, specifically books about the craft of writing. Excited by my new purchases, and already two chapters deep into one of them, and thoroughly enjoying it, I gushed to one of my writer friends. I was a little surprised to hear from them therefore that they too had read this self-same book and got nothing from it. At first, I thought maybe it was just our different stages of writing. They are a better, and more advanced writer than I am. But then they went on to say they didn’t like any books on the craft of writing. That they had read a few and found them all quite useless. Not only that, but they had never got anything out of these books.

This made me wonder.

So we spoke at some length about the books they read. Some were from leaders in the field (Steering the Craft by Ursula K Le Guin), some were on tried and true formulas (Save the Cat: Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody), some were more what I would describe as biographical/inspirational more than strictly prescriptive (On Writing by Stephen King.) I’ve read all those books, I liked all of them for different reasons.

So I started to question myself ‘Is there a type of person for whom craft books work, and others for whom they don’t?”

But the more I spoke with my friend, the more I came to the conclusion that while the above may be true, it is perhaps (?) in the way that we read craft books that explains our different experiences with them.

When my friend reads a craft book, it is usually when they are burned out on writing. They have reached the end of their tether, received one too many rejections, had too many days in a row with writer’s block. They turn to writers’ craft books to ‘fix’ what is wrong. They also take a break from the actual writing. The craft book is their ‘writing work/time’ when they are not actually ‘writing’. The craft book is expected to jump-start everything, and when they re-start writing they often put the craft books aside.

When I am burned out on writing – and it happens rarely, but it does happen – I don’t read craft books. I don’t do anything writing-related. I go for a hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire! I enjoy the beauty of nature. Or I go for a swim. Or a run. Or I go to the Harvard art museum and stare at people’s creativity in a completely different medium. Or I get my own sketchbook out and make something I can be proud of. Or I pick up my violin and play that. It’s very Zen, and it helps me remember that getting good, takes practice (not that I’m actually “good” at that, but I am able to play pieces that give me satisfaction). In other words, I do not approach craft books at my lowest point with respect to writing.

The second difference is that I don’t expect the books to ‘fix’ anything. At best, I think they are a collection of ideas, and perhaps some inspiration. Not putting them down, it’s just I have read many, by greats in the field, and if there is one common theme, it’s that there is no one way to do something. There are plotters, and there are pantsers. There are even Plantsers. There are character-driven stories and plot-driven stories. There are those that write every day and those only when the will finds them. Even for the admonishment show don’t tell, there are always exceptions. But these books give ideas, examples, inspiration.

Which brings us to the third, and I think biggest, difference. I don’t stop writing. In fact, almost every chapter, whether the craft book has a ‘task’ or ‘assignment’ or not, I will try and take what they say and write a page, and just try the idea out. I believe writing is truly a craft, and one learned by doing, and thus I like to practice it as I learn new things. That way I can see what’s working for me and what’s not. I can also better internalize the good ones. That’s a sharp contrast to my friend who does no writing and just reads from beginning to end and hopes at the end to retain what was worthwhile, or to have been changed by it. Maybe their memory is that good. Mine is definitely not.

So I am not writing this to say my approach is better. I have no idea. I do know I quite like craft books and feel they have helped me, so thought I would write down how I use them. I am curious about how all of you use craft books! Let me know in the comments below. And if you have specific ones you think are good, please, PLEASE, do let me know.

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