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How to Read 'How To Write' Books
by Sean McLachlan

Return to Starting Your Writing Career · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

We all read them, those innumerable books telling us how to make it big as writers. They inspire, inform, entertain, and enlighten, but are we using them to their full potential? Are there better ways we could spend our time? Here are a few ideas on how to get the most out of those how-to books on your shelf.

Consider the source.

The first thing one notices about "how to write" books is their sheer quantity. Every large bookstore has a shelf of them, and there are several imprints, like Writer's Digest Books, that publish only this type of guide. One way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to look at who wrote the particular title you are considering. Orson Scott Card, for example, authored How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Considering the talent and craft that go into his speculative fiction, not to mention his success as a writer, you can be sure to learn a thing or two from this book. As a speculative fiction writer myself, I've found his work to be highly useful. On the other hand, I once read a book on how to win short story contests that turned out to be by a writer who had only won (get this) ONE short story contest! The book was brief, overpriced, and regurgitated information that any beginning writer should already know and can get elsewhere. For example, if you don't already know that you need to read the submission guidelines carefully, winning a writing contest should probably not be your priority. Keeping the author's qualifications in mind will help you spend your hard-earned money wisely and effectively.

Notice the differences.

Once you've read enough of this sort of book, you'll notice that different writers have different processes. A case in point is a very inspiring book titled Word by Word: An Inspirational Look at the Craft of Writing. This is a collection of lectures and keynote speeches by famous writers at the Maui Writers Conference. Dozens of big names like Tony Hillerman, Mitch Albom, and Ron Howard share their ideas and techniques on fiction, nonfiction, and screenwriting. What becomes immediately apparent is that they all do it differently, but they all do it well. Some write every day, some only a few times a week. Some outline, some only scribble a few notes before diving in. Their process does not have to be your process. You must find the technique that works best for you, but they can help give you ideas for what to try as you search for your own methodology.

Notice the similarities. Again with the Maui Writers Conference book, or any anthology of writers talking about their craft, you can notice certain things that are consistent among them. Persistence is the big one. Successful authors all kept at it, making sure to constantly push their writing forward. They believed in themselves (at least most of the time) and didn't give up. There's a hilarious section in 'On Writing' where Steven King talks about writing while sitting at a little desk between his washer and dryer. He never gave up, and look at him now. Also, successful writers all took their writing seriously right from the start, believing in their work as well as themselves, constantly looking for new ideas or new insights into their characters. They acted like professionals before they were professionals.

Read beyond your specialty.

Just because a certain book covers writing outside of your genre, or even your form, doesn't mean it can't be of use. Orson Scott Card gives a lot of insights into craft, POV, and description that are useful for writers of any type of fiction, not just fantasy and science fiction. Poets can teach prose writers a lot about packing as much punch into as little space as possible, while prose writers can teach poets how to delve into their character's minds. While books covering your specific field tend to be the most useful for you, don't overlook potential titles that can broaden your horizons with a different perspective.

Don't Read to Procrastinate

While books on writing can be valuable tools for helping your career, they can also be another of the many ways to avoid writing. Like the writer who spends more time talking about writing than actually writing, there are writers who spend more time reading about writing than working on their next book or article. Set a daily or weekly minimum for work and stick to it. The "how-to" books are for later. Write now.

Don't give up your regular reading.

While reading another writer's experience and advice can be inspiring and helpful, don't forget that all your reading should be research. Every novel you read can tell you something about plot and atmosphere. Every poem can teach you about economy of style. Every newspaper article can teach you about organization and clarity. Even poorly written works can teach you valuable lessons in what not to do. Save some time for what got you into writing in the first place--your love for the printed word.

Don't forget the boring, practical titles.

OK, reading the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White's The Elements of Style isn't as inspiring as reading the latest how-to from Writer's Digest, but it can often be more useful. Every writer should have both of these books in their library. Editors hate sloppy errors such as run-on sentences, comma splices, and improper capitalization. They are overworked as it is, and faced with the choice of taking a good article that will need a lot of copyediting and an equally good one that is mostly free of mistakes, the choice will be obvious.

So read those "how to write" books, but remember they are only one tool in your writing career. They can't replace hard work and inspiration, but reading them with a careful eye can help you on your way to writing success.

Find Out More...

Reading to Write: Staying in Touch with Mystery Fiction - Stephen Rogers

Copyright © 2008 Sean McLachlan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004), It Happened in Missouri (TwoDot, 2007), and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007), among others. Visit him online at http://www.midlistwriter.blogspot.com.


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